Alternative Music

Mike Lawson • Technology • January 11, 2013

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Bands, orchestras, and choirs have long been a staple of secondary education in this country. Our performing ensembles have proven to be a resilient and powerful way to actively engage students in music. However, there is a problem. Over the past 40 or more years our performing programs have engaged approximately 20 percent of high school students. While bands, orchestras, and choirs are great for this 20 percent, it leads to the question: “What about the ‘other 80 percent’?”

The next question might be, “Why do I care?”

Generally speaking, music teachers are somewhat idealistic (not usually entering the profession for the monetary reward) and would agree with the statement that, “If music is important, it is important for everyone.” As a profession, our mission is to enrich the lives of our citizens and the quality of our society through a deepened engagement with music. It is hard to achieve that mission when we don’t see a majority of students past sixth grade in a music class or ensemble.

A more pragmatic answer to the question of “Why do I care” is the corollary of the above statement: The more students that study music, the more important it is in the school. The larger the percentage of students engaged in music, the more central it will be to the life of the school and the more likely it will be supported by the administration and community. In this time of budget challenges, music educators settle for a lower share of the student population at their own peril.

This market share issue is not new. Since it was raised as a concern in the 1968 Tanglewood Symposium, the situation has held steady or slightly worsened. It is obvious that if we are going to draw additional students, we will need to diversify our curriculum and offer different kinds of music classes, in addition to choir, band, and orchestra. Technology-based music classes are a particularly promising solution. Technology-based music classes allow for active, hands-on, individualized engagement in a wide variety of musical styles. These classes have the added benefit that they readily attract students who don’t choose to perform. Technology-based music classes can reach the “other 80 percent.”

The trend toward adding these courses is already underway. In a national survey, 14 percent of high schools in the United States (or over 2,500) were found to offer technology-based music classes. Over half of these classes were created in the last seven years. This growth seems likely to continue as these classes are valued by administrators and 56 percent of administrators in schools without technology-based music classes felt that one could be created in their school, according to “Technology-based music classes in high schools in the United States,” a paper presented at the Association for Technology in Music Instruction Conference, Minneapolis, Minn. (Dammers, 2010).

Some directors might ask, “Wouldn’t a technology-based class hurt my band or orchestra?” This is a legitimate question. However, experience has shown that while some students dual enroll, technology-based classes do not draw students away from performance ensembles. Instead, the tech classes largely draw from the majority of students who had not chosen band or orchestra years ago. So instead of creating a situation of fighting over a small pool of students, it is really a case where a rising tide raises all ships.

While administrators value these classes, most of these classes were created through efforts of individual music teachers. The responsibility for expanding the reach of music education lies with the individual director, as the last 40 years have shown that it won’t happen otherwise. So what might one of these classes look like? Please continue on to read about two pioneering teachers and their music technology programs. Additional profiles and resources are also available at

Will Kuhn & the LHS Music Tech Program

In 2006, Lebanon (Ohio) High School’s music department decided to focus resources on growing the overall student reach of their program. A pilot study Music Technology class was formed that year. Over the next three years, more and more sections of the course were added to the registration schedule that Music Technology is now a full time teaching position at LHS. The course can fulfill either a fine arts or technology credit (both state mandates), and operates very differently from a traditional music class. Using GarageBand and Ableton Live, students create original music in a highly refined and cutting edge production setting.

Unlike a performance-based class (like band) or a lecture-based class (like music appreciation), Music Tech is a project-based class. Lectures are minimal, quizzes are infrequent, and the bulk of class time is focused on cultivating skills and creativity. The most crucial element when designing a technology-based music class is the projects themselves. Every assignment has to be fun, relatable, and full of skill-building opportunities. Without relevant and compelling projects, and the resulting portfolio, students will have trouble taking any kind of music skill seriously and personally. The inspiration for good projects in both the beginning and advanced classes is somewhat unusual. LHS Music Tech projects are modeled more closely after Art projects than anything else. The course is not run for a lecture or group performance goal, but rather to build each student’s personal portfolio of self-produced music. Projects last one or two weeks and are often centered on a specific production skill, such as drum programming, sampling, or sound design. Projects can try to deconstruct an existing style of electronic dance music, create something totally original using only the “ingredients” of a specific instrumentation, or possibly even take an existing recording session and bring it to a finalized mix.

Another key element of the Lebanon HS program is the performance group, EMG. EMG is made of a handful of select advanced-level Music Tech students who either produce at a proto-professional level or have a specific skill (singing, rapping, songwriting) they can bring to the group. In stark contrast to the general Music Tech course, the goal of EMG is to entertain and put a quality performance on for the public. Instrumentation varies from year to year, but the group usually consists of one or two DJs running Ableton Live on a laptop controlled by an Akai APC40 and a second drum pad controller, two keyboardists, an EWI player, a visualist (someone who triggers the lights and video backdrops), and vocalists as needed. This group DJs for LHS home basketball games and has performed at the OMEA and eTech Ohio state conventions and at TI:ME National to rave reviews.

Will Kuhn, the program’s director, believes that the future is bright for this type of instruction. Since its inception at LHS, the Music Tech program has grown a great deal, and now involves over 300 students annually. It is difficult to predict the next direction this type of program takes, but the takeaway from a case study of LHS should not be that a specific software package or gadget is the driving factor, but that tools for creativity placed in students hands and thoughtfully facilitated can bring an experience to students they never thought possible. “Year after year, students leave the semester amazed at the songs they’ve created and what they were able to achieve,” says Kuhn. “As a piece of the larger educational puzzle, the hope is that this program not only teaches students that they can learn music software and craft quality songs, but also that they are capable of teaching themselves how to apply creative problem-solving and demand originality of themselves throughout their lives.”

Brian Laakso & the MHS Music Tech Program

Brian Laakso teaches three tiers of high school Music Technology courses at the Impact School of the Arts, McKinley High School, in Canton, Ohio. These courses began in 2009 and service about 250 students per year. He created the curriculum for each of these semester-long courses, and he continuously modifies and refines them primarily based upon student input, suggestion, and critique. His courses have been taught on a slim budget, and predominantly use website-based tools and freeware to make the students’ music. Although the program grows in small ways every year, the program is proof that it is entirely possible to launch a music tech program that can fully engage students without a lot of expensive tech toys.

Music Technology – Fundamentals is the entry-level course. It is geared for classrooms of mixed grade levels (9-12) and mixed abilities (some students are talented musicians, others are non-musical). Each unit of the class consists of a fact gathering and lecture session, a lengthy interactive project, a project sharing session, and a test. The units are also supplemented with relevant and thematically related daily audio and video clips. The primary lens of the class focuses on the history and possible futures of technology and its impact on the world of music. Topics covered include:

  • The Evolution of Recording Mediums (player piano rolls, cylinders, tape, MP3s, and so on)
  • Sequencers (from 808s to ProTools)
  • The Evolution of Tech Instruments (Theremins, Moogs, Fairlight CMIs, and beyond)
  • Electric Guitars / Rock ‘N’ Roll (pickups, distortion pedals, keytars, and more)
  • The Technology of Hip Hop (turntables to digital DJing)
  • Sound Systems (for studios and concerts)
  • The Music Biz (copyrights, royalties, internet, and more)
  • Video Game Music (8-bit to DJ Hero)

In the second course, Music Technology II – Creative Expressions, students focus on creating, collaborating, and communicating music made with technology. Some of the intensive projects include:

  • Songwriting (in many different styles and forms): Students use websites like or, and software like Mixcraft to write original music.
  • Remixing: Students trade the songs created in the songwriting projects, and focus on “keeping what’s hot, improving what’s not” about their classmates’ tunes.
  • Music videos: Students learn the process of storyboarding, filming (with Flip cameras), and editing music videos. They become familiar with Windows Movie Maker.
  • Film scoring/Foley: Students provide original scores and sound effects for short movie clips of their own choosing.

In the third course, Music Technology III – Music Tech in the Real World, students complete long term, rigorous, cross-curricular projects that are relevant to their interests. For example, a student with interests in English and creative writing might choose to record a narration of a children’s story, complete with sound effects and original music; a student interested in sports might study music’s influence on athletics, or write music for a sporting event; an interest in science or biology might inspire exploration of music therapy applications; interests in social studies might lead to research of cultural groups inspired by music (like ravers, punks, or hippies); interests in computer science or mathematics might lead to writing “apps” for music making. Regardless of the project, the goal of the course is to (1) inspire self-directed learning, (2) leverage music and technology as guiding lights, and (3) develop the creative artistry and expression of students.

Brian also believes in the power of field trips. “I require my students to attend a full day field trip once per semester,” he says. “The focus for each trip is always ‘Careers in Music,’ although the destinations are different every semester. It is amazing how many businesses will open their doors to students, and we always get a special ‘behind the scenes/backstage’ look at each of the venues that we would never get as mere customers. We have visited the House of Blues (concert club), Alternative Press (music magazine), Guitar Center (retail), local radio stations, professional recording studios, university recording arts and technology programs, and other musical destinations. Field trip day is often the highlight of the course for the students. They learn that there are many careers available to music-lovers who aren’t musicians, and they are also thrilled to be able to stand on the same stage as some of their favorite artists!”

Brian continues, “Other class ventures have included educational videoconferences with teachers, producers, musicians, and game designers. Last year we launched a student-run nightclub series at a local venue to feature student talent in a professional setting. This year students are excited about beginning a student recording label, created to promote original student music.”

Music tech is alive and thriving at McKinley High School, and the students actually love the learning involved! If you would like specific lesson plans, rubrics, study guides, tests, and project details for these courses, please email Brian at

Closing Comments

We have a unique opportunity to expand our music programs in the public schools with music technology courses. Fortunately, there are many different prototypes to follow with varied areas of emphasis. In the coming months, there will be other creative programs featured illustrating different prototypes. If you would like guidance or support in your plans to bring technology to your music classes, be sure to check out TI:ME, the Technology Institute for Music Educators. TI:ME is an international coalition of music teachers (K-16) that provides assistance to any music teacher looking for help enhancing their music classrooms with technology. Brian, Rick and Will are all active members in TI:ME, which offers tech certification courses, clinics at state MEA conferences, online lesson plans, networking, magazine subscriptions, and many other benefits to their members. Consider joining – check out their website at

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