Ryan Van Bibber – TI:ME’s 2022 Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year

Mike Lawson • March 2022UpClose • March 18, 2022

Music educator, former band director, and former “band kid” Ryan Van Bibber teaches music technology at the Fort Hayes Career Center in Columbus City Schools in Columbus, Ohio, and also audio production at Columbus State Community College. In February of this year, Van Bibber was named the 2022 “TI:ME Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year” by Technology in Music Education (ti-me.org). This distinguished award was named after the late president of KORG USA, who was instrumental in getting the organization funded and started by the first-ever grant of the NAMM Foundation over 25 years ago. TI:ME is a 501-c3 dedicated to helping modernize how music is taught at all grade levels and does so through training programs and continuing education sessions in cooperation with state MEA organizations, most recently with the Texas TMEA conference, the OMEA conference in Ohio, NYSSMA in New York, and also in cooperation with NAMM during both in-person and online events they produce. We caught up with Ryan recently to learn more about his educational career path that led him to this distinction. 

When did you start playing music?
So, when I was a kid, I was really excited to join my school band. And then the year I was supposed to join, they cut all the funding and I didn’t get to join band right away. I had to wait another year. I joined in the sixth grade. I just remember seeing the high school band at basketball games and just thinking, “Man, that’s what I want to do.” So, I started playing trumpet in the sixth grade just before I turned 11 years old.

Were you a band kid?
Yeah, I was a band kid through and through. I was pretty good at it right away. I actually started teaching music that same year I started playing music. My sixth-grade year, I started running sectionals and rehearsals for the other kids. I would help the other kids on various instruments to learn their parts. I ended up playing in both our sixth grade beginning band [and] played in the seventh and eighth-grade band because they needed baritones to go to competition, and so, I figured out the baritone. I kept at it all the way through middle school, high school, college. I still play. I love playing the trumpet. I’m a band guy through and through.

So, you’re a reader, obviously. You’re an improviser also?
I was always more of a “musician of the eye” is what I call it. Somebody who reads music really well, but… I actually didn’t have a very sophisticated ear, I came to find out, until I went to my undergrad at Ohio University. I was interacting with some of the other students who had really tremendous ears, and I thought, “Man, I’m missing out on something here.” When I got out, I was a music teacher and needed to arrange, write music, and that takes good ears. I practiced and practiced and practiced audiating and sight-singing patterns for years when I first started teaching, just to get better at it. And then my improvisation… improvisation is such a huge, important skill. I’m shocked that it’s not taught in a more robust way at all levels, but I was a terrible improviser for many years. I say I was a victim of the chord scale method of improv instruction, and I believe I’m entitled to compensation, but that’s neither here nor there. The chord scale method did not work for me.

Did you learn other instruments?
I studied piano for about five years between high school and college years. My trumpet teacher said, “Hey, you’re going to go to music school? You need keyboard skills.” So, I started taking piano lessons and I learned, you know, pretty square piano lessons. Did a little bit of functional piano, so I could accompany with chords and stuff. I use the piano more as a tool to compose and arrange.

Okay, here’s a controversial statement. Music reading is a niche skill. It’s not universal. Most of the music in the world, the “world,” not like just the Western world, but most of the music in the world is not notated. We don’t learn it that way. You learn it by ear. It’s bound up in cultural traditions that cannot be extricated from the music itself. You can’t dip in and out of an ensemble. It’s a lifestyle.

Most of the music in the world is not notated. However, I still believe in learning Western notation because you can get a lot of gigs that way. If you want to play in a theater pit, you have to read. If you want to be a studio musician, like, a session musician, you have to read. And those are the ways you’re making money; you know what I mean? If you want to jam with your friends, if you want to produce, do a lot of music production, you don’t necessarily need to read. But if you want to have the most versatility, you will know how to read. On the other side, you have to know how to play by ear, you have to know how to compose and arrange because there’s money there, too. And it’s not just about money, it’s about skill-building and satisfaction.

So, you need both, in my opinion. I spent a fair amount of my master’s degree in music education in Ohio State sorting out the difference between musicians of the eye and musicians of the ear. And I came to the conclusion that my job as a public-school music teacher, a band director at that time, was to bridge the gap.

I would have students that could come in and they could play anything by ear. It was my job to tell them how valuable that skill is and to nurture it and to feature them, but then also to say, “These things you’re hearing, you can actually write that down. You can actually read what other people hear in their heads by learning how to read music.” And then kids that would come in couldn’t hear a lick of anything but could read that music down, no problem. It’s a different part of your brain. It’s the mathematical part, you know? My job was to teach them to expand beyond the sheet music.

How long did you teach band?
Ten years. I’ve been very lucky to spend my career in Columbus City Schools. You know, I applied for jobs everywhere. All around here, we have some incredible suburban music programs. I never even got a call back. I never got any attention. And, like, I thank my lucky stars that I never got a call from another district, except Columbus because they’ve been the best district to work for. They’re so flexible. It’s like ripe fruit all over the ground. I find it easy to get kids motivated about music here. There’s a certain fearlessness that a lot of the city kids exhibit when it comes to doing things like improvising, or singing, or rapping, or trying something new. The large majority of them go for it and very direct.

It is a big transition from the band room to teaching audio production and music technology and digressing away from Western traditional music classes to, I’m assuming, the very basic level of introduction to audio technology with step-ups into learning to use it to compose and create actual art. How did that happen? Were you already recording at home? 

No. This is my dirty secret right here. I got this job by accident. So, I applied to be the band director at Fort Hayes High School because the job was open. I worked in a MIDI lab in college. I did plenty of music arranging. I used notation software. I’m generally tech-savvy. But before I took this job, I had never been a recording engineer. I had never heard of Pro Tools. I didn’t own a Mac. I had never tried to mix anything. I wasn’t even aware of the concept of mixing. I knew literally zero about what I’m teaching. Okay? And it’s not…

The old joke is those who can do, those who can’t teach.
I couldn’t do anything. The way it happened is this. I went to OMEA, the Ohio Music Educators Association conference one year, and I saw Will Kuhn’s electronic music group. It was like an epiphany. I thought, “This is the future. This is what I have to do.” I was always looking to integrate a certain amount of technology in my program. I had been using Band-in-a-Box with my students for years in my band room. We had been improvising over changes and drums and things. I was looking for something new. I didn’t know what it was. I saw Will’s group and a session he did, and I thought, “That’s exactly what I want to do.”

I went back to Columbus, and I immediately wrote a DonorsChoose grant for one computer workstation. And it was fully funded in like a week. We’re talking like five grand, which is, like, big for DonorsChoose. 

What was in that first station? What’d you buy with the money?
Well, because I’d seen Will’s session, I bought a desk, like a little workstation desk. I buy Ableton Live. That was my first DAW, Ableton Live. I bought some speakers and a mini controller, like, a keyboard controller, and an iMac. The iMac was the big thing. That was the big, expensive thing. And that’s all we had. Oh, and I bought an SR16 drum machine. I don’t know why I needed it, but my drummers were really interested in it. And we were just messing around one day towards the end of class, and Dr. Milton Ruffin, who wasn’t even a doctor at that point, just Milton Ruffin, (the cousin of David Ruffin from The Temptations.) hired me to be the band director at Monroe Middle School. Then he took off and went to be the principal for Hayes. 

Now, here it is, six years later, and he is visiting the school, just on a walkthrough, just seeing his old haunt. He used to be the band director at Monroe. He’s a music producer. He just had a number one hit on the gospel Billboard chart last year. He’s a heavy-duty guy, you know, as far as music goes. And he was walking through, and he visited me, and he said, “Well, what’s this? What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know. I’m figuring this out. It’s a new thing. It’s a workstation. You know, we got a computer, trying to figure out what to do with it.” A couple weeks later, maybe a month later, I applied to be the band director at Fort Hayes. And he called me after the interview and he said, “Well, we’re giving the job to someone else.” I said, “Okay.” He said, “But we have this other job I think you’d be good at.” And I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s recording and, like, music technology.” I said, “Milt, I don’t know anything about that.” He’s like, “But I think you could learn.” And I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” That was it. 

I like that you admitted that you didn’t know anything about technology rather than The Three Stooges move of, “Oh, you need a plumber, lady? We’re plumbers.”
Well, I can’t snow Milt. He knows me too well. I did have enough professional experience in the music world that I could, sort of, finagle into this career center position. The technology was all new. So, the last day of school, that year, I got the keys to this lab. I was looking around through the cabinets, I found a Lynda.com DVD on how to use Pro Tools. It was 13 hours long and I spent probably 10 hours a day, seven days a week, every single day that summer learning, “What is recording? How do you do it? How do I use this studio?” 

I had the studio and this classroom. We had a big analog Mackie mixer with direct outs going into a Digidesign 003. I unplugged everything. I put it in the middle of the floor. I said, “All right. Now, I have to make it work.” I did feel like a plumber. I had done some plumbing, and that’s how I figured out sound was through plumbing because I thought, “Okay. Here’s the sound. It’s going to go from here to here. I need a pipe to carry it. That’s…”

How long ago was this that you’d started the tech position?
2011. This is my 10th year doing it. So, when I started here, I started from zero. I had a Lynda.com DVD. I had that David Miles Huber book, Modern Recording Techniques. I read it cover to cover and I took notes, a lot of notes. I did test recordings with relatives and friends who were not going to judge me. I figured out how to use Pro Tools. I watched other DVDs, Lynda.com, on mixing and mastering. And I just started practicing, you know? And then the first year I was here, like, the kids… it was a relatively new program. It had been in existence one year before me, but it was still getting off the ground. And so, I was learning right along with the student. I continued a very, very intense schedule of learning.

Two years later, I wanted to see if we could get Avid certifications into the classroom. And by that point, I’ve been using Pro Tools for a while. The thing about it is this, and this might sound like a brag or something, it’s not: when I got this job, I felt like I was a fish dropped in water for the first time. Everything I tried immediately made sense. Everything I touched, everything I looked at, immediately made sense. It wasn’t confusing for me at all. And I think if I had known about this years ago, I would’ve been doing this the whole time. I just didn’t know about it. So, you know, I am a rare person. I’m 43. I teach audio production. I’ve never used tape. I mean, even as a hobby. I’ve never used tape beyond taping the radio or something. I started in digital and I’ve never had any experience with analog gear. Fast forward 10 years, I’m an Avid-certified instructor at the 200 level. I’m an Avid-certified instructor at the operator level for Pro Tools. I have partnered with a lot of software companies, Avid, Ableton. We’ve got relationships with iZotope, Native Instruments. I have started several programs here like a little electronic music group.

You had a skillset going into this that a lot of your students coming directly into your program, especially in electronic music world, don’t have, which means you have to, in some way, engage them where they live in what they want to do, but provide to them some of the foundation as to why they’re doing certain things.
Well, when I’m teaching music technology and compositional concepts and mixing and anything like that, what I do is I start at the macro level. One of the big mistakes, it’s not really a mistake that we’re making, it’s a workaround, our society is not really invested in music education in the way it should be, right?

When kids are very, very young, every parent on this planet should be singing to their kids. And a lot of them do. We certainly did to our kids. But they should be singing to their kids even if they’re terrible singers, even if they have a bad voice. Every parent should be singing to their kids. Every parent should be rocking those babies. That’s what gives you pitch and rhythm. So, you know, as a workaround for a society where we don’t have universal acceptance of that, we have things like band methods, right? Band methods are great. I taught out of the [Hal Leonard] Essential Elements 2000 books and I loved it. It helps to develop rudimentary physical skills on instrument, tonguing, embouchure, instrumental, the fingering for the different notes.

But, you know, the beginning charts are not too exciting, four quarter notes and a whole rest. It doesn’t really jazz things up. So, when you do a production class, instead of starting at say, this is a quarter note, or this is the note G, and here’s what it does on the staff, I start with more macro level concepts. “Okay. You’re going to make a beat using pre-made loops and it has to have an A section and a B section. And part of the A section has to run through the B section to, like, tie it together. So, part of it has to be different.” And, “Okay. Now, we’re going to expand that a little bit. Now, you’re going to program some drums and you’re going to have… instead of calling it A and B, we’ll call it verse-chorus. We want the B section, the chorus, to be bigger. So, you’re going to add more layers. You’re going to speed up the rhythmic intensity or slow it down. Whatever makes it different,” you know?

I talk about macro concepts of arranging and sound design and orchestration versus micro concepts of “This is that pitch. This is a rhythm,” you know what I mean? And it’s more native to a DAW, a digital audio workstation. It’s more native for a DAW to operate at the macro level. I think of a chemist making some new material for DuPont. They’re not starting with atoms. They’re starting with compounds. They buy compounds or, you know, they’re starting with existing material, and then they’re combining those compounds. If we all had to start at the atomic level every time, nothing would ever get done. So, while it makes sense in a large ensemble context to start a little more atomic because of the physicality of the instruments, that’s not a concern in a MIDI Lab. Keyboard skills are helpful, but they’re not strictly necessary to get going.

I actually just wrote this year, the first-ever Music Technology I and II courses for Columbus City Schools. Now, we’re the largest school district in Ohio. We’ve got about 50,000 students. I wrote the curriculum specifically pointed at high school students, but it could be used with middle schoolers, but I specifically wrote it so that you could execute the entire curriculum with a cell phone and a Chromebook. That’s all you would need. Now, obviously, if you have more, you can do more. But if you only had a cell phone and a Chromebook, you could do an entire year’s worth of music curriculum. 

I’m heavily financially invested in the traditional Western system of music. My oldest son is a senior in high school. He is a concert pianist. I have paid $1 a minute for piano lessons since he was three and a half years old, no joke. In my house, I have two baby grand pianos and two upright pianos. My wife’s a piano teacher. My daughter takes cello lessons. My third son takes saxophone lessons. My second son does not want to take lessons, but he’s a great trombone player. All my kids play Western instruments. They all read sheet music. They can also, all of them, improvise to some degree or another. And… they can all record. They can all use DAWs. And it’s funny because they each prefer a different DAW. One of my kids, whenever he has free time, if he wants to explore a DAW, he always goes to Pro Tools. Two of them go to Ableton. For some reason, my daughter really loves Reason. I’m just grateful that I have the financial ability to have all these things at their fingertips right there in the room. You know, that’s how kids start playing the piano, is you have a piano around and they get curious about it.

How much did your district lean on you as the audio technology teacher to provide general audio support to your music colleagues when schools went virtual?
My district was not really organized about the effort. I recorded a series of videos to get people started with it. I have a YouTube channel, Fort Hayes Audio Production. And last year during the pandemic, I made about 150 tutorial videos, mostly on Pro Tools and Ableton Live for my classes that happened to go remote, but also on Soundtrap and WeVideos and more consumer-friendly, you know, software out there.

I provided an entire strand of professional development for my district year. I did a Virtual Professional Development Concert for OMEA. I would say people hit me up on a daily to weekly basis for advice on gear, on curriculum, on workflow, on best practices. And so, this curriculum that I wrote for Columbus City Schools is my way of helping bring people in, giving them another option. I don’t want them to stop doing large ensembles. Those are great. But there’s another option, too, you know? I mean, I love steak. Okay? But  there’s also chicken, right? You know? You can have both and you can barbecue chicken as you know. I know that you’re barbecue fans.

Congratulations on receiving the Mike Kovins TI:ME Teacher of the Year.  That is a big deal and an exclusive club. Tell us how that has impacted you as a teacher and what it means to you to receive that.
I was shocked. Really didn’t know what to say. I have never won a teaching award. I didn’t really have a good grasp on what the impact would be, but I am very pleased to say it’s been a super positive experience. The publicity that has resulted around the awarding of the Teacher of the Year Award from TI:ME has really… I guess it’s served to heighten my profile, which gives me the ability to advocate for the things I believe in. That, to me, is the most valuable part of it.

Now, people are seeking me out, and I can tell them things like, “We should have hip hop in music education. We should have popular music in music education. We should have music technology in music education.” Whereas before, you know, you’re just some rando. Now, it’s almost like a credential, you know? “Oh, you got an award, I’ll listen to you now.” It’s still, sort of, a mystery to me, but that’s apparently the way it works, I’ve discovered. And yeah, I’m really grateful to have received that. And now, anything good that happens as a result of that, I need to make sure it counts. You know what I mean?

I feel a weight of responsibility to make sure that when it comes to technology, when it comes to all kinds of students, having… whether it’s in the classroom, or it’s in the administration, or it’s in the board meeting of your state Music Educators Association, it’s important to have a diversity of voices. It’s important for me personally, and for the… and forget about me, it’s important for our field to have black voices, to have women’s voices, to have queer voices, to have Latino and Asian voices. Like, you know, I’m a white guy. I’m like about as vanilla as it gets. I know what I value and I know what my opinions are. But if it’s just a bunch more of me, that doesn’t really get us anywhere. We need other ideas to come from other people. I believe in along with technology. Technology is, sort of, an equalizer there. And so, if I can use the attention from receiving this award to advocate for those ideas, that’s what I’m going to do.

For more information on Technology in Music Education (TI:ME), visit ti-me.org 

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