Up Close with Will Kuhn

Mike Lawson • Features • May 19, 2015

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Will KuhnOhio’s Award-Winning, Pioneering High School Music Technology Educator
Will Kuhn teaches music technology at Lebanon High School in Lebanon, Ohio, and also serves as district music coordinator for Lebanon City Schools. In 2006, he designed the pop music focused music tech program, which now involves over 350 students annually.

In 2015, he was named the TI:ME Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year by his peers in the Technology Institute for Music Educators. SBO sat down with Will to learn more about his innovative approach to teaching music technology at his high school, and how he put together a program that has succeeded in teaching thousands of students for nearly a decade.

What made you decide to become a music teacher?

I was kind of an undecided major. I was looking at majoring in stuff like psychology because I didn’t know what I wanted to do and my band director said, “Stop being a wimp. Just go and audition. You’ll make it, you’ll probably get some money, too,” and I did.

What is your main instrument?

Percussion. I’ve actually been playing drums since the age of three. I guess I showed that I had a good sense of rhythm from an early age or something.

What band programs did you participate in before college?

Playing with the band in junior high and high school was kind of a natural thing for me to do. I went to Kettering Fairmont High School and Mike Berning was the band director. That’s one of the bigger band programs around our area in Dayton-Cincinnati. It’s one of the bigger high schools around here. They’ve got a big band program. We had four concert bands in high school and big marching band.

Were you in the marching band, concert band, jazz band?

I was into everything, yeah. I was in everything.

Was it in college you got the desire to be a band director?

Yeah. I was going to be the world’s best band director. I very much went through college with that assumption, kind of focused all my training in that. I know some people approach their music ed differently at college and try to do a little bit of everything just in case they get a different job or something. I was just all-in on the band stuff. I was doing the thing where you teach bands in the summer and you volunteer to work at places. I think there were a couple of years where I was teaching at a high school in the summer and stuff like that.

I was just totally, “Yes, band directing is exactly what I want to do.” Then when I got out, I actually got a job doing directing and I was doing some sixth grade general music, too. I was a junior high and elementary school band director and doing some general music to fill out the schedule.

Student in William Kuhn's music tech program

When did your music technology program begin?

It was about 2006 when the music tech program first started. It was very much the Wild West. I thought that music technology was a really cool idea for a class. As soon as I heard about it, I was like, “Yeah, I want to do that.” I put in to transfer for that and that summer was told I’m going to be teaching it the next year.

What did you have to work with?

We had software. We didn’t have any keyboards. We didn’t have any fancy studio or mics or anything like that. It was just a Mac computer lab with GarageBand. I thought, “Yeah, I can make a class out of that.” I think what made my class kind of unique was that at the time, my room was situated in the art wing of the building so all the classrooms around me were art classes. After doing this for a little while, maybe about the six-month point through the year, I realized my lessons were kind of starting to feel like art lessons where you work on a project for a while and then finish it all up, maybe the units last a week or two, rather than just doing a different lesson every day.

I liked the project-based classroom aspect of it. To get a lot of my initial project ideas, I would hang out with the art teachers during my break and lunch and stuff and talk with them. They really know how to do project-based classes. Eventually, we added a second level of it and that was the year where the population kind of exploded. I think maybe the first couple years were like a trial run. After those first couple of years, they said there’s a need to make this a full-time class.

Did you have an assigned curriculum to teach from or did you have to kind of write your own?

I wrote my own. For purely survey-level intro to making music with technology, a curriculum just didn’t exist. The tools were really new. GarageBand came out in 2004. People didn’t know how to use it. This was brand new to a lot of people. A lot of educators, especially, hadn’t used things like Pro Tools or anything; I know I never did.

It sounds like you had to learn a lot of this as you went yourself.

Yeah. I will happily admit to that, especially the first year. A lot of my initial round of projects and honestly, a lot of the curriculum still, is based on the order in which I learned things as I was trying to come up with lessons.

For instance, early versions of GarageBand didn’t have a way to sample something easily, but you could record audio and cut and paste it and stuff like that to make it sound like you beatboxed with a drum beat. You record a sound into the microphone, it sounds like a snare drum and it sounds like a cymbal. Then you can cut and paste the waveform and make a little beat. That was a really early project that I just did by myself to see how far I could take copy and paste. It turned out I still do that project as a way to introduce audio editing because it’s more fun to do than just editing a speech or something like that. I remember just sitting with the class and watching the GarageBand tutorial with them at one point.

Music tech program students

I think everybody who picks up GarageBand, the first project that comes to mind is, “Oh, I can make a song out of these loops.” Great, there’s a week, maybe, of lessons. But then it’s like you can only do that so many times before it starts to get kind of lame and people recognize the loops. Granted, that’s a great way to get beginners interested. I realized early on we needed to get out of the loops and make things that are original. So this is where I still teach some of these lessons today. It’s really tough to get over that bridge of, “I’m not a musician,” and then start making music. You can’t just show them scales and a keyboard and stuff right away and that’ll turn kids off if they’re already preset into thinking they can’t do that stuff.

What kind of gear are you using and what software are you running in 2015?

We’ve got 30 Mac minis and we chose those over iMacs mainly because of a cost issue. We kind of get more power for the same amount of money that way. We’ve got M-Audio Producer for microphones, which is a little USB microphone. We are using Akai APC Keyboard controllers this year. Everybody is using Ableton Live to do his or her projects. The APC basically gives direct control over Ableton Live. I guess you could say it’s a keyboard with a launch pad built in. Each station also has a pair of headphones, too, the Shure SRH440 models.

It sounds like a really fun class. Take me through the semester for a beginner.

It is a fun class. The beginning of the class, we’re basically using loops to kind of produce a really quick song where we can learn just what all the buttons do. I stay out of other screen views in Ableton until maybe the first quarter is over just so we can get the vocabulary down, like what’s tracks and everything has a mute and a solo and a pan knob, all of the things that are based on traditional mixers that every program uses. I feel like with my beginners, it’s best to stay in the traditional sideways scrolling DAW mode with them.

I do a couple projects where we just do audio. We do one where we make a radio ad. We do a project where we record sounds from around the school and treat them as if they’re a kick drum, a snare drum and a cymbal and we kind of construct drumbeats that way. Then we go and start hitting MIDI kind of hard. I tell them the keyboard is there just for the same reason the typing keyboard is there. One is to get letters in, the other one is to get notes in. Just because you’re not a good pianist doesn’t mean you don’t use it. Just because you’re not a good typist doesn’t mean you don’t type on your keyboard either.

Is your class a gateway to traditional music programs for some students?

My class has definitely raised the profile of the music programs at our school. Kids who might be on the fence about being in music classes at all are not on the fence about that anymore. I would say most kids in the school get their tech credit by going through my class. The fact that they’re in the music department isn’t a weird thing anymore. I think the main impact I’ve seen is that the school culture is a lot more music-friendly now. I don’t have data that corresponds with my class in that. But I feel like since I’ve started the class, the school culture feels like it has changed.

What kind of students are you getting in the level 2 classes?

I think it’s kind of interesting that when I started that class, the demographic was a little different than what I expected it to be. I was expecting it to be mostly the music kids would want to continue on with it. What I get in level 2 is maybe a third of them still, the music kids, it’s usually the top music kids will want to take that class just so they can continue making stuff; they like being creative. The other two-thirds are almost like the pre-tech field kids. Even if they’re not going into music, people that just like that environment of making media of any kind, that’s the kind of class for them.

This class satisfies a tech credit elective requirement. Does it also optionally cover music as a credit?

It covers one of the two, whichever one they need more or whichever one they need first. If they need a tech credit, they can take it. If they want to get both of their credits that way, they can take both levels.

You just recently wrote a book. Tell us about it.

"Interactive Composition"Well, Interactive Composition: Strategies Using Ableton Live and Max for Live is a book that I wrote with V.J. Manzo. We both were drawn to Ableton Live as a way to realize a lot of our creative projects that we like to do with our students. I think what drew us to that particular program is that it’s got some features that you can’t do anywhere else. You can really mess with audio pretty crazily in it, but it’s also really direct. It has this very honest look to it that it doesn’t try to cover up the complexity with wood panels or fake amp knobs. It is what it is. It’s very honestly digital.

The book is basically partly a way to learn Ableton Live and kind of an introduction to Max for Live, which is the way that you can extend Ableton Live to write your own instruments and things like that. Then the second half of the book is just projects. You can adapt them as lessons or you can just use it to teach yourself. But essentially, it has a bunch of genres of electronic music.

I guess the way I like to think of the book is that it helps you write the sort of music that Ableton Live users like to write. There are projects specifically addressing things like drum and bass and dubstep and house music and remixing and things like that, very modern kinds of forms that there isn’t a lot of material on. Each chapter is a project similar to the ones I do with my students. I would say that it goes a little past the ones I actually do with my students in the high school level because we’re targeting more of a college crowd with it. If you follow the steps in each lesson, you’ll get a cool project out of it and hopefully some skills.

Somebody doing high school could take some of the sample projects and simplify them a bit if they weren’t ready to do all of the advanced stuff that’s in it. I know there’s a couple high schools around that are kind of using it as a template for their own lessons. This book, it shows you exactly how to make trap music, exactly how to make dubstep. It just goes straight from ground zero, how to get this. There’s not a student and a teacher edition; it’s not that kind of book. But the step-by-step stuff, I’ve had my students follow it for a style that maybe we didn’t cover that year or something and they’re able to follow it just fine.

Are there any moments that let you know that you’ve succeeded, or that your kids are really getting it?

Yeah, there are definitely some high water marks. I guess the biggest high water mark is just that here we are, nearly 10 years later, still talking about this. It’s not just a fad. I think that just the fact that we can roll with the changes, it’s a very fast changing part of the music industry. I think that says a lot that there is something here and I think that a lot of schools are going to start exploring this as another branch to their music department.

There was one student that, I don’t know if he’s making money right now or not, but he had quite a following while he was in high school, getting featured on stuff like EDM.com. One of his songs was on the UK show Skins at one point. That was kind of cool.

It’s kind of funny. Right now, I have a lot of kids who are interested in media production in the broadcasting context. I have a lot of kids that are going into those programs for college. It’s kind of cool to see how they’re pretty well-prepared for that career path, just going through the music tech stuff, but also through the TV studio that I run at school, too. That’s kind of the third level, I guess you could say. The advanced kids typically run that. We also have our recording studio club. We call it “Recording Club” and we put out an album every year on that. 

That’s been another big cultural thing is that the kids, every year in the school, will look forward to getting that album and we do a live performance, it’s kind of a nice little festival feel.

Student working in William's music tech program

If a teacher comes to you and says, “I have to start a music technology class, help!” what do you advise them to use for equipment and curriculum and software and promoting the program to students?

I think most people are still really better off starting with GarageBand because they can really easily ask their tech department to get the right kind of computer for that and it comes with it. There’s no extra software setup.

What I stress to people, music technology, you can kind of go a lot of different routes with it and I think that’s kind of a cool thing about it. The main thing is that the kids love it. If you love it, if it’s your passion and you like teaching those kinds of lessons, these tools just enable you to teach it better than you could without the computer. That’s the whole point. In my case, I’ve always been really into electronic music. I think that shows through. When I’m showing kids how to do this stuff, they can tell that I’m really into it and that I’m not faking the knowledge, I guess. I’m actually into this and actually showing them legit techniques. Kids can sense that. Kids just have a detector for if you’re legit or not, I guess. They definitely are into it if you’re into it.

Music technology is a way of addressing the kids who aren’t in your performing groups, it’s like a really powerful tool to raise the profile of your music program, to solve problems that your administrators might have with scheduling. You can be a big resource for them and it doesn’t compete with your programs. If anything, it raises the profile of your performing groups by bringing in a different demographic into the music program in any way. A rising tide lifts all ships, you know? 

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