UpClose: Introducing Marjorie LoPresti, the 2016 Mike Kovins TI:ME Teacher of the Year

Mike Lawson • Choral • May 9, 2016

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Music technology teacher Marjorie LoPresti has taught at East Brunswick High School in East Brunswick, New Jersey for over twenty-five years.

Over the years, LoPresti has become a nationally recognized leader in music education using technology and is frequently invited to present clinics at conferences, teaching other professionals how to use music technology software and hardware. She is very active in the New Jersey Music Educators Association, and last year was named a 2015 NJMEA Master Music Teacher. Earlier this year, the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME), honored LoPresti with its top honor, the Mike Kovins Teacher of the Year award. Her peers in the professional organization selected her for the numerous, creative ways in which she integrates music technology into music education.

SBO sat down to find out more about the kind of program LoPresti teaches that garnered her this prestigious honor from TI:ME.

How did you get involved in teaching music?

I was a musician in high school. I played piano, sang in choir, ended up playing percussion and French horn in band because I went to a really tiny high school. And I eventually figured out that going to school pre-med was not for me, that’s how I started college, because I missed playing music every day and transferred to conservatory-style university program for music education. I did my undergrad at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. I did some graduate work in music education at Rutgers also, and I’m currently pursuing an M.S. in Educational Technology through Nova Southeastern in Florida.

When did you first begin teaching music as a profession?

Straight out of college. I was 21 years old when I was hired by the East Brunswick Public Schools. I had student taught in East Brunswick, and there were two openings for elementary vocal music teachers. And they needed some help with the marching bands staff, and I had that on my resume as well. So it was a good fit.

How did you discover teaching music with technology?

Well, my enchantment with music technology started when I was in college. We had a couple of Mac labs that had ProComposer installed on them. It was that toaster oven, Macintosh computers. And we were using ProComposer to do our counterpoint homework. And then when we started using it to do our orchestration homework, we got in trouble for that, but I was hooked. And my band director friends were using Pyware to do drill design. Somewhere along the line, I got a computer that had an old copy of Cakewalk on it, and I started looking for ways to transfer the works that my students were doing, my little kids, with music composition. How do I get that onto the computer so we can share what they’re doing with mommy and daddy as an audio file? And it all grew from there. And then shortly thereafter, I got some training in Finale, which really, at that point, wasn’t appropriate for me to use with my little kids. The learning curve was too steep. And then Sibelius came out, and the learning curve on Sibelius was gentle enough that I could get my little kids using Sibelius to notate their music instead of having to painstakingly draw all of the notes. Seeing what was coming ahead, so far as the technology that would be accessible to school-aged children, I wrote a grant entitled “Music Education for the New Millennium,” and got a set of midi-capable piano keyboards and midi cables for my classroom. And that just became a new avenue in which kids transferred what they were doing with morph instruments onto piano keyboards and then into the computer through Sibelius.

How did the hands-on MIDI keyboard approach improve student compositions?

It gave them a more powerful tool to express what they were doing. They had something like a musical word processor instead of having to handwrite, so they could see it, and they could edit it. They could hear it play back to them and edit it. And then also, having the piano keyboard gives you more options under your hands than using two mallets on your morph instrument. So that opened up a greater depth of expression and creative possibilities for them, just because they had 10 fingers instead of two mallets.

Is there an age where you see them start to have the epiphany moments in their compositions, using the technology?

I don’t know, so much, if there’s a developmental stage where that happens or if it’s individual to the student. I think it’s about creating an environment where students feel safe enough to take a creative risk and that they know that you as a teacher are going to be there to guide them if they find themselves getting into a place where they can’t find a way out. You have to create a culture of safety where, “I can do something, and if it turns out terrible, it’s okay.” And that, usually, in that something that the student thinks is terrible, there is a nugget of something brilliant, and then it’s my job as a teacher to have them see that they have the seed of something amazing and give them some tools to develop that.

How do you pull that out of your students?

From the first day in class, I try to reinforce with them an idea that I learned from my husband. He is a professional writer. And to him, they’re just words on the page. So I try to reinforce with my students, they’re just notes. It’s not your worth and dignity as a human being coming out of that computer or that instrument. They’re just notes. And we are going to help you craft them into something beautiful or exciting or heart rendering, but they’re just notes. It’s not about your worth as a human being.

And they just need to hear that, you know? It’s their creation, it’s their baby, and it’s very personal to them. And I have to acknowledge, yes, it feels very personal. But, at the end of the day, they’re just notes. And if we change them, or you make choices to change them, it’s still your baby. And I can’t say that all students have that shyness. I think they fall into three kind of categories. The kids who are like super-shy, “Don’t watch me, don’t look at me. I’ll play this for you, but God, don’t watch me.” And then there are students who are like, “Watch me.” They’re attention seekers. And then I’m fortunate enough that I have a core group of students who are very chill about the whole thing. They’re like, “Yeah, this is my thing. This is what I do. If you want to listen, it’s okay.” And that may be indicative of the culture in my class. But I think it’s actually indicative of the culture of the school and the school district as a whole.

Are you still teaching any band or traditional music programs, or are you full-time music technology?

I am full-time in non-traditional music classes. I teach secondary general music. I teach AP music theory. I teach two levels of piano class, and I teach dedicated music technology and composition class.

Are you getting students who are also in traditional ensemble class- es, marching bands, chorus, the other types of band programs taking part in your classes?

Absolutely. With the exception of my AP theory class, all of my classes are really a mixed population. Kids who are in choir, band, or orchestra, and kids who sort of started teaching themselves to play an instrument on YouTube, and some kids who just decided that, “This sounded cool, so I’m going to take this music tech class,” or “I’m going to take a piano class.”

Are you a Windows or Mac lab?

We’re a Mac lab. I have taught in a Windows. My Macs have not been upgraded yet, so the bulk of the time, my kids in music tech and comp are working in GarageBand 6. It’s the older version of GarageBand because the OS won’t handle the upgrade. My music tech and comp class is a nine-week elective. So given the short time frame, I don’t have a whole lot of time to teach them anything beyond the basics. We do have a couple of installs of ProTools 7, and my more advanced kids morph into that later on in the nine-week quarter. Last thing about the first nine- week class, I do teach and use Audacity. We do a collage project in Audacity because it’s free, and it’s cross-platform. And having the collage project in place where they have to use a speech clip, a musical clip, and a sound effect clip. They can use multiple of those, but they have to have all three elements that work together thematically. Sets them up for later when we do a one-minute film score in the first nine weeks. So the idea of layering elements that are going to work together in Audacity really helps them when we get to lm scoring.

I also teach a follow-up nine-week class that happens the last marking period, and some of those kids end up using ProTools. The capstone project for the second class is a piece that they write and record for other students in the school. So they have to go out and recruit players, compose for them, and then record the session and engineer it. It is pretty cool, and it is jam-packed. So mostly, the kids are working in GarageBand. A couple of the kids jump into ProTools. Occasionally, I’ve had a student who has an install of either ACID or FL Studio on their own laptop, and I’ll allow them to bring that in. But I’m checking their progress every day. I want to make sure that whatever they’re doing on their personal device actually reflects their own work during class.

How did you learn to use technology in your music program?

I learned all of this from jumping in and doing it and taking some workshops with people.

I assume at some point during the first nine weeks, you’ve got to at least spend a day explaining the difference between dynamic and condenser microphones.

Actually, tomorrow’s lesson is on dynamic versus condenser microphones. Today, we had some condenser micro- phones set up and I held one up in the air, and I said, “Look at this. You can see the diaphragm through there. That’s why you shouldn’t drop this, because if that puppy breaks, this is garbage.” I make them go look up the diaphragms for the different microphones, so they understand how they work. Why does a condenser micro- phone need phantom power? You know, looking at the schematics online really does help them understand the equipment better. We do a side-by-side with a couple of different microphones and then changing the microphone placement. So we’ll be recording using a bunch of different microphones on different tracks. We use the FirePod for that. So we’ll capture the same exact performance a bunch different ways and then play back each track so they can hear the differences. I think they get the idea that the microphone is very much like choosing the right lens and camera angle and will completely change the picture you get.

What has been the impact of having a music tech pro- gram in that school, on the music program in general? That’s a big question. So before I first came up to the high school, there was the band guy, the orchestra guy, and the choir lady. And my role became to integrate those things in some way, because I was getting students from everybody. So first on an interpersonal level, the department became a little bit more dynamic because there was more of a blending of students from all of the ensembles. They were all meeting in that place.
But from a technology standpoint, I sort of became the point guard/coach for using technology in the other ensembles. And that started something really basic is like, “Here is a hand-held digital recorder. You should use this in your ensemble. Just put it on the music stand while you’re conducting. Capture what’s going on in your class. Play it back for your kids. I record all of the concerts and archive the recordings. I don’t clean them up. They’re not pretty.

Do you think you’re taking the students that might have gone on to ensemble or choral or other things?

No, not a chance in the world that I’ve taken any students away. In fact, the students who have been in the piano classes and the music tech classes, some of them have been recruits, particularly for the choir program. I’ll find some kid who walks in the door who can sing, that the choir director didn’t know anything about, had never considered singing. And all of the sudden, that kid is trying out for the musical, makes the honors choir the next year. If anything, it just benefits and brings kids into the program. I’ve had students who have taken the music tech class who dropped out of the band and orchestra program. And then being back in the department, actually getting some contact time with the band and orchestra director and other kids who were in the program, they’ve come back to the program.

What do you say to the music director not so up on technology, retiring in a few years, and no idea where to start?

I tell them to start by recording your ensemble. You know, tell everybody, “We’re going to record this run-through so that you can listen to it and play it back.” And here is a great trick that I stole from Barbara Freedman. So many of the kids are walking around with their own phones. If the school has a bring-your-own-device environment where the kids can use their own phones, with the teacher’s permission, have them put that phone on their music stand and record themselves in the context of playing in the ensemble.

They’re going to be louder than the ensemble around them, but it’s an authentic recording of their performance in context. Not like you’re sticking a kid in the practice room with some sort of recording setup in there and making him play his part. You know, your kid who is playing third clarinet is going to freak out if you do that. But if you have your third clarinet player put their iPhone on the music stand while you’re running through whatever your standard piece is, whether it’s a movement from the whole Second Suite in E-flat, you’re going to hear where that kid is having problems and where that kid is doing well just because of the proximity of their phone.

Do you have a lot of students coming in for whom the reason they’re coming to school is your music tech program? Do you find that your classes are the right carrot on the stick for otherwise at-risk students?

All right. I want to go two directions with that. First, let me answer your question directly. I have enough kids who only come to school because they get to make music. There is one student I’m thinking of in particular. He’s got a rough home life. There’s stuff going on. It’s hard for him to get to school some days. But it’s his involvement in the music program that gets him there everyday, and my class is the class that he lives for. He survives math and English so that he can come to my class.

And to follow up with my other thought, I’m also advisor of the Tri-M Music Honor Society. And when I hear that there is a kid who’s struggling, in whatever subject it is, the Tri-M kids are typically high functioning in all their subjects. I’ll find someone in the music department who can tutor them in chemistry, if that’s what the problem right now, or trigonometry. Whatever it is that they need help with, I’ll find a kid in the music department. They don’t have to go to the scary math teacher for extra help.

Any closing thoughts for our readers?

Though this program is really cool, I have to keep in mind that I’m teaching kids how to be adults. So with every project they do, we’re working in a studio environment. They have to give each other constructive feedback, which is a workplace skill. And along with those workplace skills, it’s not just the collaboration and the giving the feedback, but “What are the specs for this assignment, and when is the deadline? How am I going to manage to get all of these parts in place, in time for the deadline?” It’s all about what you would do if you were in a real studio or you’re working in an agency. And then with the capstone project and recruiting and composing for other students, it’s very much like working on com- mission. You’ve got to talk to those players and find out what they like and what they don’t like. So very much coming from that kind of agency mindset, “What would this experience be like if I were out working in a creative agency and I was composing music for a commercial?” They’re composing for real people. So they need to find out what their capabilities and preferences are. The constructive criticism goes back to early on where we say, “Yeah, I know it’s your creative baby. But, at the end of the day, they’re just notes. It doesn’t de ne you as a person.” 

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