From Theory to Feely

It has been my pleasure to co-facilitate a number of music technology workshops for Drake Music since the start of the year. This is an awesome job; meeting and creating with different types of people. I have also had the opportunity of trying to conduct improvised pieces composed by workshop participants. This has been fascinating as you never quite know what sounds are about to be played – a real exercise in riding the waves!

Photo: Participants playing iPads and listening to workshop presenter (out of frame)
Participants playing iPads and listening to workshop presenter (out of frame)

It was the first time that I had the pleasure of co-facilitating with Ben Sellers. We delivered two workshop sessions at the Music Excellence London (MEL) one-day conference entitled Inspire ‘Creating an inclusive classroom for all at Key Stage 3.’ Hosted at Cecil Sharp House in North West London, we worked with participants many of whom had backgrounds in working with children in the education sector.

The overall aim of these workshops has been to promote the recontextualization of iPads as musical instruments (particularly for use in SEND settings). As I prepare to start working with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, I am also personally keen to promote such instruments within mainstream orchestras beyond just being a therapeutic or education music device exclusive for those who have disabilities. Although not the main purpose of the workshop per se, this is always at the back of my mind.

Digitally created music has been around for a while paving the way for a plethora of talented musicians in a range of genres, such as EDM (technically, a group of genres), disco, Hi-NRG…in which laptops and tablets are used amongst other digital devices. However, such instruments have not had a recognised position within mainstream orchestral music genres. Of the workshops I have delivered since the start of 2017, many of the participants have had backgrounds in playing classical music instruments.

Photo: Ben Sellers facilitating a small group of participants playing the iPad
Ben Sellers facilitating a small group of participants playing the iPad

It has therefore been interesting to experience the reactions to the iPads from participants. These seem to change as they delve further into the sound possibilities of the tablet device. Many initially hold the viewpoint that the iPads are non-musical devices, needing little or no skill to play. The existence of mobile devices originates from being used to aid and facilitate communication and entertainment on the move, broadly speaking. People use them to manage e-mails, listen to music, and even to watch films whenever and wherever we want. This somewhat creates a mechanical perception of the iPad which is worth consideration whilst establishing its new identity of being a musical instrument.

However, with a little magic from apps, such as Loopseque, MadPad, and ThumbJam , this pre-conception slowly dissolves through exploration and familiarisation process of creating new sounds. The participants begin to feel their way through composing their own melody, harmonic sequence, or rhythm instead of thinking and inherently distancing themselves away from the musical landscape. Armed with their respective musical ideas, they come together in small groups of six to ten people to contribute their musical expressions to form a group piece. At the MEL conference, participants were given a pre-written melody (based on a score I wrote) for them to base a group improvised piece upon.

This process is designed to take participants on a journey from being quite distant, and almost theoretical about this new instrument, back so feeling their way through the tonal landscape(s). Instead of strings and valves, there is a selection of graphical interfaces available across the apps – some recreating or imitating traditional keyboard layouts and some being a little more abstract – which players can use to create their own musical stories. Each app was pre-assigned a section – melody, harmony, or rhythm; further emphasising the recontextualization of the devices as being musical instruments.

Photo: A high-angle photo of a group of novice players exploring the iPad apps
A high-angle photo of a group of novice players exploring the iPad apps

By the end of the sessions, the musical potential of the devices is realised with a more practical appreciation of how musicality is still essential from the participants. The accessibility factor is also recognised as not demeaning but enhancing the role of the player by being adaptable to an individual’s physicality. As one participant comments,

“I thought it was really accessible. There is lots of scope to extend it further if you need to instead of just having to stick with what is given to you.”

ThumbJam, for example, uses a musical keyboard-style layout to visualise notes. One can adjust the number of notes and octaves displayed on the screen. If you can alternate between two or more notes using a closed fist, for example, this could be ideal. This eliminates the need for fine motor control movement in the fingers whilst giving way to your musicality and creativity.
I personally felt a spot of elation when another participant said this:
“It was really amazing to see how we were able to play in the same way as a conventional ensemble; having a rhythm section, chord section, and a melody section. I would be really interested to see how we could fit this in an ensemble alongside conventional instruments.”

This interest to experiment further with the iPad is a good sign as it shows they are starting to feel the musical possibilities of the device. This is our ultimate goal. However, I personally hope that this acceptance of a tablet device being a new musical instrument might go a little further in the future. The iPad or other tablet devices (come on Android developers!) is accessible to all whether you have a disability or not. Therefore, such accessible instruments, I believe, should be eventually promoted to those who are not deemed to have a disability. This would be a way to make such instruments to be seen as “cool” thus evading circumstances in which the instrument to be representative of a social group.

Photo: A wide-angled picture of the group of workshop participants with smiling lady in the foreground
A wide-angled picture of the group of workshop participants with smiling lady in the foreground

Primarily, playing music on an iPad or other such technologies opens up opportunities to talented musicians who have disabilities – people who have emotions and stories to tell. This is exciting for the fact that this group of people of which I am a member have historically been dehumanised through historical medicalisation and stereotyping. It is my belief that the ethereal nature of music –a form of communication free of words and direct stereotypes – will facilitate new musical-based emotional narratives from people who, before now, may have been perceived as emotionless.