Students Learn New Skills through Music Technology
By Victoria Z. Lubas
On the afternoon of July 13th, attendees arrived at the Frederick Loewe Theater on West 4th Street for the Music Tech Performance, the final component of a two-week long summer program at the Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions. The audience included the parents of pre-teen and high school musicians, who had been preparing for this day during the preceding two weeks. The three groups performing during the event — the Girls Electronic Music Stars (GEMS), the Summer Electronic Music Institute (SEMI), and the Summer Institute of Music Production Technology (SIMPT) — each embodied different core focuses and requirements that they then showcased onstage.
Dr. Agnieska Roginska, Music Associate Professor and Associate Director of the Music Technology Program, took the stage to introduce the performers. The show opened with GEMS, a group composed of 10-to-12-year-old girls who spent the previous week focusing on the sense of “expression, learning, and fun that are available in music and technology.”1
Using concepts and technologies they learned during their week in the program, the 12 GEMS students performed a series of nine songs. Many of the compositions used recordings of the students’ own voices, which were then manipulated and altered to sound like a new kind of instrument. Using technology provided by Steinhardt, they created voice-based music that differed from the more commonly-known, vocally-focused a capella. The students opened their set with the song “Spoken Word,” during which they dubbed themselves “music magicians,” while emphasizing that “music is an escape from reality.” The following number, “I’m Leaving Tomorrow,” heavily featured the titular phrase punctuated by beats, clicks, and a series of their own recorded giggles.
Some songs’ themes were reflective of the empowering environments into which the young students had been immersed. Each song echoed a theme of “girl power.” One song emphasized the importance of supporting other females as a team, featuring the lyrics, “we come together because we are powerful together.” Another listed the many terms the GEMS girls use to describe confidence in themselves — “proud artists, powerful, creative, artistic, [and] awesome.” As they belted out the bold lyrics of their songs, the GEMS girls also played instruments provided by Steinhardt’s Music Tech department. While some fingers tapped on a large, padded box covered in tiles, others tapped on an electronic drum, and still others created beats by sending ripples over various shades of Jell-o.
Dafna L Naphtali, Adjunct Faculty of the Music Technology Program and GEMS moderator, explained that the most prominent technologies used in this program’s performances were GarageBand, Makey Makey, and Little Bits. These tools enabled the girls to plan unique visual elements for their performance, such as musical Jell-o, as well as changes listeners could hear through the use of tonal tools, such as GarageBand. Naphtali advises students interested in this program to “come ready to create music every day. Know that we all learn by trying new things, making mistakes and fixing them, and then experimenting some more.”
SEMI’s Exclusively Electronic Music
GEMS’ performance was followed by acts representing the Summer Electronic Music Institute (SEMI). The songs varied in both length and lyric saturation, some focusing on the core words and others featuring no language at all. SEMI, attended by high school juniors and seniors, is focused on “production skills and enabling live electronic music composition, improvisation and/or performance.”2 It is designed for aspiring electronic musicians and electronic dance music (EDM) producers, and immerses students in lectures, workshops, labs, and group projects for two weeks.
The first group from SEMI, TBD, began their performance with their song titled “ERR.808_DENALI_NOTFOUND.” Led by a girl singing through a deep-voiced synthesizer, TBD’s music had a futuristic-sounding quality and was paired with a unique video accompaniment. Following TBD was the Meridian’s “Sub-Marine,” a song full of dramatic build-up moments followed by drops, channelling the style of dubstep music.
Two other groups closed the SEMI performance: DLay and HTWV. DLay’s “Denali” had a somewhat dystopian vibe, punctuated by the loud, steady beat of an electronic drum. This song was accompanied by overhead video footage of a bluish, snow-covered forest that slowly began to pulse yellow in time with the beat. “Tumbling,” by HTWV, was led by a girl whose voice is comparable to that of Ellie Goulding, singing “Lift me up before I fall and tumble down.” As the upbeat song played through, the lead singer’s face broke into a smile, exuding the passionate creativity these students are able to explore through the SEMI program.
Taught by Professors, Aided by Students
The students participating in the GEMS, SEMI, and SIMPT programs had the chance to learn from NYU professors and be mentored by Steinhardt undergraduate and graduate students in the Music Technology department. Music Technology graduate student, Parichat Songmuang, values the opportunity to assist with the summer programs because the interaction with new people and technologies helps broaden the knowledge base of those pursuing degrees.
Songmuang explained: “Some of us are more knowledgeable in studio recording, while someone else is more skillful in MIDI production. We learn from each other…review old subjects, learn new subjects and techniques, and learn how to teach all of these to the next generation of engineers.” Another powerful aspect of the Music Technology department that Songmuang feels is strongly represented by the summer program is the opportunity to network with esteemed faculty and talented students, stating, “Once a student is committed into the subject and fully engaged, he or she will have the full scope of network with audio engineers from various backgrounds. …The department is continuously updating and teaching them the newest technologies in music tech. The students now have a mixture of the old and the new and create new innovations mixing the two.”
Langdon Crawford, Assistant Director of Music Technology Summer Programs, stated: “The course materials for the summer music technology courses for high school students come right out of the undergraduate curriculum. Each of the lectures and lab sessions represents a topic or course that we cover in more depth during the undergraduate program in Music Technology.” Crawford explained the wide range of music technologies covered: from the ins and outs of the human hearing system, to more typical technology such as including multiple collaborators and using tool kits similar to “Cycling 74’ s Max and the Jam hosting feature of Ableton Live.” For these reasons, Crawford advises that students interested in applying for SEMI and SIMPT “think of it as a life-changing pre-college experience.” In other words, Crawford says, “Treat the application process like that for an undergraduate program.”
SIMPT Brings the Show Back to “Modern Tradition”
The final act of the performance involved students participating in the Summer Institute of Music Production and Technology (SIMPT) program. This program is open to high school juniors and seniors with the ability to play an instrument or sing. For two weeks, these students “focus on all of the aspects of contemporary music production”3 and recording. They also learn more about this multifaceted field through artistic angles, including sound effects editing, field recording, mixing, and scientific subjects, as well as hearing and the physics of sound. Through labs, tutorials, workshops, and lectures, students receive a well-rounded overview that they then use to create their own music over the course of the program.
The sound and tone of SIMPT’s music was very different from that of GEMS and SEMI. GEMS’ music had solemn melodies with empowering messages. SEMI’s music tended to sound either dystopic or dubstep-adjacent, only occasionally featuring words. SIMPT’s music featured traditional instruments with little apparent electronic manipulation, greatly differing from the concert’s first two acts; likely due to the different focus of this program’s lessons.
The opening SIMPT group, Nomad, played their song “Giving Out” on a well-lit stage that contrasted with the dim stages of preceding acts. Unlike previous performances, Nomad also began SIMPT’s string of more traditional music with a song featuring trombone and electric guitar. The next band, Pineapple Fox, performed, “Lonely,” which featured an assortment of instruments that ranged from a ukulele and guitar, to drums and a keyboard. As the beat progressed from melancholy to cheerful, the lyrics evolved from “Trying to find peace of mind/Just a little bit lonely,” to “Feeling safe, then sound/Can’t stop me now/Found somebody to hold me.” The positivity of the lyrics paired with the calming beat and tropical-sounding ukulele juxtaposed someone healing emotional wounds at the speed with which one rejuvenates on vacation.
“Lonely” was followed by “Mr. Yums Hot and Ready Ice Cream” by the group, Mr. Yums. The arc of “Mr. Yums” opposed that of “Lonely,” starting with an upbeat and energizing tune, then falling into a repetitive and almost eerie keyboard, cello, and electric guitar combo. The placement of Mr. Yums’ performance after Pineapple Fox’s showed the wide range of lessons these students were exposed to, as the two songs demonstrated similar skills and levels of knowledge in completely different ways.
The closing performance was “Confusion” by Sub Cellar 6. This song opened with a catchy saxophone solo as the lead singer danced with uninhibited energy before breaking into a chorus of “the mess you left inside my head/I’m stuck in the middle of us.” This closing act featured musicians who were clearly concentrating on their performances but were also greatly enjoying recognition from their peers. As the song faded to a close, the other Music Tech students who had quietly filed into auditorium seats, rose to a standing ovation for the stars of the program.
Advanced Programs of Music Production
The education provided by the GEMS, SEMI, and SIMPT summer programs prepare participants to continue their musical path. Crawford recommends students “look to learn as much as possible during the summer program as it should help inform your next steps in your educational development.” Graduate student Songmuang wants students to “enter the program open-minded and motivated” and remember to “be professional.” Songmuang continues, “You still want to present yourself as serious and focused, giving a good impression to the many professionals and researchers that we already have here.” As Naphtali confirms, “We have had quite a few students come study with us as undergraduates later.”
The Music Tech performance showcased what the Steinhardt Music Department’s summer programs have to offer. The easiness and friendliness between the performers onstage, and the camaraderie reflected in their earnest applause for their classmates, proved that the program is a positive social, educational, and artistic experience for these talented and motivated students.