This is a special edition of my Free Ableton Live Pack series. It is in collaboration with about 120 high school students. As some of you may know, aside from producing, teaching, and writing about music, my day-time gig is a high school English teacher. It turns out to be a very cohesive fit with the rest of my pursuits. Teaching has taught me so much about producing music, and so many of the things I've learned playing music tie in with my work in the classroom. The creative process, whether it is making music and art, or writing, has certain universal properties. By working in these different fields, I'm learning to see those connections and I feel my entire body of work has improved because of it.
So as the school year was winding down, I felt a little bored by the monotony of routine. My students did too. Although I am really proud of my approach to teaching English, I am always looking for ways to modify it and keep things fresh. Usually for me, that involves bringing music into the classroom.
One of the writing pieces I work on with my students is a letter to an incoming ninth grader. It's a good example of real-world writing, and not the contrived, artificial type of task you'll find on a standardized test. This year it was perfect because I taught freshmen (who clearly remember what it was like coming into a new school) and seniors (who carry with them wisdom about the entire high school process). But I thought I'd spice it up by having each class write a song. The ideas we come up with for the song would be helpful in giving each individual student ideas for his/her piece.
If you want to read about the process, scroll down a bit. I think it turned out great, and it was a lot of fun. Also, if you are an educator, feel free to contact me. I'd love to bounce ideas off of each other on how we can enrich our classes using music.
The Three High School Sounds Instrument Racks
So let's get down to the point. The result of this project for us producers is three Ableton Live Instruments you can use in your own productions.
First is a Drum Rack with a nice little variety of sounds. I had the rare opportunity to have 30 people to sample, so I wanted to make some good use of it. The Drum Rack has some great clap samples. 30 people clapping, very cool! 30 people yelling "Hey!", great! There's a locker door slamming, the school bell, and a few more. Each sound can be filtered and transposed individually to fit your needs.
Next is a Beat Box instrument, courtesy of Kyle V., a senior and musician who is far more talented than I was at his age. I sliced up his beat boxing and added some cool effects, such as filtering and transposition to the Drum Rack. This one sounds great when you pitch it down.
Finally is a bass guitar, played by Vito S., a freshmen and only student brave enough to bring in an instrument for this project. I took his 1/8 bass part and created a Simpler instrument using the Warping features. That means, the rhythm of his playing is retained no matter what note you play. If you ever need an 1/8th note electric bass part, this is the ticket.
So click on the button below to download, watch the video for a little walkthrough, spontaneous performance and teardown of these instruments. If you want to know more about the experience of writing songs with my English classes, read on!
The Songs and Writing Process
All of the sounds in these free Ableton Live Instruments came from samples recorded in my high school English class. Below you can hear the songs we wrote and recorded, and if you are interested, you can read an explanation of the process that I shared with other educators. I think there are some valuable lessons for all! I'm so proud of my students and so glad I decided to take a chance and try something a bit unorthodox in the classroom.
Day 1 of Ableton Live and Push in the English Classroom
I'm super pumped! Here's the beginning of what is turning into a great story of using Live and Push in my High school English classes.
Yesterday, while wondering how to keep my students on track at the end of the year, I had a revelation. And it happened watching this video:
So I'm a 9th and 12th grade high school English teacher. Our current assignment is to write a letter of advice/preparation/warning to incoming high school students of next year. Normally I'd show them examples and give them some journal exercises to collect ideas. Then they'd start writing and I'd do little workshops in smalls groups. But we all needed a change.
So I decided I'd bring in my Push and we'd collectively write a song for those future high school students. The moment they saw the lights of Push and heard the 808 kick, they were sold. They were dumbfounded when I told them they could touch it. "It's meant to be touched!" I said. Today was only day one, but I was able to see light in my students that I almost never see. Students whose sleep patterns I know better than their work habits were suddenly alert and pounding out beats. It was a hit in all four classes I tried it in.
Here's how we started.
First I had them brainstorm in their notebooks any important lessons they've learned in high school. They were pretty willing to do anything in order to get to the music part of class.
Next, to break it up, I recorded the whole class clapping a single time (1,2, 3 Clap!) and put that clap of about 30 people in my 808 drum rack. They were pretty amazed to hear their own clap sounding like music. I spent the day paying attention for little opportunities like this to keep them excited.
Next I got them in groups and had them brainstorm different things about high school. What are the sounds, smells, sights, tastes, feelings you encounter? If a sound came up that we could record, we did it. We got the sound of the bell, a student moaning about homework, a locker door slamming, and a few others. I put some of these sounds in the drum rack too. The energy was so high as I'd play a beat and incorporate those sounds into it.
Next, I had them share the things they brainstormed with their groups and just write two sentences about any of those things with their group. The goal here is to find some kind of theme. Each group read their sentences and by the end we had a few topics written on the board. Each class voted and picked a topic. The classes wound up with:
-Expect the Worst
-It's Not that Hard
-It's Not that Easy (funny how this is coincidentally the opposite of the second one).
Our 42 class minutes were up in a flash and I left them with homework to write two sentences about high school within their theme, and try to be specific. (Don't say "I smell cafeteria food" say "I smell chicken nugget Wednesday"). Also I invited any musicians to bring in their instrument tomorrow.
Tomorrow we will compile the sentences in to lyrics and lay down the beat and some musical elements of the song. I plan to have certain kids create artwork for the song as well.
What I love is how relevant this actually is to our English standards. They are working with language, specific details, imagery, theme. They are cooperating with each other and communicating orally and in written form. As we move forward and do our lyrics, we will run into issues with sentence structure and phrasing that might conflict with the music. This will force them to wrestle with the language a bit in order to make things fit. And what fun it was!
Once it is over, I will post the songs, and they will see their actual work in an actual place. Usually their work gets read by a teacher and then goes in the trash. It's a great real world application of all of the things we've been discussing all year. I'm really excited, and filled with new energy!
Day 2 of Ableton Live and Push in the English classroom...
Again, wow, I'm inspired! I definitely learned a lot :)
I had my students get into groups and share their sentences about school. I then asked them to work as groups to get the sentences to rhyme. As they worked, I spent a few minutes auditioning some presets, and the ones that got students excited I kept in the session.
While lyric writing was happening, I got a volunteer to try to record a beat. My approach was to just let them bang on the pads for a while as it was recording. No metronome, no real pressure. Once I heard something that was useful, I had them stop, and I went into the clip, highlighted the bar or two they last performed, and Set 1.1.1 Here on the first beat, and stretched the MIDI notes to fill the appropriate number of bars. Then I quantized. Suddenly that student who may have known nothing about music just created a beat. In one class, I had a beat boxer. I recorded his voice and did a Convert Drums to MIDI. A quick edit of the resulting drums left us with a solid beat.
Next we had a couple groups share their lyrics. Some had nice rhyming lyrics, others need work. We simply wrestled with the words until we had a decent rhyme. I employed one student in the class to write down each line of the different groups.
I had them go back to lyric writing and selected another volunteer for bass or chords. In one class, a student brought in a bass and we recorded it. The way I treated them all was the same. Just start press pads and when we hear something that is useful we stop and do a quick edit and move on. There's no time to really spend nit-picking. Even the bass player was unsure of what to do and felt nervous. I just grabbed the first thing he did that fit the beat and looped it. It turned out to be a 3 bar loop that created an interesting polyrhythm over the 4 bar beat.
This spirit of capturing ideas without judging and moving on is a great illustration of what I've been working on all year in terms of the writing process. Kids tend to get writer's block when they are too critical early on. They want the perfect title or first line. A lot of times they obsess over these parts so much that they never get into actually capturing their ideas. It was a powerful exercise in just collecting ideas, editing and refining later.
By the end of our 42 minutes, we had a solid page of lyrics in each class, and at least a beat, bass, and melody. In a couple of classes we had multiple sections.
Tomorrow I will attempt what will probably be the hardest part, getting students to sing/rap/ record their lyrics. I'm pretty sure once they hear their voices through a little reverb and delay, they will get pretty psyched. I'll probably play around with transposing their voices and maybe AutoTune, which I think they will get a kick out of.
The energy was high, and about a third of the class, in every class, stayed past the bell after class was over. Normally they are all out of the door before the bell has finished ringing! Their creative energy is really infectious. I found myself straddling a narrow line of leading and letting go. For most kids, just a brief explanation was enough to get them creating something musical. Knowing when to step back and let them explore was key. I was actually surprised at how soon I needed to step away.
This has been a super cool experience, and I can honestly say it's been one of the more refreshing teaching moments I've had in a while! I'll keep you guys posted :)
Days 3 and 4 of Push in the English class...
As I suspected, getting students to actually sing, rap or speak on the microphone was the biggest challenge. A couple things that helped were putting on some vocal effects like reverb and delay, auto-tune, and inviting students up in small groups. There were some kids that probably would rather fail for the year than get up in front of the class and even speak on the mic, but others had a "I'll do it if Johnny can come up with me" attitude. There were a handful that wanted to record every line of the song.
Something that surprised me was that there were certain kids, a few of the normally quiet ones, that happily came up once I asked them to. Some kids took a little coaxing, and a few I made bargains with (I'll let you turn in that late paper you never did if you come up and record a line of the song).
At the beginning of Day 4, I realized that there were a handful of kids that had a "why are we even doing this" attitude. I felt that was a justifiable question, so I gave them an explanation. I spoke about how this involved lyric writing, focusing and developing a theme, cooperative learning, group work, and oral and written communication. I also took it as a chance to get into a talk about not taking ourselves so seriously all of the time. So many kids in high school are crippled with self consciousness, and this was a nice way to address the importance of leaving your comfort zones. These little pep talk helped get a few new volunteers during Day 4. Here's a video I showed them recently:
In the end, 3 of my four classes recorded all their lyrics and had pretty complete songs. We discussed intros and outros, which is often the most challenging part of their writing, so we applied some of those writing concepts to the music. For example, a few classes decided to use the concept of bookending, where the piece starts and finishes in similar fashion.
One of my classes kind of collapsed under the pressure of recording their voices on the mic. They didn't get all their lyrics recorded, so once it became obvious I wasn't going to get any willing volunteers, we focused on the arrangement a little.
The best part of this assignment was how much I learned about my students. Many of my students are musical, but not involved in the the school music program at all. Many are interested in making beats but had no idea where to start. This reminds me of myself at 14, when a friend showed me how to play "Enter Sandman" by Metallica on guitar. Until that point, I never understood that if I had a guitar I could play the songs I heard on the radio. That's how little exposure I had to making music. I only had music classes in school that were much more traditional, and therefore never really captured my imagination. So it was pretty cool to see a couple 9th graders eyes light up during this project.
I shouldn't leave out the fact that there were a handful of kids in almost every class that were a little "too cool" for this project. Part of me felt some pretty heavy frustration at this. It's like, come on, we could be writing essay to practice for your standardized tests! But I had to remind myself that it's impossible to reach everyone everyday. And often things that get a strong positive reaction from one type of person will get a strong negative reaction from another type of person. In my ten years in the classroom, I've learned that reaching even a few kids in a day, week, or year is valuable. Of course I strive to reach them all, but I can't kid myself and say that I always do. But at the same time, I've learned over and over again that you don't always get to see who you reach. I've had kids email me or visit me years later and tell me something I did made a difference. And a lot of times it didn't show at the time. So I soldier on for those kids. It's obvious with this project that many kids were super excited. And there was an occasional kid in every class that came to life in ways I never saw before. I'm pretty sure, if nothing else, this will be a project most of them won't forget!
One of my favorite little parts about this assignment was that no one in any one of my classes asked me "how are you grading us on this" or "what does this count for" or "will this be on the test"! I highly encourage any educators out there to give a project like this a shot. Even if you are running a club or a boy/girl scouts group, after school program or whatever. This project really helped build relationships. It brought everyone together in a cool way. I had a blast. Most of the kids did too. I will certainly have my eyes open for some other ways to incorporate this sort of thing though out the school year. I feel renewed and refreshed, and that's a valuable gift for myself!