Thursday, December 12, 2013

Our Partnership with the YMCA Hilltop Computer Center

At the Brashear Association we endeavor to introduce new ways to help our students engage and learn new life skills. Back in November Laura and Amber attended the PAEYC Unconference to discover new ways technology can be integrated into education and to work for education not against it. We encourage you to read here and here about our experiences.

Our after school program in Allentown has been partnering with the YMCA Hilltop Computer Center over this past semester. They held a Music Technology Workshop for our 4th and 5th grade boys on Mondays and Wednesdays. We asked Andrew and Meredith to share a little about what they have been doing with our students.


 The YMCA Hilltop Computer Center Music Technology Workshop is a creative music program that seeks to give students an elementary understanding of digital audio software and provide them with compositional strategies to channel their creativity. The emphasis is on computers as a tool to stimulate, enhance, and distribute expression. To empower the students with technology. Because of recent advances in audio technology, music production is no longer limited to wealthy technicians or skilled instrumentalists-- it is something anybody can do with a personal computer.


At the beginning of every session each student is assigned headphones and a lightweight laptop installed with a digital audio workstation (DAW) and an audio editor. The programs we use-- Nanostudio and Audacity-- are free to download and run on most computers and operating systems, so students are able to access these applications even outside of the classroom.

Every session includes a short period of instructional time, around thirty-five minutes of hands-on activities and one-on-one engagement, and ten minutes of free-time contingent upon their behavior and successful completion of the day's objectives. Because our time is so limited and the software we work with can be complicated, we keep lessons short, simple, and specific. The focus is typically on individual features of the DAW, fundamentals in sound design, basic music theory concepts, or sequencing techniques. We structure the lessons to build incrementally and continually draw on previous material, gradually demystifying the technical aspects of the software we work with so the boys are increasingly more able to translate their ideas into the program.




We strive for a balance of instruction and self-driven discovery-- the structure that students need but with space for play and experimentation. That major chords usually sound bright and cheery and minor chords sad and sullen is something students can figure out intuitively, rather than by having it dictated to them.

During the work session, we give active feedback and encourage students to respond to their own work. We might ask questions like:
"do you think that sounds too busy?"
"what would happen if you added a delay to your drums?"
"what did you like about this part?"
"what kind of mood does this part have?"

Students are also encouraged to respond to the work of their peers-- through cooperative learning, students own the material by becoming teachers themselves.
Towards the end of the session, students who have completed the day's task are allowed ten minutes of free-time to play games on the computers. Not only does this give us leverage for classroom behavior-- it also gives the boys a much-needed break from what can sometimes be challenging material.
Every week, their output is archived onto a harddrive and monitored for individual assessment, which is on-going and formative.


One of my favorite lessons was our first session using the microphones. Kids absolutely love recording their voices-- imitating each other, animals, or just making noise-- then cutting it up, slowing it down, or using it in their work. One of our kids impersonated a weather forecaster, another beat boxed, another howled like a wolf. All of their work has the imprint of their personality, so much that when I played back some of their work mid-term, selections they hadn't shared with classmates already, they were all usually able to tell who had made what.

Their first big project was the Halloween Mixtape-- the goal being to make something that sounded scary. This complemented our lessons at the time, which were focused on timbre and atmospheric sounds. The Halloween Mixtape, showcasing much of their early work, can be found at the Hilltop's YouTube channel.


Over the weeks, the boys have grown much more deliberate in composition, more thoughtful about arrangement, and more invested in their work. As well, distinct styles have emerged. Some students have gravitated to relaxing grooves, some to intense beats, others to chilling ambient sweeps. And a greater confidence in their work has led to a strong desire for recognition and an eagerness to share it with us and with classmates.

One of our students, for his final project, composed a work with very clear melodic progression-- an aspect of music he had chosen to work with in depth throughout the course. Other students demonstrated imaginative uses of filters and LFOs (low frequency oscillators) on their synth instruments to alter timbre.

It has been an incredible experience watching them learn and grow.


Creative expression in any medium helps students adapt to the unforeseen circumstances and ambiguities of life by showing them how to tie together different lines of thought into creative solutions. It encourages them not just to analyze and evaluate-- but to form new perspectives. And if friends, family, or educators don't expose young people to these new tools for creative expression, then no one will.


The ability not just to do, but to invent, is very important and there is a movement in the culture of education riding on this idea. 

The true value of thought lies not only in staking out territory, but in expanding the possible terrain. And there have been widespread movements to recast the traditional methods in music education, to not only have students work with established models and categories, but to inspire them to explore the potential for new ones. The integration of musical invention and technology opens up a field of near limitless possibilities.


Andrew Michael is a KEYS member serving at the YMCA HilltopComputer Center. A student at the University of Pittsburgh, Andrew has been involved in a number of community and youth-oriented initiatives over the years in Southwestern Pennsylvania, joining KEYS to work closely with diverse populations in Allegheny County. He has a passion for the integration of the arts and technology, as well as issues concerning their accessibility to youth and to the public.

Meredith Scherer is completing her Master’s Degree in Library and Information Science with a Youth Services concentration at Drexel University.  Having worked in public libraries for seven plus years she was drawn to the KEYS AmeriCorps program because it gave her the chance to put into practice what she was learning in her classes while giving back to the community.  Serving at the YMCA Hilltop Computer Center as a KEYS AmeriCorps Member is also a great learning experience since so much of daily life takes place online but not everyone has been taught the skills needed to access computers which many take for granted.

-Andrew and Meredith

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