Baby stepping project- Sampling on Ableton

This educational series is intended for high school students with developing aural skills to sample music and lay a drum line on top using Ableton live and the push. It will be a first step into the world of electronic music production, with a spin towards mash-ups and groove making.

Learning while teaching

Teachers teach as they are taught (Blume 1971.) Teachers are active learners who construct their own understandings (Putnam & Borko 1991.) At any given time there is a need to be learning what is being taught while at the same time questioning, examining and learning about the nature of teaching (Hoban 1997.)

I think part of being a musician is to train the brain to make connections and see patterns- maybe it has to do with us constantly having to create meaning in expressive and artistic decisions. I love it when I can connect two seemingly distant disciplines like bodybuilding and classical piano to argue that things like self discipline, and self control, body and muscular awareness cross over into the other, and has the potential to complement each other. I’ve heard anecdotal sayings that the game of poker is analogous to many real life interpersonal decisions, and it would seem so as Kenny Rogers sings, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, Know when to fold ’em.” This is why I love theology- the queen of sciences, which for me is a confluence of history, philology, philosophy, psychology and epistemology. Stephen Hawking spent his life looking for the unified theory and Daniel Barenboim (2008) writes an autobiography titled, “Everything is Connected – the Power of Music” in which he argues that “Music teaches us, in short, that everything is connected.” It gives me a joyful satisfaction to know that the cosmos is in a state of harmony – a hopeful sentiment among all this chaos surrounding us.

My project is to teach students how to compose using technology. To sample music or audio clips and warp, set to a beat, arrange and structure it into a musical composition. The baby stepping and video producing techniques that I learned in my UoS will come in handy and I have done two test runs of my own compositions which I will use as a model. This is my second model based on two wonderful videos – Herbie Hancock recounting his experience recording with Miles Davis who taught the former that ‘mistakes’ are a paradigmatic concept – that Miles didn’t see Herbie’s mistake as a ‘mistake’ but an even that he felt responsible to respond to musically, and as Herbie says, was like turning “poison into medicine, take whatever situation you have and make something constructive happen.”

The second video is about sampling and how Jazz is the father of Hip Hop.

Tech Project – Baby stepping producing

The word always baffled me: Producer I was always assumed directors directed cinema and composers composed pieces of music – nevertheless, producing music is so FUN! Having been a very low tech classical pianist before starting my Masters at the Con, and very fortunate to meet technological whizzes like James Humberstone and Brad Fuller, I have lost myself hours on end in the world of electronic music production. Playing with sounds, setting up drum patterns, combining and permuting musical ideas is an endlessly fun activity that I am certain teenage students will love, and my tech project will serve a dual purpose: to get me skilled up as well as to teach students how to do so, as seasoned music teachers have told me, “You just need to be one lesson ahead of the students.” What I should emphasise and remember is the feeling of excitement of the process which is the essence that I would like my future students to experience rather than the mechanics of the job.

This is the wonderfully endearing video that I sampled into a track.

And my unfinished track titled -“who made the train”

Rubik’s Cube and Ableton

A couple of years ago I wanted to learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube without help. It took me about 40 hours. 5 days, 8 hours a day and my fingers were raw because it was trial and error, process of elimination and memorising how faces moved when I input an algorithm. It was a painful, tedious, and often frustrating endeavour akin to torture but I got that thrilling sensation once I got it.

Today I fiddled around with Ableton trying to do some sampling. I’m going to detail my process because I think my attitude throughout was significant. I tried giving Poulenc’s Melancolie a beat, and given Ableton Live’s complexity I was pushing buttons for most of the time trying to figure out what did what – trial and error. When I finally found out how to turn off and on one output (big number button) and crop and split audio clips, I layered the drum beat on top of the clip. Obviously the legato of the pianist wouldn’t conform to the drum beat even with Ableton’s automated warp function (plus my selection had an upbeat.) This is the important bit – when I first heard the combination, I thought it sounded cliche, pretentious, unoriginal, blasphemous, embarrassed and incompetent that I wanted to just stop and go on instagram or something.

I started to question, is this worth the grind? Can’t I use my time to do better and more productive things – over prioritisation. No, I’ve come to realise that all that we do creates a net gain in one way or another – this was just me trying to avoid pain using excuses and self-compromise; it was the same attitude that I would tend to when I was fatigued and frustrated solving that Rubik’s cube.

I discovered that double clicking created an orange warp box with which I could manipulate where the beats fell. It took me a while to interpret Poulenc in waveform and aligning spikes, listening, then re-adjusting them was very tedious but in the end, I got that thrill when upon hearing it, it didn’t sound too bad.

It’s a running joke with my gym buddy,

“Why are we doing this when it’s so hard and unpleasant?”

“Because it’s good for us.”

“Why do things that are good tend to be difficult or unpleasant?”

In the words of Dr. Kelso from Scrubs, “Nothing in this world that’s worth having comes easy.”

Why do people do what they do and why are things that seem so easy for them so hard for me?

One of my perennial question stems from an observation. How can my friends stay in the practice room for so long, stay focused, get through so much repetoire when I’m crawling through my routine, constantly get distracted, and the procrastinisation monkey becomes captain of my brain? My quest for the answer to this question has taken me on an epic philosophical journey. It’s not over by any means, and I think I will never arrive at a statisfying conclusion. It’s one of those cases where the journey is its own end.

Will and motivation is such an interesting area of study, and part of my solution has to do with puzzels and games. Almost everyone is drawn, captivated and transfixed by games and puzzels that are in one way, laborious to be honest. Sudoku expends brain power like an accountant pouring and cross-matching numbers yet one is voluntary. Mark Twain I believe said that once you pay a man to ride his horse, he will stop enjoying the task.

Another aspect is prioritisation and procrastination. One way I tend to procrastinate is to over-prioritise my activities as to delay me from actually accomplishing anything. I’ve found out that once you just do, things roll along and you forget why you didn’t want to do the thing in the first place. Just like going to the gym, you give yourself excuses but once you’re there, you start to enjoy it.

Plus sometimes, we tend to work well under pressure and deadline. I was just watching Adam Neeley compose an entire album in 24 hours and the challenge alone is what seems to drive the massive amounts of productivity. I’ve experienced this – when I’m given an hour to compose somthing, it stops you from thinking too hard on peripheral things like will it make me look silly or bad and forces you to push ahead.

Applying this, I want my teaching to be fun like playing a game, do some clever mental manipulation to overcome the initial barrier of the doing, and shed and streamline any mental blocks by forcing productivity. All these will be dependent on sensitive push and pull as to not overly tax students but rather find that sweet spot where they are engaged just the right amount.

To finish this stream of conscious, here’s my 1 hour composition on ableton

Improvisation, indeterminacy, inhibition.

Our discussions about teaching music has led me to think a lot about creating safe learning and teaching environments, catering for both musically trained and untrained students, promoting self expression and creativity. Having been kind of obsessed with Malcom Gladwell since late last year, I came across an episode in his podcast about public speaking by Tim Harford who looked at MLJ and a jewellry franchise owner Gerald Ratner and their approaches to extemporaneous public speaking. In the talk Harford uses a preliminary reasearch study done by Charles Limb, MD who scanned, using fMRI, the brains of musicians as they improvised jazz. The podcast then argues that based on this study, the improvising brain is associated with the switching off of self-awareness, the filter that checks oneself, or the autobiographical conscience that often inhibits risk or free self-expression. Keith Jarret spoke of Miles Davis’ influence and how the latter taught him to “just be to be aware” the very teacher who described improvisation as “the freedom and space to hear things.” As a classical pianist with no jazz training and certainly terrified of improvisation I felt that students also may feel out of depth when asked to perform, compose or improvise. As I grappled with this I thought of hip-hop, and how words are at least part of students’ pre-exisiting competencies and word improvisation, or freestyle rap may be a bridge to allow that self detatchment in order to hear and not worry about the doing. I modeled my starter activity around this hoping that it facilitates a safe learning environment where a student feels comfortable expressing oneself and takes creative risks.

Rant – on learning

I don’t think I am a good musician. I’m not making a show of being humble at all but if it comes down to performance and technical prowess and showmanship, there are others. I genuinely love music and performing and making music but I do feel inadequate and out of practice – maybe I am those who cannot, therefore, teach. But when I do look at myself and the reason why I play the piano and continue to do so for so long is that what’s fascinating for me is the brain’s process of learning something that’s challenging- like solving a puzzle. It’s Bach’s prelude and fugues. Have you heard of book 1 c sharp minor; that 5-voiced fugue and how Bach just plays around with the four note subject with TWO countersubjects is just crazy the genius of it made me laugh hysterically like a madman, or Mahler and Poulenc’s out-of-the world harmony thats just so beautiful that I don’t think how a human brain can come up with a thing like that. What makes me tick is seeing myself go from being unable to do something to being able to do that thing, or understanding how things work. That was why I learned how to ride a motorcycle last year (don’t tell my pastor), am in the process of learning the saxophone, and teaching myself latin and greek. I like that sensation of my brain and body being in the unknown, a foreign terrain, and the stress of groping in the dark, it feels like I am trying to make something out of nothing (or in other words, trying to shit bricks) and the gradual process of saying to myself, “hey, today’s not as hard as yesterday was.”

Bach wrote “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well.” he must be kidding because I don’t think anyone will be as good regardless of industriousness… but does credibility not follow wisdom and stature of the likes of Bach? In that sense, I think Bach was on to something. I think I want to teach kids that if they take baby steps for a long time, be curious and daring, and take advantage of the many resourses that Bach never had, we may veer close to what Bach was getting at.

That brings me to ableton. I bought myself a second hand ableton during the weekend and just plugged it in to get that wonderful and familiar feeling of, “I have no idea of what I am doing,” I want to chronicle my process of learning how to make music on this platform. During discussion today, Cait was doing a similar research project of what it would look like if kids picked up music through ableton. And in justification to my bad and immature music making, here is Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band


The weeks seem to fly by as it feels so soon since I last wrote my blog post. Week 3 learning has revolved around cultural interpersonal relationships as we have many assignments coming up for inclusive and special education as well as education in Aboriginal peoples’ context, both areas that I am very interested in, because I want to eventually teach at a rural community. Once again looking at statistics for music education in NSW and Australia, it struck me that people love making and experiencing music but must have some hindering barriers or assumptions to music learning because the numbers tell us that a mere 7% of students in HSC elect to take music. I genuinely felt that technology is going to be the decisive factor in the future of music education, it just makes sense because as good as classical western music educational traditions are, they are very antiquated (I grew up learning how to play the piano from Czerny and Hanon, white dudes from the 18th century), modern kids who grew up living and breathing the internet and haven’t experienced a time without it would take to computer based music making like fish to water! Aided by the countless tutorial videos on Youtube the students would intuitively learn how to self-guide and resource their own learning. Wasn’t that the goal of teaching? So, I took the plunge to buy a second hand Ableton Push and software and get to work and James’ anecdote about his Friday night cheesy hit mix sounded like the best place to start.

Music Education

Today marks the end to my second week of masters, wow! The energetic vibes and demands of university plus meeting new people has been both exhilarating and exhausting. Uni’s such a cauldron of diverse people that I would never meet otherwise, since over time I had gradually isolated myself to work, friends and family – the change is refreshing.

The coursework is just what I imagined and wanted, learning about cool new progressive philosophies in education and learning about diverse and inclusive teaching. So many ideas have been flying through my mind these past few weeks that I felt that putting them down as blogs would be a great idea to keep track of my reflections.

I got to play around with MPCs (music production centers) and beat makers in class for the first time. James’ anecdote about a rural school where the boys would obsess over making beats in music class as to take them away from other studies impressed me, and his suggestion that we all get really competent at one MPC and one music notation software hit home (being a classical pianist I knew that I was weak in those areas), and for the past few days, I’ve been watching tons of videos on Youtube of producers making music on the fly. Although I must say that beats can get pretty formulaic after a while, and I see a lack of those really beautiful and crunchy chord progressions that I love in Poulenc or Frank; I wonder if I can incorporate those in?