Many students who are making music at Lawrence School do not sing or play an instrument, and some might not even think of themselves as particularly musical.
Eighth-graders in Andrew Fietek’s Music Technology class, an elective that meets every other day for half the school year, are using digital tools that allow them to compose their own songs and to record and edit their own spoken-word projects. Other students are learning to create the sonic backgrounds for independent video projects.
When Mr. Fietek started teaching at Lawrence in 2008, he brought his professional experience as a recording engineer, sound technician and electronic musician/composer to create a music technology laboratory in the school, building on the initial work of his fellow music teacher, Eileen Cahill.
The lab now has 16 new iMacs with Blue snowball microphones and M-Audio Keystation 61 MIDI keyboards. There is also a music tech station in the school’s band room and one in a practice room.
Funding for these tools came from a grant from the Falmouth Education Foundation; a $10,000 gift from an anonymous donor through the Falmouth Band Parents Association, which has also raised money for the program; and support from the Falmouth Public Schools information technology department.
“I’ve been developing the program slowly over the years, and last year we reached a point where these iMacs couldn’t take any more updates, they were no longer compatible with new keyboards, so I applied for an FEF grant and received a partial grant for six machines,” Mr. Fietek said. “I love teaching music tech. It’s a lot of fun, and it allows me to reach a lot of different types of students. Maybe they don’t sing in choir or play an instrument in band but they’re still musical, or maybe they don’t even know it yet.”
Students range from advanced to average to those with special needs such as Down’s syndrome or autism, and Mr. Fietek said he adapts his curriculum to meet their needs.
On a large digital whiteboard in the music tech lab, Mr. Fietek showed a project from two of his students using the GarageBand app.
GarageBand is a digital audio workstation and music sequencer that can record and play back multiple tracks of audio. Built-in audio filters allow the user to enhance the audio track with various effects, including reverb, echo and distortion.
“The goal of this project was to create a chord progression. The students chose F, G, A minor and C as their chords, and then they built a song around it with a repeated structure. They have an introduction here; here’s the A section; here’s a little break in the middle; here’s the A section again,” Mr. Fietek said, pointing to the stack of sideways-scrolling tracks on the screen that represent different sounds playing out at different audio levels over specific amounts of time.
The minute-long song, played aloud, has a quick, funky beat that features strong keyboard, percussion and bass lines, with added chicken clucks and police sirens as effects.
“GarageBand allows a student who is starting off as a beginner, who may never have played an instrument, to compose a song,” Mr. Fietek said. “In this class they learn how to play chords and a bass line on the piano from scratch. For the rest, GarageBand has loops, which are snippets of music that you can drag into your song and make sort of a musical collage. At that point, composition becomes more like designing a song, with a concept, with repeated structure, maybe with a theme or form.”
Students learn to think of a song they hear on the radio or on YouTube as a collection of instrumental and vocal tracks with a beginning, middle and ending, Mr. Fietek said.
In addition to composing songs, students are using GarageBand to create spoken-word products such as a podcast, audiobook, radio commercial, or news or weather update.
“They’re learning how to prepare the presentation, present it and edit it,” Mr. Fietek said. “This year there are 152 students who will come through this class, and I’ve taught about that number of kids every year for the past 10 years.”
Along with music technology students, Mr. Fietek said he invites concert band and choir students to practice their sight reading or sight singing in the music tech lab.
“Some students are preparing for auditions, and I’ve had a couple of kids who took my class in the fall and worked independently after school in the spring,” he said. “I have some students who have their own SoundCloud feeds and they upload their music. Also, there was a student I had last year, Conrad Johnson, who sings and writes his own original songs. He ended up doing way more than what was required in class. He would film his own music videos with friends and use the music he created here.”
Another recent student designed sounds and beats for his own hip-hop dance performances, Mr. Fietek said.
Once a student finishes a project, he or she mixes it down to an MP3 file that they store in their own Google Drive, which stays with them through their time at Falmouth High School, Mr. Fietek said. This allows students to keep a digital portfolio of their songs, performances and other compositions.
“Sometimes I wish my music tech class was more in the public eye. People see the Lawrence School band when we march in a parade or at Step Up Night or in the concerts, but people don’t usually see what’s going on in here in the music tech lab,” he said. “I would really like to focus on more parent outreach at some point.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Fietek has been keeping a digital archive of all Lawrence School band concerts and performance for students to listen to and analyze later.
“I’ve recorded every performance since I started teaching here, and I’d like to make them available to students and their families,” he said.