Thursday, August 06, 2015

NYU IMPACT Conference 2015 - Summary and Reflection

What is IMPACT?

 The annual Interactive Multimedia Performing Arts Collaborative Technology (IMPACT) Conference held at New York University just wrapped up it's second year and I was very fortunate to have been both a participant and presenter. This conference is the brainchild of Dr. Alex Ruthmann, an alumni of the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), and the creator and current director of the MusicEDLab at NYU. If I had to sum up this conference in one sentence I would say it is a gathering of very diverse (yet like-minded) individuals that want to learn about, share, discuss and understand the current state of music making as it relates to education, technology and creativity. 

Overall Summary

  The underlying current that seemed to permeate the entire experience was empowering students to create in a meaningful and profound way. This idea comes in many forms...composition, improvisation, production, recording, notating, engineering, making, hacking and so on...and it is not just an idea to be applied to music alone. As the conference went on, it was clear to me that this was not just about providing students with the tools and opportunities to be creative in music. Strong arguments, coupled with actual real-life examples served to highlight a very important students learn to embrace the many facets of their own creative process, they become self aware and empowered. Fear of the unknown is replaced with a desire to identify problems and solve them.  This mindset goes well beyond music making and can transform the way individuals interact with the world, empowering them to find ways to make the world a better place.  I am beyond inspired.

Highlights - Welcome Reception

  At the welcome event on Wednesday evening the first person I talked to was Frederik Posse from, he was there with one of Soundtrap's developers Ashkan Fardost. They were both very passionate about the idea of simplifying the creative process of music making for beginning music makers. After trying it out and creating a tune in less than 2 minutes, I can tell you they have done a really fabulous job. Huge loop libraries, the ability to collaborate and share projects, and even in-app video chatting. I came away very impressed. What was just as impressive was the way they listened to feedback from participants and even made changes to the software in real time. 
  The next highlight was touring "the house that Alex built". Dr. Alex Ruthmann has created an incredible niche within the NYU Steinhardt Music School called the MusicEDlab, (ED= 'Experience Design'). The work of the students and faculty in this school is really what IMPACT is all about...innovating new experiences with music production, education, and understanding. What was even more apparent to me however was the collaborative aspect. Just meeting the conference attendees, it was apparent that what was happening at IMPACT affected many facets of the creative world, not just music.  On just the first night I met a business man, visual artist, record producer, multiple college professors, software developers and students. Actually, because of the nature of the work, it became difficult to tell which projects belonged to the professors and which came from the students.  

Highlights - Day 1

  The first day of sessions kicked of with a keynote address by Dr. Kate Stone from Her work with paper MIDI was very interesting. They have found a way to print conductive ink to create paper that can generate sounds with just a touch.  The highlight was the virtual DJ scratch turntable!

  Of coarse a personal highlight of mine was having the privilege to present my work at Go Like The Wind School. My session was titled Curating a Creative Culture. I focused on my philosophy regarding creating music as well as an overview of 10 years of projects created by GLTW students. I always have a blast presenting on the creative projects by my students and to do it in front of such a like-minded and creative group was a real honor. Not to mention the facilities were state of the art! 

  As soon as my session was over, (whew), I dove in to as many presentations as I could. The first was by Adam Bell and it was a hands-on demo of a game he called FX Roulette, which was a very creative way of teaching people how to use and explore Effects Plugins, which are basically programs that add sound and character to existing audio, such as delay, echo and reverb.  What I thought was particularly cool about this presentation was the Roulette Wheel he created to choose the FX and how easily all the participants could get in on the game using our own computers with Soundtrap. We were all up and running in less than 10 minutes with all the effects built in to the program.  The time flew by.
 After lunch was a group discussion with nearly every presenter and participant sitting in a big circle and discussing a wide array of topics including the use of popular music in the classroom, assessment of creative projects, and what place technology has in teaching music.  The camaraderie and conversations surrounding these discussions was perhaps the most stimulating part of this conference. Before the discussion I struck up a conversation with Matt McLean, the director of the Young Composers and Improvisers Workshop. He shared his incredible work with getting young students to compose using and then having their compositions played by professional musicians. The best part is that he has figured out how to make his program function as an amazing free resource for New York Public Schools. His enthusiasm for creating music with students is infectious!

  That evening we were all treated to discounted tickets to see a mind-blowing off-broadway performance called Fuerza Bruta. Without giving it away....all I can say is that it is a wonderful assault on the senses. There was no sitting, everyone was standing much like a rock concert, except the stage was the entire building from wall to wall and floor to ceiling, they used the entire space to create beautiful and artistic performance art complete with intense club-style music and very intricate lighting. I highly recommend it!

Highlights - Day 2

  The keynote speaker for day 2 was Stephania Druga, the founder of HaKIDemia, a global foundation with a mission to enable creative making for a social impact. For me, her keynote made clear the significance and power of creative thinking as a globally understood concept.  In all of her world travels, with all the language and cultural barriers, she and her team have been able to get students from everywhere thinking creatively and very effectively about real solutions to real problems that affect their communities. It was also great to see how much of her work involved music and sound. It really hit home that music really is a universal medium for communication.
  From there I was lucky to find myself in a session with Ethan Hein, a very passionate and enthusiastic music educator and musician who helped create the MusEDlab.  His session was a hands-on demonstration of a classroom activity that involved students creating music using any common medium, (in our case we used Garage Band). Once we got our pieces started, we had to switch computers and work on our neighbors music, developing it in any way we like.  We kept rotating until we made it back to own computer to see the result.  I must say, although I consider myself an expert on Garage Band, this lesson really helped me develop my computer skills and think fast.  It was all about making quick decisions in a small amount of time and executing them efficiently.  
  My favorite part of the session was how Ethan kept asking what we all thought could be done to make this better. It is that constant give and take of ideas that characterizes this conference. The result is that everyone in the room is treated like we are all on an equal pedestal. We come together for however long we have to put our heads together to make something better than it was before. Simple, effective and a great example for how we should be teaching.
  We gathered again in the afternoon for a group discussion and with everyone having been fully immersed in the IMPACT experience, the conversation became even more broad in scope. One participant posed the simple question "Why are we teaching music?". The responses led us down some very interesting paths. Barbra Friedman gave some great resources on the topic including a reference to the Evan Tobias article Hybrid Spaces and Hyphenated Musicians, as well as the work being done on  Other educators in the room put it out there that musicians just want their music to be heard, implying the importance of students having the ability to create music that is there own.  From there we went into the many facets of creating, producing and crafting music. Jesus Florido shed light on the current struggles that the Grammy folks are having in defining the category of electronic music. The multiple perspectives and point-of-view's in the room was impressive, informative and very encouraging to a teacher that loves to create music with their students!

  The rest of the afternoon I spent sewing.  Yes I really mean sewing with a needle and thread, only this thread was conductive and the sewing was akin to laying out a circuit board on fabric. The session was with Ryan Beldsoe and it involved making fabrics that could do cool stuff like make lights light up and make music play.  It was fascinating, fun and added yet another avenue in the world of music creation that I can use to engage students, collaborate with artists and explore new creative possibilities.

  That evening it was time to get social!  The IMPACT crew set up food, drinks, music and to top it off...a multimedia jam session in the Black Box theater at NYU lead by John Crawford, associate professor of Dance and Media Arts at UC-Irvine.  We ate, drank and then wandered into the theater to play music and dance. There was a camera set up that processed the images it took and projected them on a screen in many artistic and interesting ways. People really got into it. It was a fun creative break from all the talk.

Highlights - Day 3

  Day 3 opened up with a keynote address by Adam Goldberg. He presented on his use of the iPad as a performance instrument. He showcased his use of iPads with his special needs students and the results were very beautiful. I have had students use iPads for performance when they have injured themselves and it has worked great as a substitute for their regular instruement. Adam has taken it to a whole other level. The video's he showed really say it best:
  Perhaps the sweetest experience of the conference came in the first session of the last day. It was with the husband and wife team of Francesco Banchini and Maria Elena Berardi. He is a musician and she is an historian from Italy that teach in Kenya, Africa.  What they found when they showed up for work on the first day was absolutely no modern technology to use and create with. All they had was a loop pedal that Francesco had brought with him.  Their situation got them thinking about the use of technology for teaching music and how to create "musical thinkers" with whatever was materials were hand and available.  
  During the session they walked us through a unit of study that examined pre-historic, medieval, and modern time periods and got us thinking about how music and movement were approached in these times. We then split up in to the three respective groups and created a piece of music in 10 minutes together.  I was in the pre-historic group and all we got were wooden sticks. As the music making among the three groups started, the room we were in became much too loud to work in, so we stepped off into the room next door, which happened to be a multi-million dollar audio studio control room. There we were...considering the most primal forms of communication in one of the most modern rooms on the planet.  We came up with a composition and performed it in front of the group 10 minutes later.  I felt bonded to my group, and also more in touch with the creative spirit, regardless of the tools available. Spirit nourished!

  The next session was all about Hip Hop music, turntable mixing, live sampling and the new age of mixing using software and digital audio files.  Dr. Thomas Malone took us through the history of Hip Hop and really did a great job of framing it as a very established art form worthy of a well rounded music education. He also demonstrated how this can be taught hands-on using modern technology to have students do beat mixing using a USB turntable.  It was SO much fun and I always love to see someone so passionate about their work.  I had my turntable on order before leaving the session!

  Last but not least, the conference ended where it began, hanging out with the guys from  This time they were presenting the full features of their software by creating a song that started with some loops, then they contacted some musicians in Sweden to add some tracks live as we watched. It was pretty impressive how, in a matter of about 15 minutes, the song had two new tracks from each of these musicians on it.  Effects were added and the song was near complete.  They spent much of the time as they had the entire weekend, asking for suggestions and taking notes.  It will be fun to watch this software develop and get better over time.

 Final Thoughts

  It has been just a few days since I got back and I am already working on implementing much of what I learned at this conference into my lesson planning for next year.  The most significant take-a-way is the idea that learning to create is a process common to all human beings.  At it's best, being creative is a process of identifying both the problem and the audience for the problem and then work with that audience to find a solution. Creativity can be applied to every aspect of every life. Working within the medium of music allows us a unique opportunity to hone our creative process to find the solutions that resonate within us as individuals and reflect ourselves.  Creating new music provides profound insight into our values, our culture and our community.