Hi-tech musicians know few limits Middle schoolers make synthesizers sing

November 13, 1996|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Twelve-year-old Sam Diener knows all about oscillators, waveforms and sequencers. The seventh-grader at Columbia's Wilde Lake Middle School has learned more stuff about the MIDI, a complex keyboard-computer-synthesizer system, than most folks can even imagine.

This is thanks to a small class at the west Columbia school on electronic music, one of a handful of courses in the state that offer electronic music instruction to middle-schoolers.

The class -- an independent study course for 22 gifted and talented students -- guides youngsters through synthesizers' myriad buttons, knobs and sliders so they can make an infinite range of sounds, both musical and other-worldly.

Each student must compose at least one original tune, and at year's end the students intend to present a concert at the school and put together a compact disc of their electronic music.

"You can explore what you want to explore," said Sam, a talkative youngster from Hickory Ridge village whose fingers fly between buttons as he demonstrates the equipment.

"It's not like playing a grand piano where you can only make grand piano sounds. It can be anything you want -- if you don't have the instrument you need, you can make it. The possibilities are endless."

This is precisely what his teacher, John Hunter, had in mind when he conceived and organized the class a year ago.

Hunter was trained in early childhood development and has worked with gifted and talented students for nearly 20 years. An electronic musician himself -- he has a large home studio and released a compact disc of his own music last year -- Hunter said he wanted to create a class that would benefit even students who don't aspire to become professional musicians.

Skills 'they can use forever'

"The thinking process they go [through] as they create their music -- that's the most important part of this," Hunter said. "They are learning how to do research, how to use skills in juxtaposition with creativity. These are lessons they can use forever."

The 22 students enrolled this year use four synthesizers and one MIDI -- short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface -- system to compose their sounds. Although there are no tests and few written assignments, they must learn dozens of electronic music terms, study the leaders in the field and compose two pieces of music by the school year's end.

Beginners learn by fiddling with the more than 20 adjustments on each synthesizer, experimenting with sounds that few acoustic instruments can duplicate: howling wind, fanciful laughter, screeching brakes.

Students must attend their independent study class at least once week -- but most turn up every day because they love the class so much, Hunter said.

Each week, one day is set aside for what Hunter calls deep listening, in which students focus on a particular professional electronic musician's recordings. As they listen, students keep a log of ideas and techniques that they hear in the music, Hunter said.

When students create sounds they want to keep, they pencil in their measurements on diagrams of synthesizer board controls. They must blend at least 30 different sounds for their compositions, which must be at least a minute long each, Hunter said.

For some students, especially the more than half of them without formal music training, the sounds they create often are familiar enough to pique -- and hold -- their interest.

'It's like a relief'

"This is fun, but it's also really hard," said Michelle Algarin, 10, a sixth-grader from Columbia's Town Center who has never taken music lessons but says she can play piano by ear. "You have a certain picture of sounds in your head, but sometimes you can't get them down. It's really frustrating -- but once you find a sound, it's like a relief."

Apart from the class at Wilde Lake Middle, only about a half-dozen similar courses are offered for Maryland middle school students -- at such places as Patapsco Middle School in Ellicott City, Howard County Center for the Arts and Peabody Preparatory Institute in Baltimore.

"These programs are fantastic," said Geoffrey Wright, director of computer music at Peabody. "The sooner these children can be exposed to this music, the more prepared they are when they come to us to study at the graduate level. Children don't have any techno-phobia, so they can take this anywhere."

Electronic music has been around since the late 1960s, but it is only now beginning to become part of mainstream listening. In the past decade, an energetic and dance-driven electronic music called Techno has propelled synthesized music onto popular radio.

Hunter's students love Techno, they say, but they are also learning -- and enjoying -- the slower, more ethereal sounds of electronic forms called ambient and space music.

Jean Marc, 13, an eighth-grader from Hickory Ridge, said his composition probably will be half ambient music and half music to which one could dance.

"This class is great," he said. "There is so much variety in the sounds. I would definitely do this professionally -- if I could."

Pub Date: 11/13/96

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