Teaching Notes: Neil Delson, Central Bucks High School West

Neil Delson is the Director of Bands at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

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Neil Delson is the Director of Bands at Central Bucks High School West in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. In 2013 Neil was a quarterfinalist for the first annual GRAMMY Foundation Music Educator of the Year Award — out of over 30,000 teachers nominated by their students and community members. He is an active trumpet player and drummer, performing in a variety of ensembles in the greater Philadelphia area, as well as an active private teacher.

In the fall of 2014 CB West became the first high school in the world to incorporate a Seaboard into its curriculum. For the launch of the ROLI Education program, Neil and his students developed a series of lessons for beginning Seaboardists. He also collaborated with professional composer and alumnus, Matthew Samson, on a series of etudes written specifically for the Seaboard RISE. We caught up with Neil to hear about how the Seaboard RISE, the Seaboard GRAND, and Equator have influenced his teaching.

What drew you to music education?

My own teachers. I had one teacher in particular who helped me to fall in love with playing music in addition to simply experiencing it: Nancy Dowlin, my high school trumpet teacher. She was an active teacher and performer in Philadelphia. She was always bringing in new and fascinating literature and etudes, and she fed off of my enthusiasm as much as I did hers. I was an entirely average trumpeter during my time with her, but I never felt that way a single time when I was working with her. Somehow, she found a way to guide me to improve my technique and musicality with only positive encouragement. Her patience was remarkable and I don’t think I really appreciated it until I started teaching myself.

What is a typical day like for you?

The school day itself is paced wonderfully. Our high school features a block schedule which means that students have four 90-minute blocks per day rather than the typical eight-period school day. An hour and a half of instructional time means that we can afford to take 20 minutes to listen to a piece of music we aren’t performing just to get additional perspective on the compositional style of a specific composer. Though my course load changes from semester to semester, I am always teaching our three core ensembles: Symphonic Band (Wind Ensemble), Concert Band, and our large Jazz Ensemble.

CB West became the first high school in the world to purchase a ROLI Seaboard GRAND back in 2014. What attracted you to using the Seaboard with your students?

Our school is home to numerous “uncommon” students. I say this not just because they are uncommonly gifted or musically talented — because so many of them are both of those things. More importantly they possess an insatiable curiosity about new experiences. They want to be pioneers. They want to solve puzzles and build things.

As soon as a student shared the Seaboard GRAND overview video with me, my thoughts immediately went to: “We need to get one of these and put on a concert featuring our students.” It was awe-inspiring to watch our students work through the challenges of performing on this brand new instrument that, while somewhat familiar to our pianists, really was something truly unique.

Central Bucks High School West’s choir performs with the Seaboard GRAND:

Where do you see the potential of new technologies in the classroom?

New virtual instruments and new hardware instruments are changing electronic music, and these technological innovations have opened up an entire world for me and my students. Being able to incorporate the Seaboard into both performance-based education like our Jazz Ensemble and in a classroom setting such as our Music Technology course has been a revelatory experience. Students who have a more robust understanding of Equator can start to come up with their own unique patches for performances. Then when we want to use a different synth like Omnisphere, they understand how to apply the modulation skills they learned from working with Equator to other synths. It’s pretty wild that so few of these students had anything more than a cursory understanding of electronic music prior to our initial project with the Seaboard GRAND in 2014.

Can you describe how students reacted the first time they played the Seaboard?

There was the initial intrigue of touching the instrument, followed by the sort of giddy feeling of having a keyboard respond naturally when you push harder on it. Then I think there was some level of frustration for the kids who were used to the confines of the traditional piano, because you had to play this one in tune. It took the new players some time to get used to it. But once they overcame the initial learning curve, they experienced a freedom that was really satisfying to watch.

How exactly have you brought the Seaboard into the Central Bucks High School curriculum?

In performance-based applications, our students often utilize the Seaboard as a second keyboard part in more modern jazz literature. We have also used it to replace piano parts in certain symphonic works.

This past semester our Music Technology curriculum combined our own materials with resources from Berklee College of Music. Our students had the opportunity to go through the entire process of learning the Seaboard: from general playing techniques, to each of the dimensions of touch, to learning about synthesis, and ultimately to performing and composing their own works using the Seaboard. Our final project for the semester required them to compose a brief original work that highlighted two or more of the 5 Dimensions of Touch of the Seaboard.

How have audiences reacted to your students using the Seaboard in concerts?

After the big Seaboard GRAND event in January of 2015, the reception was was incredible. The audiences were blown away by the musical possibilities of the Seaboard and also by the speed with which our featured student performers picked up the nuances of a new instrument. I hear more positive feedback from people who attended that performance — even several years later — than any other in which I have been involved. Nearly every one of our performances since that concert has featured a Seaboard in one way or another.

Central Bucks High School West alumni perform with jazz pianist Cory Henry:

What’s up next for your bands?

We’re gearing up for some local performances. Our Marching Band is joining our choir and heading to Orlando later this month to do a parade performance at Disney World, which should be great fun and a really thrilling performance opportunity for them.

Our Music Technology course included Erin Barra’s lessons and videos about ROLI instruments, and we are currently working on putting together a ROLI “hang” with our students and Erin’s students at Berklee in Boston this fall. I think it would be fantastic for our high school students to see what college-level kids are doing with the Seaboard and vice versa. It’s always a rewarding experience to collaborate with like-minded composers and performers, especially those who are a little older and have some more experience.

Follow Central Bucks West Bands on Twitter.

Teaching tips banner

1) Learn the basics first.

Even trained pianists may struggle with the Seaboard at first, because although the keys are arranged like a traditional piano the touch is remarkably different. Allotting plenty of time for students to develop the ability to articulate and sustain at all dynamic levels is crucial for performers who really want to take advantage of the best features of the Seaboard. Learning the basics thoughtfully also helps new performers improve their aural skills, helping them play with better intonation.

2) Spend time with Equator and virtual instruments.

Like other synthesizers and controllers, the Seaboard needs some kind of virtual instrument to make music. All of the default patches included in Equator are excellent and would cover any performance situation imaginable. I think, however, that part of the fun of electronic music is mixing and matching different samples, oscillators, tone colors, and effects to dial in the exact sound that is in your head.

“Do I know what it will sound like when I map the opening of a filter to the Slide dimension?” “What happens if I increase the volume of that pad when I press harder?” Experiment frequently, and you will gain the experience necessary to help student musicians explore their creativity with the Seaboard.

3) Let students play it. A lot.

The Seaboard does no good locked up in an office all the time. This thing is rugged, and if you want your students to get good at it, let them stay after school and practice or take it home for the night. Everyone likes to play the instrument, but there are going to be a few kids who are determined to get good at it. If they don’t have the means to buy their own at the time, let them use one of the school’s instruments. Also, the NOISE app is free on the App Store, so they can even practice at home without needing a laptop and software.