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Teaching Notes: Paul Lehrman of Tufts University brings the RISE into the classroom

Director of the Music Engineering program at Tufts University in Medford.

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Paul Lehrman (Credit: Evan Kafka for Wired Magazine)

Paul Lehrman is the director of the Music Engineering program at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. A pioneer in the field of computer music, Paul D. Lehrman is a composer, author, and teacher. His compositions range from lyrical to experimental, from jazz to rock. He recorded the first all-MIDI album — “The Celtic Macintosh” — in 1986. Since then he has scored films for PBS and other outlets, computerized the pianola parts of George Antheil’s “Ballet Mecanique,” and written many music technology books like “MIDI for the Professional” that have become college syllabus staples. At Tufts he directs the Electronic Music Ensemble and teaches courses such as Music Recording & Production, the History of Electronic Music and Electronic Musical Instrument Design. We caught up with him about how he is bringing the Seaboard RISE into the classroom at Tufts.

Was there a particular experience that catalyzed your desire to teach music?

I've been teaching music for a very long time. Right after high school I started working at summer arts camps, and my job was to form the campers into bands—rock, folk, and jazz—and teach them songs they wanted to learn. I did a lot of theatrical music directing in college.

When the computer music revolution started in the early 1980s, I began writing a lot of user manuals and doing product demos and clinics. In 1987, I was given an opportunity to teach a college class in computer music, and it seemed a logical extension of what I had already been doing. Gradually over the next couple of decades, teaching became the focus of my professional life.

The Music Engineering program that you run at Tufts is truly multidisciplinary. It lies between the liberal arts and engineering colleges. How do you balance art and science in what this program offers?

My students usually work on projects in teams, and I put those teams together carefully so that each group is strong musically and technically. Some students are accomplished musicians, and some are engineers working at advanced levels in electronics, fabrication, or computer programming. All the students have to have some musical background, whether it's childhood piano lessons or playing in bands. They need to have some knowledge of science as well — if nothing more than high school physics.

Each student not only brings different skills to the group but also different goals for their projects. They might want their final project to look cool, work in a clever way, or produce sounds that have musical value. So it's the work itself that creates that balance.

What problems are your students looking to solve as they create new musical instruments in your Electronic Musical Instrument Design course?

Put simply, the main problem is how to use a specific group of physical gestures — using the hands, feet, head, mouth— to create musical sounds (notes, chords, phrases) in an interesting way. New instruments should also be fun to play and inspire new approaches to performance, although that's not always something you can design into a project.

There are several other problems to solve when creating new musical instruments such as:

  1. How to use electronic sensors to follow a performer’s physical gestures.

  2. How to massage the data collected by the sensors, through hardware and software, to make it usable.

  3. How to process this data so that it can be used to control musical parameters, usually via MIDI commands.

What does the Seaboard allow you to do that you couldn’t do before on a piano keyboard or MIDI keyboards?

I can play melodies with much more expression by taking advantage of the five dimensions of touch. Chordal playing can also be much more interesting, since changes don't have to be chromatic and I can change volume, vibrato, and timbre on individual notes. So the Seaboard allows me to develop a bunch of new playing styles, which I'm still working on — and probably will be for a while!

How do you explain the Seaboard to your students in the classroom?

I discuss the Seaboard as an extension of a standard keyboard with pitch control similar to a violin or pedal steel guitar and timbral control similar to a Kaoss Pad on each key. I compare it to the Linnstrument, which we also have available for the students to examine, and the Haaken Continuum. And I discuss the Ondes Martenot, because the Seaboard is in some ways a modern polyphonic version of that instrument. The students who get to play Seaboards in performances get inspired to try new ways of playing melodies, pads, and bass lines. If they didn't, I'd have them play an ordinary keyboard!

Watch Tufts University Electronic Music Ensemble perform in ensemble with a Seaboard RISE 49 below:

What types of music have you chosen to use the Seaboard for in your ensembles, and why?

We’ve used it in music from Ravel to Snarky Puppy. We really take advantage of its versatility, playing it in classical, jazz, rock, and experimental music. We can always find a role for it whatever the genre.

You’re one of the earliest practitioners of MIDI music technology. What do you see on the horizon for music tech?

As sensor, microprocessor, and fabrication technologies become smaller and cheaper, I expect to see even more “alternative” musical controllers and self-contained instruments coming out, either as one-off experiments or commercial products. We will see instruments that respond to a wider range of physical gestures and instruments that have more intelligence built into them for sound and music generation. The field has become so open in the past few years that I don't think it's possible to predict anything specific — only that it will continue to expand in unpredictable ways!

Visit Paul Lehrman’s website here and explore the Music Engineering courses at Tufts here.

Teaching tips banner

1) Start by having students play single-note melodies, incorporating the various dimensions of touch.

2) Explore chordal playing on the Seaboard, experimenting with finger independence in the various dimensions.

3) Analyze Equator patches and show how they can be modified — first in the control area by setting ranges of dimensional control, and then in the oscillator section by changing the basic sound material.