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Is Technology Helping To Make Professional Music Composers In the Classroom?

John Zirkle, Director, Musician, and Music Teacher for The Big Sky School District, Montana, discusses his involvement in the Hatch Ostinato Project. Zirkle points to the incredible results displayed in his classroom since his students became involved in the creative collaboration with professional composers. By taking ownership of the process, the students in Zirkle’s class have gained confidence, enthusiasm and drive toward composing, instrumentation and technological production. Among many positive outcomes of the ongoing music project, Zirkle highlights how true agency can be obtained through wonderfully produced creative endeavors.


Dr. Berger: Well, John, I’m interested in this conversation, because we’re talking with other folks that are involved with the HATCH Ostinato Project but you are coming to it from a unique perspective, being an educator. Tell me how you got involved at first and what does it mean to you to move forward with this? I think it’s going to change the way people look at education and the way creative arts and music come together.

John Zirkle: Great. Good question. Two parts. I first got involved with the HATCH Ostinato Project through the HATCH Conference in Big Sky; that’s where I met Philip Sheppard and Russell Spurlock. They came into my music classroom one day, and they did a demonstration about composition, demystifying the process of composition for young kids, which is great in a rural area. Part of the idea of HATCH is not to just go about saying, “Look at the great things I’m doing in the world,” it’s “How can we work together and how can we create 360-degree mentorship?” That’s a tenant of HATCH.

So Russell, Phillip, and I started to talk really quickly. We hatched this idea in about two minutes at the end of the class, and we knew it was good because you know how great ideas can happen very fast and everybody goes, “Yup.” I said, “Well, guys, why don’t we try to set up some type of mentorship with composition and let’s extend this project. Let’s figure out a way to keep you in the classroom to work with the kids, to convince them that they can become composers. Not just the idea of composition is easier, but let’s turn them into composers because, you know, you’ve just preached this great idea that everyone can compose.”

So that’s a dream for me as a music educator especially in a rural area to say, “All right. We’re going to get these kids working with commercial composers, and we’re going to create a big project. The big idea that Russell, Phillip, and I talked about was, the problem at early stages of music and underdeveloped music programs is developing an ensemble or a group of kids that can create a sound that makes them feel proud. It usually happens when we have awkward instrumentation, say, you have this traditional concept of an orchestra, band, or a choir.

In a band, you’re usually looking for 20 to 30 kids. How do you build a band when you only have six kids? And three of them play saxophone, one of them plays trumpet, and they’re abilities are all over the place. Some students have been playing for two years, some of them have just picked up an instrument.

How does a music educator or facilitator allow them to find a sound? A sound that is objectively exciting, objectively good, or in tune is what we would say? Can they understand how to subdivide a beat at the same level so they can feel the same pulse?

It’s really tricky. I’ve been working at our school district for seven years, and I feel like I’m constantly re-inventing the music program to meet the needs of changing administration, to meet the needs of kids coming in and out of the program. Lifting something off the ground is difficult.

In comes the Ostinato Project. We get to work with people outside the classroom, and we get to work on more sophisticated digital platforms. In this social, more 21st Century approach where we don’t necessarily have to have a whole orchestra, full choir or a full band to create a realized sound, in tune and in time.

We can give access to the kids at an earlier age, which then enables them to say, “Wow, that’s a great sound. I made it. I want to go home and practice my instrument.” Creating that in an acoustic environment, a strictly acoustic environment where it’s just us in the room. That’s a problem that doesn’t seem to go away. I’d say I was a little more optimistic my first two years teaching, but building something that is sustainable regarding creating great sounds every day, that’s a major challenge.

DB: It’s so interesting what you’re talking about, John. I’m thinking about the confidence side; that’s not something we hear all the time, but if you apply that to other academic subjects, it makes perfect sense. There are challenges in music education where we’ll sadly marginalize the benefits. We don’t give it it’s just due. I know how important it is, and we just want to make sure that it gets out there, and we see the value in how it connects to other subjects. There is the concept of confidence as something that builds and understanding how confidence in playing an instrument works in conjunction with other students.

How actively is it a part of the discussion in the class? How aware are you that the students’ confidence with an instrument or being a part of an ensemble is going to play a real role in them wanting to participate; no matter the project or initiative? Does confidence play a significant role in their ability to partake in a meaningful manner?

JZ: Why don’t we just frame that into the simple idea of the attack or the downbeat? I think there are easy analogs in a lot of different classes. The simple way would be a kid picking up a pen to do a creative essay in their language arts class or somebody starting an experiment going through the scientific method. It’s having an idea and knowing that you are going to execute in a meaningful way.

The same thing happens when a kid picks up a trumpet and attacks that first note. A conductor can give an inspiring downbeat but if the kid doesn’t have the confidence to say, “The sound that I’m about to make is going to be both correct and inspiring.” Without that type of confidence, it’s going to be very difficult ever to get to a point where the kid is going to feel good, and frankly, anybody is going to feel good about it.

We’re all terribly aware of the quality of a sound, within about three seconds. We all know. We have our ideas of what a middle school music group might sound like; you have the exceptional groups, but we are aware of the median across the board, and especially below the median. It’s difficult to create value for that at all levels, where someone says, “Ah, you know, that doesn’t sound very good, and there aren’t that many kids involved. How am I going to prioritize funding for this when I’m being incentivized to put funding into Math and Reading?” If someone’s put in a hard choice right there where nobody’s buying into the sound, I can see how it would lose in that case.

But confidence, we’re talking about confidence. I’m going to keep coming back to this because it is what Russell, Phillip, and I talk about a lot. It does come down to the quality of the sound and the agency through which the kids have created that sound. If they feel like they are collaborating and their ideas have been honored, and the attack on their instrument is honored, then we have something that works.

We have something meaty that we can use to leverage funds, we can leverage more participation, and most importantly we can leverage more confidence building among the kids. If they feel good about playing that downbeat on their trumpet, they’re going to feel better about starting their creative essay, and they’re going to feel better about attacking some challenging proof in trigonometry. They’re going to feel good about doing some environmental project, or starting an environmental project on “What are the effects of global warming in my community?” All of it.

We are tapping into the creative field that is saying, “We made this from nothing and look how great it is. ” And incidentally, it is great.

DB: What was interesting in speaking with Russell is he talked about the notes that he received from the students, and the quality compared to those from the studio ranks. It can be a little bit different as a professional when you receive notes. Russell was very happy, and it sounded like he was inspired by the notes from the students. What does that say to you?

JZ: Well, it’s inspiring, that’s great. It confirms, again, the idea that music students who have had not enough experience, haven’t gotten their 10,000 hours, their ideas are still just as good when it comes down to the elements of composition. Let’s turn that around, let’s make that louder, and let’s make that shorter. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this there?” Kids are full of those ideas. I mean, it’s crazy.

The big thing that we have to do is package it a little bit, translate and then show them how to take those ideas, and realize them through the language of music. Specifically, through the language of contemporary, shared digital music.

When I think about that, I think there’s got to be something with time, with everybody in the room. Relaxed time. What’s great about a school is that we have all of these intelligent, creative young kids in a room for 50 minutes. The only thing that they have to do, the only thing that I hope they’re thinking about aside from whatever social things are going on in their life is “What do we think about this music? Is it good?”

We invented all these terms like, “What is the fork?” That was this idea we came up with in class. “At what point do you get bored?” Which was fun to say, after the shock wears off, where the students were saying, “Oh my god, like, listen to this track. Like I just played the stinky thing on the piano, and then “Oh my god, it’s like I’m watching a movie unfold.”

Then we say, “All right, now, that’s good. But consider yourself a professional music producer, which you are right now, and ask yourself, how could it be better?” We just framed it in a lot of different ways for them to think about it, and that’s how we deconstruct. It’s how we built all the plans, and that’s where the meat of all of this comes in because the kid is looking at something that initially sounds perfect to them. It really does.

We’re saying, “Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe you can change this, you can affect it, and then all of a sudden, the students react, “Wow. Like, wouldn’t it be cool if we had this crazy instrument come in?”

DB: There’s the agency, right? John Zirkle quote

JZ: Yes. That’s a smart thing. There are producers that do that exact same thing that make tons of money. They are doing what you’re doing right now. And there’s not that big of a difference because you’re saying, “You know what, I’m not as inspired as I could be at this moment, let’s change that, and let’s make it better.” I just help, as the facilitator, I would frame things and guide it a little bit, but for the most part, it came from the kids.

DB: John, if you were to deconstruct your path as a musician and educator back to when you were a schoolboy, what was it that built your confidence early on? When people look back at your background, you’re in a classroom, but you’re also very involved in the community, supporting organizations and trying to move that proverbial ball down the field. Where did that confidence come from?

JZ: It came from being in performance ensembles in middle school and high school, but more so in high school. I sang in all the choirs, and I went to the competitive festivals. I always barely made the cut. I was usually more interested in getting to know everybody, and I wanted to be there. It wasn’t my goal to become a professional opera singer; I just liked being in the choir.

I started to get introduced to music outside of the classroom; that stirred something; there was something new that felt like, “Wow, you know, this is new. I am having seriously strong emotional responses to this music right now. And I want to know why that happens, and I want to get more involved.” A lot of it came singing with vocal groups. I did that more in college, sang with a professional choir, and gained access to contemporary music through working with mentors and singing with other people who were a lot better. I think finding your place in the chord and suddenly realizing that there is more to life than just your own success story. I think that’s very evident from me personally.

It continues to be a very healthy reminder that beauty exists in the group, and my path has wandered from Colorado to Eastern Europe, to New York, to Montana, but it’s all rooted. It’s all rooted in that idea that you are a part of a group making great sounds and doing something that feels meaningful. I think it rises above everything else at that moment.

I don’t know. It’s probably like being on a great roller coaster there aren’t very many of those moments, right? But being a part of a great sound is something that I want others to be able to experience. It’s kind of what drives my entire work ethos, enabling people to feel like they’re a part of something beautiful.

It just so happens that I believe the best way to enable young people is through composition, original creative projects, and productions. And people of all ages should experience that.

DB: It’s building the community, but now you’re looking at technologies that allow you to do that. Let’s fast forward to the future of The HATCH Ostinato Project. How do you look at building community and sharing these practices with students and composers around the world? What technologies will help you do that? How do you foresee things moving and what’s exciting about that for you?

JZ: The most exciting thing about The HATCH Ostinato Project for me is, a normal mentorship between kids who would otherwise not have access to a commercial industry and professionals in the industry. Having a normal conversation saying, “Hey, you know, what about this? What about that? Let’s do that.”

What I’m interested in is having consistent mentorship. We hear about all these programs where somebody will come in and do an assembly for a school, and it’s of course, fantastic. But the big thing is what do we do next? How do we continue this relationship?

Skype and Facebook and all of these great social tools are wonderful, but one of the big issues was we were only getting together once every week, but there was all this translation going on between the educator, the composer, and the kids. How can we get them more involved?

That’s when our tech guy at the school discovered Soundtrap. He was like, “Check this thing out. It’s pretty cool.” And I said, “Oh my god, it’s exactly what we’re looking for.” What I imagined is one of our kids who has a lot of ideas, but isn’t sure how to realize them, sitting in an online social platform with a composer/facilitator helping this wonderfully creative young person formulate those ideas into actual sound blocks and enabling them to gain more agency. It’s like the ultimate scaffold that we talk about in education. But now we have it in a live format.

It’s amazing because it works great. We can’t fly in composers out to Montana every week; it’s just not sustainable. But this is a real way to get a proximal learning environment where you have an expert who isn’t necessarily an educator by trade, which makes it cool and exciting, sitting next to a student saying, “What do you think about this? It’s as good as the individual piano lesson where a piano teacher is sitting next to a kid on the bench helping curve their wrist a little bit.

Compositionally, it’s an idea driven medium that’s great. Soundtrap is going to enable us. I think there are still a few things that we’re going to be working out in the coming years, it’s of course, always figuring out scheduling and making sure the kids are prepared. We never want to waste anybody’s time. As any educator knows working with children requires a lot of patience because it takes a lot of time for them to get to a point where they are on the same page talking with the same vocabulary, working with the same type of trained intuition.

In terms of keeping the Ostinato Project moving forward and bringing wonderful composers into the classroom, Soundtrap is the best solution for getting the student’s hands dirty working with music, working in the studio because ProTools is a little bit complicated.

Logic can work great if we can give these kids a couple of years of training. Kids can learn Soundtrap fast. It’s amazing how intuitive it is.

DB: They can jump right in.

JZ: Yes, and sophisticated, it’s got everything in there that you need to create great music.

DB: John, let’s close with this. If we are sitting down three years from now and looking back at the success of the ongoing Ostinato Project, what do you think the moral of the story will be with regards to the integration of industry and education and technology? If you step outside of it, this model that you’re creating, collectively, integrates different parts and pieces that traditionally were a struggle in education to bring together. You not only pass the information along but create new information, new experiences through collaboration.

What do you think the moral of the story will be when we’re looking back in the midst of all the things that will be produced? How might it change the way students think about their educational experience? It’s not just isolated to the four walls of a classroom, my goodness; it’s the entire world that’s working together, teachers, technologies and industry.

JZ: All right, I’ll try to package it this way that because it’s a big question.

DB: Well, you’re in Big Sky; I’ve got to ask a big question, right? (laugh)

JZ: I like it. (laugh) Here is my moral for this. The question is, why wait? Why does a kid have to wait to go to a big conservatory before they can start writing music? Why do they have to be a prodigy to write something good? Why do they have to be some anomaly to have real agency over some beautiful, creative project?

I think that translates to a lot of different creative industries. It has been a big caveat. It’s not to say that the craft of composition does not require a lot of studying, a lot of time, and a lot of experience. I think it’s true for a lot of creative projects and a lot of things that I do outside of music education. I think people can have access to amazing, beautiful, interesting music much earlier than they might have gotten access to before. That’s why I come back to this idea of why wait? Why can’t a rural sixth grader with no musical experience create something great? They can, but they might not be able to do it by themselves. Where we are at today, in the 21st Century or three years from now, we can create a collaborative project where everybody contributes.

It’s a strange concept; it is not the traditional hierarchical way of thinking where, “You get the experiences, go to this school, study with this teacher and then maybe you might be able to create something that is inspiring.”

Sure, you’ll have something that’s very well crafted because you have thousands of hours, but this is a new type of idea. People like to see cross-generational and cross-multidisciplinary approaches to creative projects. I see it all over the granting field, in the presenting field, and the non-profit art sector. It’s a very interesting question, “How are we creating cross-generational projects?”

It is right at the core of it, the HATCH Ostinato Project. So that’s my moral. Why wait?

DB: I love it. The “why wait?” It’s true. We see it in so many different areas of young people’s experiences, whether it’s the athletic field, or other opportunities the whole “why wait” idea. I think it’s a fantastic way to think about it and to let all of our imagination run wild.

I know when we were young, we probably were thinking the same thing. It’s fantastic to get to you know you. We look forward to paying attention, watching and hopefully revisiting this conversation in three years. We will do it live in Big Sky because I’ve heard amazing things.

JZ: I love it. Thank you, Rod. I really appreciate it.

DB: Thanks, John.



Since 2010, John has been an active force in the Big Sky arts scene, directing and producing over 40 theatrical and music performances with multiple organizations, several of which he has helped found from the ground up, and he is currently the K-12 music teacher at the Big Sky School District.

On top of his work as an educator, he is also the founding Artistic Director of the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center, and he has been a key figure in the development of one of Montana’s most innovative new arts institutions. He has helped raise nearly $3 million dollars for the arts in Big Sky through various initiatives including, among many, a world-class winter series and a summer arts conservatory.



This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit

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