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High-fidelity learning: Music production class a big hit

Northview — At first glance, the students who sat quietly in front of  monitors in a classroom along the music wing at Northview High School might have appeared to be part of a computer science class.

But instead of keyboards labeled with the alphabet, each worked at a keyboard that transmitted various instrument sounds to the monitors in front of them. 

Tracks were laid and layered: piano, horns, strings, guitars, percussion.

Heads bobbed. Toes tapped. Proud smiles were shared.

The music production class that kicked off last school year is led by Jack Phillipson, who also teaches three choir classes and a pop acapella group.

Computers, monitors, MIDI controllers (those keyboards that program numerous instruments), microphones, curriculum software — and an unused office-turned-recording-studio — were paid for through a combination of bond funds for the technology, curriculum funds for the music licenses and building funds for equipment.

Said Principal Mark Thomas: “Jack developed and presented a wonderful idea as to how he envisioned engaging more students in learning by using music. We are always seeking ways to foster interest and engagement, so the imperative … was to collaborate on how we could find the funding to turn his idea into a reality.” 

‘I’m not telling them how to do anything; I’m letting their ears lead the way.’

— music production teacher Jack Phillipson

‘This kind of stuff matters’

“We’re able to teach the industry standard (digital audio workstations), and they’re learning how to produce audio for radio, commercials, TV (and) movies,” Phillipson said. “It’s incredible.”

And in a few years, his class won’t be the first time Northview students have worked with the equipment. East Oakview introduced kid-friendly music theory last year.

“And it’s about time, too,” Phillipson said. “ … We need to be having discussions about what real career musicians are using. A lot of their career is not performing, but sitting in front of a screen and producing their own beats to sing along to, learning how to record and market themselves. The market is just flooded with people who can sing really well, but can they record their own stuff and get it out there? This kind of stuff matters.”

Last semester, students visited River City Studios and the recording studios and recital hall at Grand Rapids Community College, where they got to see students at work.

Must Love Music

There were 23 students in the fall class — the most the class can accommodate — and 23 more have started the class this semester, during which they are expected to produce five or six original compositions and collaborate with one another based on strengths.

Students are mostly juniors and seniors, and about two-thirds have been members of the school’s choir or band. But some of them have never taken a music class before, Phillipson said. 

“Everybody in here loves music; that’s the guarantee,” he said. “My job becomes, ‘How do you find ways to create the music that you want?’ We have students who are making jazz sitting next to students who are experimenting with all those distorted guitar sounds they can find, next to kids who just want to play classical piano.”

Take Eli Johnson, Abby Slot and Maya Law. Abby and Maya are in choir at school, and Abby plays piano and aspires to work in music therapy. But beyond enjoying music, Eli had no background in it when he signed up for the class.

“I want to study sports broadcasting (in college), and for that (job) you have to use a soundboard,” Eli explained. Music production “is kind of giving me another idea of what goes into what musicians do. I had no idea.”

Classmate Jeremiah Robinson has been writing songs for a while. “I hear the melodies in my head,” he said, “but I was never able to add my voice (until music production class).” Toward the end of the semester, he was working on a song with “a hip-hop-esque, very 2010s, Nicki Minaj vibe.”

For Best Grade: Experiment

Phillipson said grades are determined largely by hitting curriculum checkpoints via parameters all students must follow, such as beats per minute, but that overall he considers success to be when students are able to demonstrate their own musical (non-literal) voice through their compositions.

“I’m not telling them how to do anything; I’m letting their ears lead the way.” He tells them, “Put it where you think you want it, and keep dragging those knobs and figuring out where that line for the equalizer is going to go. And when you like it, stop.”

The overall lesson: “Learning to be OK with something that isn’t perfect,” Phillipson said. “Because it’s art. There’s always more to do, but hey, today’s our deadline.”

Read more from Northview: 
Music theory is elementary
A joyful noise for all

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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