• Yori Dade

Ableton Push 2: Observations and reflections as a tool for secondary school educators

Updated: Jul 4, 2019

This essay discusses my observation of the Push 2 in a secondary school educational setting. I will be reflecting on the learning benefits of the hardware, particularly in relation to teaching harmony to young wind instrumentalists. A brief overview of implementation and performance or jam scenarios in schools will be highlighted.

Observations and reflections

As a woodwind instrumental teacher and conductor at a secondary school, I was curious to see how the Push 2 could work as an educational tool. I had access to the hardware and incorporated it into my lessons to teach or solidify musical concepts with my students. Recent research across English secondary schools raised issues including the lack of integration of digital technologies with other classroom resources. The use of hardware such as the Push exemplifies a continuation of professional development for teachers which is currently also lacking. (Savage, 2010) My students were all eager to see how the device worked and had no problem relating the step sequencer patterns into their previous musical knowledge on rhythm. However, I was particularly interested to see how the Push could be utilised as a tool for teaching harmony. Most of my students only play a wind instrument, which means, especially at this level, they are not yet introduced to playing chords or cadences. Learning harmony on popular chordal instruments like piano and guitar requires a certain amount of technique, before aspects of harmony can be taught to a student. D’Escriván (2006) stated that “It could be argued that modes of self-expression and perception may be changing and that a generation brought up on video games is content to accept as valid, that which, from a traditional point of view, constitutes minimalist performance practices.” If this is the case, I strongly agree that new musical interfaces and technology should remain at the forefront of music education, as there is no doubt that music technology will remain and continue to expand in the future.

Both chromatic mode and in-scale mode were used on the Push 2 to convey harmony in my lessons. With the in-scale mode, I had students using major modes. Firstly, making sure the Push was in the appropriate key and mode for the lesson, then, making sure students understood which major scale and scale degree the mode was being derived from. I had students play the major scale a few times then had them move to the Push to get an understanding for the “sound” of the mode. When teaching modes to students for the first time I found they think the scale feels incomplete. One of my students stated “This scale sounds so weird! It sounds like I need to keep playing to finish the scale”. After getting a general feel for sound, I put on a basic beat pattern and had them improvise within the mode on the Push. Of course, there are no wrong notes, the student feels like they are making real music whilst the new sound is becoming more familiar. Once the students had recorded a short melody along to the beat pattern, I had them improvise within the mode on their primary wind instrument. Even if the student had not practiced the mode before this lesson, their ears now had a reference and notes outside of the mode were obvious.

Using chromatic mode on the Push, I was able to solidify concepts that I teach in relation to II – V – I progressions, moving around the circle of 4ths and related chord shapes. Making sure the Push is vertically moving in 4ths in C, I had students play a very slow 3 octave major scale on the Push. I explained that the white notes on the Push are the same as the white notes on piano. Playing a scale was pushing the “little technique needed” idea to teaching with this hardware. Playing scales on the Push in chromatic mode is not the intention of this lesson. Students were asked to play a major triad or arpeggio on their wind instrument in concert C. I then asked them to use their theoretical knowledge to find that triad on the Push. After using their primary instrument to help, they had little trouble with this. Students were then asked to revise this arpeggio on their primary instrument around the circle of fourths. I was happy to move on if they could do at least (3) C, F and Bb arpeggios. Back to the Push, we moved that first chord shape vertically up the pads. I then asked students to do the same in minor. First playing on their wind instruments then, using the previous knowledge of major they lowered the third and played this vertically up the pads. This is where I see the most value in using the Push as a tool for teaching harmony to wind instrumentalists. When students can see that third being lowered, they are then be able to take that shape on a journey around the Push pads. I have attempted to teach these visual concepts to students with a piano, and while they understand the idea, they are unable to move around in different keys due to a lack of previous knowledge of piano layout and technique. For more advanced students, we then moved on to playing a II-V-I progression. On the Push, students were asked to use their theoretical knowledge to find the Dominant and Major 7’s for both the major and minor triads. To conclude the lesson, they played the II min -V 7 - I Maj shapes vertically up the Push. Thereby solidifying arpeggio or chordal concepts they had learnt previously on their wind instrument.

Classical AMEB (Australian Music Examination Board) examinations taken by many young wind instrumentalists do not challenge the student to make meaningful relationships between chords. Some would argue that AMEB music theory examinations teach chord relationships and harmony, but these written examinations fail to put these polyphonic chord sounds at that students' fingertips. The Push 2 offers a simple to use, modern platform for instrumental and classroom teachers to teach harmony with effective visuals and little technical training. The remainder of this essay will discuss the implementation and improvisation opportunities in schools. Particularly reflecting on performances by Taana Rose with Gregory McLucas and John Ferguson with Andrew Brown at the “New Interfaces for Musical Expression” (NIME) concert.

Implementation in Secondary Schools

As a valuable learning tool for current and future secondary school music students. The Push 2 has even more potential than what was covered in relation to harmony. As a student performer in the interactive music course at the Queensland Conservatorium at Griffith University, the value of combining all your own knowledge with that of other student collaborators can make for an enriching group learning environment. After reflecting on the duo performances at the NIME concert, there is an implementation strategy I would recommend for schools with the budget and foresight to give students access to this technology. I would recommend a modular casing hardware setup which fits “like a glove” around the Push 2. This case should include a single board computer, built-in batteries, speakers, mic/line input and other interactive hardware. (Johnston, S., Apetroaie-Cristea, M., Scott, M., Cox, S. 2016) The vocal performance incorporating Ableton presented by Taana Rose and Gregory McLucas at NIME, sparked the idea of two secondary students who would be able to hire out such a modular device and work together outside of the classroom. This is not unlike the process undertaken in the interactive music course. A single modular device with minimal setup means secondary school students could immerse themselves into the creative learning process without the hinderance of cables and setup. Reflecting further on the performances at NIME, John Ferguson and Andrew Brown with a custom and modern block interface, inspired the idea of adding additional control into the modular Push 2 setup. I imagine hardware including proximity sensors, detachable gyroscope hardware, modern gestural interface technology like the Tap wearable keyboard (Tap n.d.) and the ability to easily combine student built musical interfaces to the assembly. With the use of Microsoft single-app kiosk function and a small screen, a student could navigate Ableton for basic tasks, but not be distracted with the internet or other applications found on school laptops (Decker, J., Gorzelany, A., Poggemeyer, L., Simpson, D. 2019). Charging stations for the hardware would also need to be implemented. Such stations should enable staff to update and troubleshoot the single board computers collectively for efficiency.


National secondary school curriculums have acknowledged the need for implementing new music technologies. As highlighted by Julio D'Escriván, the performance practices of emerging musicians are changing. This is not primarily due to an evolution of musical interfaces and software. Other technologies used by young people, such as video games, are consistently pushing traditional boundaries of gestural input and effect. The Push 2 is an interface which could meet the visual and gestural expectations of future young musicians. My own observations when teaching with the hardware showed excellent potential for its use as a teaching tool alongside traditional instruments. Innovative implementation discussed in this essay should also be considered to assist in the efficiency of use and future proofing of such interfaces in secondary schools.

Reference List

Apetroaie-Cristea, M., Cox, S. Johnston, S., Scott, M., (2016) Applicability of commodity, low cost, single board computers for Internet of Things devices: IEEE 3rd World Forum on Internet of Things, 141-146 doi: 10.1109/WF-IoT.2016.7845414

Decker, J., Gorzelany, A., Poggemeyer, L., Simpson, D. (2019) Windows dedicated kiosk. Retrieved from: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/configuration/kiosk-single-app

D'Escriván, J. (2006) To sing the body electric: Instruments and effort in the performance of electronic music, Contemporary Music Review, 25:1-2, 183-191, doi:10.1080/07494460600647667

Rogers, K. (1997) Resourcing music technology in secondary schools: British Journal of music education, 129 – 136 doi: 10.1017/S0265051700003570

Savage, J. (2010) A survey of ICT usage across English secondary schools. Music Education Research, 12, 89–104.

Tap (n.d.) Tap for performers. Retrieved from: https://www.tapwithus.com/tap-for-performers/

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