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Touchscreen Tunes Ring Out From PHAME Academy

Touchscreen tablets are great for work and play, but are now becoming tools in the classroom too. One Portland-based, non-profit is using the technology to support students in composing original music. PHAME Academy teaches fine arts to adults with developmental disabilities.

In a small room with about half a dozen students, Music Director Matthew Gailey assigns everyone a different instrument to play.

Then they set up the beat.

Then Gailey conducts the class, all playing together, through some chord progressions.

But none of Gailey’s students are playing conventional instruments. Each one is playing their own iPad.

PHAME Academy serves adults of all ages. Their students have a variety of developmental disabilities, and many are on the autism spectrum. Although PHAME does teach traditional music classes.

“We just recently started a group that deals with using iPads which is a bit more of a challenge.”

That’s one of PHAME’s students. 

“My name is Pat Hansen with an e not an o of course.”

Hansen is tall and boisterous. The 41-year has developmental disabilities that affect his short-term memory and vision. He’s been a PHAME student since its first day in 1984.

Music Director Gailey has been with PHAME for just over 1 year. He says his job is a challenge, but a blast. The iPad music lab, as they call it, came from gaining more students, and needing to expand and diversify the curriculum.

“So one of the things I was thinking to myself was what sort of class can we have the basics of music theory but not really teach it in a traditional way. We didn’t want a white board and going through the years of music theory. We just didn’t think that was a good fit.”

Gailey says iPads are starting to be taken seriously as instruments in and of themselves because of all the music apps that are available. Most of his students use the garage band app to create their original songs.

“I love these pieces because they’re so unique and it really allows their unfiltered ideas to get out.”

According to Gailey, the apps are highly adaptable, making them a perfect fit for his students.

“So you can program as many items on the screen, whether it’s notes or chords, or as few as you’d like. You can pre-program rhythms, you can have them create their own rhythms and press play. It really works well if someone doesn’t have the dexterity to play something out on a piano line, they can still have a few choices of notes and create within that space. So it opens up an immense ability for the students to jump ahead in their access to a higher performance level, it just really gives a big boost.”

During class, Pat shows off his original song.

“Just kind of throwing things together is what I did. (How long did that take you?). Oh quite a while actually. I had to listen to each layer and find out what actually would fit in the rhythmic form. (Were you inspired by any music that you like?) No, no, no.”

This use of technology has also caught the attention of the academic research community. Sheldon Loman is an assistant professor at Portland State University. He focuses on instructional practices for people with significant disabilities.

He says tablets are becoming more widely used in the classroom, and is a great tool for special education. First of all - -

“It’s a lot cheaper than a lot of the technology that we used to use and it’s a lot more flexible.”

Loman says iPads also allow students to make their own choices, which is empowering. They can pick which tools they want to use, and which work best for them.

According to Loman, students can also translate the skills acquired in Gailey’s class into other elements of their lives as well.

“They definitely now are able to generalize those things that they learn, if it’s even social skills they get from doing that, as well as the technical skills they get from learning how to read music or learning how to play music.”

But Loman explains that each individual student will respond differently. So it’s critical to evaluate how each student works with the technology, and make sure it suits their needs.

And that’s a principle that Gailey fully utilizes in his classes. He adjusts apps to fit each student’s abilities. He also says that feedback is crucial for tailoring each student’s experience. 

iPads are creeping their way into other classes at PHAME too, like songwriting and playwriting. The technology has opened up a world of artistic possibilities for their students, which is, after all, PHAME’s mission.

“It makes a person feel good when they have the outlet that they can show what they can do,” says Pat Hansen.

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