The Electronic Music Lab at Masterman School – An Adventure in Mathetics and Pedagogy

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“There are, at least, two approaches to education: the mimetic approach and the mathetic approach. The mimetic approach emphasizes memorization and drill exercises and is most efficient in inculcating facts and developing basic skills [Gar89, p. 6]. The mathetic approach stresses learning by doing and self exploration; it encourages independent and creative thinking [Pap80, p. 120]. In the mimetic framework, creativity comes after the mastery of basic skills. On the other hand, proponents of the mathetic school believe that self discovery is the best, if not the only, way to learn…”

Educational Outlook,”

Sugih Jamin, Associate Professor, EECS, University of Michigan

“Music educators can no longer ignore the possibilities afforded by computers and the related fields of science and mathematics.” With those words, Virginia Hagemann threw down the gauntlet to her colleagues in a 1968 essay for the Music Education Journal. It was the first of two articles she would write about the electronic music laboratory that she created at the JR Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia in the late 1960s.

I was a participant in that lab, and as I read Ms. Hagemann’s essays, I was struck by the parallels between her arguments for the effectiveness of electronic music and a tool for expanding the horizons of secondary school students, and the research and findings from the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, a National Science Foundation-funded project for which I served as a co-principal investigator. Like Ms. Hagemann, we found that given the opportunity to make media, young people can produce artifacts that reflect fairly sophisticated concepts. We also concluded that professional development that empowers teachers is central to successful curricular innovation. Ms. Hagemann also learned serendipitously that a budding media maker is capable of becoming a technology innovator.

In this essay, I want to place Hagemaan’s action research alongside the work of Seymour Papert and his intellectual descendants to turn computers into learning tools for children. While Hagemann was developing her ideas about electronics as a vehicle for musical composition and education, Papert and his colleagues at MIT were creating the LOGO programming language as a tool to help children construct their own knowledge about the world. With this foundation, he reasoned that teachers could then support students in moving to more formal understandings of concepts in mathematics, physics and other subjects that are generally considered abstract and difficult to learn.

Research shows that music education can be a wonderful foundation for teaching mathematics and by extension, computing.(Research on music and learning) The reasons are not hard to understand: both require that information be organized in certain structures. Pattern recognition is integral to both fields. Both have formal and informal “languages.” One can draw analogies between their elements – bits and bytes of computing and the diatonic scale in Western music, for example. Music has its own versions of computing’s “if-then” statements, loops, strings, recursion, modularization and other fundamentals. Both are fundamentally mathematical, although not necessarily in a “school math” kind of way. Looking back, I can see how many of these concepts were embedded in the work we did in Ms. Hagemann’s electronic music class.

For the sake of context, I should mention that I also had traditional classes in basic music appreciation and theory while at Masterman, taught by Gloria Goode.   Ms. Goode also expanded our cultural horizons. She added jazz, African and Brazilian music to our studies of Dvorak, Copeland and Stephen Foster. In sixth grade, we happened to have a student teacher who had lived in Brazil, so we learned to make their national dish, fejoida, home ec class and performed a Brazilian number in the school show. As one of the few black faculty members at Masterman, she was a powerful role model for the black students. She was also a crucial mentor for a small group of students who actually did become professional musicians in their adult lives. She also set an example for us as a life-long learner, sharing with us about her explorations of African music and dance, for example. Her 1990 doctoral dissertation, “Preachers of the word and singers of the Gospel: The ministry of women among nineteenth century African-Americans,” was hailed by the author Delores Causion Carpenter hailed as, “one of the finest treatments of 19th century black, singing, evangelist women” in her book, A Time for Honor: A Portrait of African American Clergywomen.

The exposure that she gave us to polyrhythms through the music of Babatunde Olatunji has particularly stayed with me. What follows is a video collection of the some of the music I was exposed to in Ms. Goode’s classes. I believe that what she taught me about the underlying structure of these diverse kinds of music would become important in Ms. Hagemann’s class, and in my later thinking about writing and problem solving. This collection includes not only Olatunji, but also Sergio Mendes, “Largo” from Dvorak’s New World Symphony, the folk song, “Goober Peas,” Della Reese and Wes Montgomery playing “Windy.” The last song especially sticks out in my mind because my first hearing of the song wasn’t Montgomery’s guitar version. It was our fifth-grade classmate Joel Bryant, who played the song for us on piano at her invitation at the end of class one day. Joel went on to become an accomplished professional songwriter, producer and accompanist with credits that include work with Philadelphia International Records and Gospel great Traimaine Hawkins. Joel was one of many professional musicians who came through Masterman.

Ms. Hagemann’s essays don’t explain what specifically prompted her to create an electronic music class, but she knew Robert Moog, the physicist-engineer whose experiments with the theremin led to his invention of the first popularly-used synthesizer in 1965.  She was an active composer with far-flung connections who reportedly studied with the legendary music teacher Nadia Boulanger. (This assertion comes from a posting on Facebook; I am in the process of trying to verify it.)

What we do know from her 1968 essay, “Electronic Composition in the Junior High School,” is that she described the lab as “logical outgrowth and extension of the [Music Educators National Conference] Young Composers’ Project,” an initiative funded by the Ford Foundation. She started the lab with a $316 grant from a fund established by Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Mark Shedd for innovative teaching projects. According to Salon magazine, Moog synthesizers were $11,000 in those days, so she focused on components instead. We had two reel-to-reel tape recorders, an oscilloscope, sine and square wave generators, splicing equipment, and tools for making musique concrete, such as a gong and a metronome. We wrote our compositions on graph paper, plotting frequencies on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal.

According to Hagemann, the 15 children were initially selected to participate in the lab, and several dozen students were admitted into the program before long because of popular demand. All of the students who were initially selected played instruments. If my memory is correct, I entered the program during the 1968-69 school year, when I was in the sixth grade.

Ms. Hagemann’s methods emphasized the mathetic over the pedagogic or mimetic. Each of us was assigned a partner,  which meant that we not only had the experience of composing and recording our own work, we also learned to play recording engineer for someone else. She exposed us to experimental composers and methods, and further broadened our cultural horizons. The video compilation below is a sampling of what we heard in class, and what we were taught to do. It includes Switched on Bach, Tibetan chants, a demonstration of musigue concrete composition and production techniques, and a Swingle Singers performance.

This early electronic music composition, “Lemon Drops,” by Kenneth Gaburo, was also part of our curriculum:

Hagemann cautioned her colleagues against being “guided by an outmoded philosophy that only the teacher knows best.” At the same time, she added,

“Although anything is possible, everything should not be permitted. In this incipient stage of a student’s musical development, the disciplined experi- ence of creating logical compositions within the frame- work of accepted musical form is imperative. Although students should become aware of the concept of alea- toric composition (eleven of the twenty-six members in the first class purchased John Cage’s book, Silence), the use of indeterminacy and chance elements in com- position should be reserved until the students have demonstrated their understanding of and competence to compose in various musical forms. Concurrent with a rigid adherence to traditional form, the children can be given a measure of freedom of expression to avoid stifling the possible creation and development of new musical structures.” (p. 88)

Hagemman reported surprise and delight at the quality and precocity of the musical compositions that emerged from the class (not from any of my work , though, I assure you!). But it was the technological innovation that took place that was an additional delight. She reports on page 90 that after field trips to Princeton and Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute:

“William Serad, age thirteen, submitted a technical report, complete with schematic diagrams, on the possibility of using an analog computer for writing electronic music. William thought that this computer would be useful in the writing of such compositions as “Study in Square Roots” or “Cube Root Canon.” His report was later discussed with Robert A. Moog, presi- dent of the R. A. Moog Company, Trumansburg, New York, manufacturers of electronic equipment, who agreed that this idea was feasible. With this encourage- ment, William constructed a four-sound, push-button switch, serial sequencer, which he used in writing an electronic canon. He has since made a working model of a tri-amplitude mixer module. Another member of the class, Randy Kaplan, age twelve, was inspired by the linear controller at Princeton to build a three- sound, push-button switch, serial sequencer with mixer. The teacher will not always understand every wire and transistor, but he can always tell if the equipment operates properly, and he can assist his students to use such devices musically.”

Hagemann concluded her article by noting that keeping up with her students had required her to embark on a new path of professional development for herself. She enrolled in an electronics course and started reading electronics reference texts.  She picked up the theme of the necessity of teacher development in a Dec. 1969 article for the Music Education Journal, “Are Junior High School Students Ready for Electronic Music? Are Their Teachers?”  Hagemann asserted that if teachers open their minds and become resourceful about using electronic music classes as a means of allowing students the “freedom to create” (.p 36) ,

“The adolescent need for independence will be satisfied by the creative free- dom encouraged within the labora- tory. The study of the basic con- cepts of electronic music will help the student gain a critical perspec- tive of himself, of his social environ- ment, and of the ways he can shape new goals of learning.” (p.37)

I was astounded to read these words nearly 40 years later, because they are remarkably similar to the conclusions that we reached with regard to the results of our Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers in exposing middle school students and teachers to computing and journalism as as means of creative expression and civic engagement.  More about that in a future post.

Update: April 30 – Thanks to fellow Masterman alum and musician Ilene Weiss, who send these .mp3s from the online archives of Masterman student compositions on a Philadelphia radio station WFMU.

Conflict


Music Educators Journal articles by Virginia Hagemann referred to in this post:

For examples of research on music and learning, see,

 

  • Hetland, Lois, “Learning to Make Music Enhances Spatial Reasoning” Journal of Aesthetic EducationVol. 34, No. 3/4, Special Issue: The Arts and Academic Achievement: What the Evidence Shows (Autumn – Winter, 2000), pp. 179-238 (article consists of 60 pages) Published by: University of Illinois Press

    Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3333643

  • Habib, Michel and Mireille Besson. “What Do Music Training and Musical Experience Teach Us about Brain Plasticity? Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Vol. 26, No. 3, Music and Language (Feb., 2009), pp. 279-285
  • Wendy S. Boettcher, Sabrina S. Hahn, Gordon L. Shaw, Mathematics and Music: A Search for Insight into Higher Brain Function Mathematics and Music: A Search for Insight into Higher Brain Function,Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 4, (1994), pp. 53-58

One of those “intellectual descendants,”, my colleague and collaborator Ursula Wolz, was researcher in Papert’s LOGO lab in the 1970s. In the early 1980s, she and Jim Dunne began teaching LOGO to children and teachers at Columbia Teachers’ College’s Microcomputer Resource Center. (See contemporaneous popular press reports on that work from Popular Mechanics and Infoworld. Wolz is the Principal Investigator of the IJIMS.

I thank my former Masterman schoolmate and academic colleague Elizabeth Gregory for her help in locating both of Ms. Hagemann’s articles.

Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” Meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy

The Re-education of Me Table of Contents

  1. What we investigate is linked to who we are
  2. The Me nobody knew then
  3. Mrs. Jefferson’s “Sympathetic Touch” meets Mrs. Masterman’s Philanthropy
  4. Discovering Masterman, discovering myself
  5. The electronic music lab at Masterman School
  6. The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the quest for computing diversity

“The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil, knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; and contact between pupils, and between teachers and pupil, on the basis of social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education, equipment and housing, and the promotion of such social and extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.”

WEB Du Bois

Does the Negro Need Separate Schools?” (1935)

 

One day during second grade at Kearny Elementary School, I was called out of class to go to the office. This would have been sometime during the 1964-5 school year.  I was introduced to a white man in a dark suit and told to sit at at table. I don’t remember what the man looked like or what he said – only that he gave some games to play and puzzles to complete. Some of them were on paper, and others involved blocks and other manipulatives. I think it was afterward that my parents told me that I had been given an IQ test, that I had scored well, and that I was now being placed on the waiting list for admission to a special school called Masterman. Masterman was described to me as a special school for children like me – children who liked to think, read and ask questions about the world. While the previous post in this series was intended as a broad sketch of those factors in my early life that laid the groundwork for my interest in writing, this post focuses more on the barriers to equal educational opportunity that existed in Philadelphia in the early 1960s, and reflects on one particular intervention in my own early schooling that I suspect was crucial to my future academic progress.

At the time that my entry into Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School was first discussed, the school was only five years old. It was named for the  founder and first leader of the Philadelphia Home and School Council,  and according to a brief New York Times article announcing her death in 1958, she left the School District of Philadelphia a $10,000 trust fund “to help bright pupils finish high school.” Masterman School opened its doors the next year. (Masterman obit)

Mrs. Masterman’s gift appears to have been made necessary in part because of the miserliness of Add Anderson, the District’s business manager from the 1920s until 1962. Reportedly, Anderson’s first priority was to keep taxes down, and as a result, schools throughout the city were poorly staffed and maintained. More than one scholar quoted Peter Binzen’s description of Anderson as, “a penny pincher all his life…a ruthless man filled with contempt for ‘educators.'” Anderson presided over the school district at a time when the number of black children in the district increased substantially because of the Great Migration. Wealthier whites abandoned the schools and the city in droves, and white working-class ethnics were made to feel as if they had been left holding the bag, fomenting a resentment that would spark the rise of tough cop mayor Frank Rizzo.

Structural disparities.Although the district schools had been legally integrated since since 1881, they were functionally segregated: black students were consistently assigned to the most dilapidated schools and fewer resources were directed to those schools. Tracking systems within schools led to black students being disproportionately assigned to “RE” (retarded educable) classes. (References) Scholar Lisa Levenstein recalls a 1960 Philadelphia Bulletin series entitled, “The Slow Learners,”  in which schools superintendent Allen Wetter blamed black children for their plight, calling the children of the Great Migration “culturally deprived slow learners.” The series referred to these “slow learners” as “unlovable characters” responsible for “a tragic deterioration of our schools.” (Levenstein)

In December, 1966, when I was in fourth grade, change came to the Philadelphia schools in the form of a new superintendent named Dr. Mark R. Shedd. According to a New York Times story announcing his appointment, (Reference) Shedd was the 40-year-old Harvard-trained superintendent of the Englewood, New Jersey public schools. He had won praise for negotiating the integration of the public schools there after years of sit-ins and marches. Shedd would bring experimentation to the Philadelphia schools, and become an advocate for disadvantaged students.

Ever since the release of the 1966 study on Equality of Educational Opportunity by sociologist James Coleman, education researchers have been debating the degree to which these kinds of racial disparate investments and attitudes matter. Coleman’s study pioneered the use of regression analysis of large-scale data sets in order to understand the multiplicity of factors that affect school performance. Coleman found family dynamics and the opportunity to attend an integrated school were stronger determinants of success for students of lower socio-economic status than the state of school facilities or teacher training.   Subsequent analysis of the data from that study, as well as subsequent research,  yielded more nuanced conclusions. Among those conclusions was the view that smaller classes (which presumably allow more teacher attention to students) and particular kinds of resource investments can positively affect educational outcomes, especially for African American children. I am reminded of this as I recall a small intervention by one of my teachers at Kearny that was, I suspect, crucial to my subsequent academic success. It was the moment that I still recall with some emotion, nearly half a century later.

Mrs. Jefferson’s “sympathetic touch”

My recollection was that I was enthusiastic about the idea of going to a new school. Although I had warm memories of first grade at Kearny, by second grade I was already feeling out of place. I had started first grade in Mrs. Hayes’ class, where I remembered a lot of picture books and finger painting. After a few weeks, I was moved down the hall to Mrs. Marie Jefferson’s class, where the children were already reading Dick and Jane books. I could sound out letters, but I did not know how to read words yet. (Sonia Manzano, the actress and writer who plays the character Maria on Sesame Street, bears such an uncanny and poignant resemblance to Mrs. Jefferson as I remember her.)

Seeing my plight, Mrs. Jefferson had me come to her desk at the back of the room when the other children were reading silently. She sat me on her lap, opened a Dick and Jane book, and asked me to read to her. I told her I could only sound out letters. She asked me to do that and pointed to a word. “O-H,” I said. “Not ‘o-h,'” she responded. “Oh. The “H” is silent.” We “read” together in this way for a little while longer, and I went back to my seat with the feeling that I had been let in on an incredible mystery.

After that, there was daily reading at home,  the arrival of a set of Britannica Junior Encyclopedias, and regular exposure to children’s literature alongside the sessions spent reading Shakespeare and Plato aloud with my father. (A conversation with my father about those sessions is forthcoming. Suffice to say that it bore many similarities to Chicago educator Marva Collins’ use of the the Socratic method in urban classrooms.)

So while I attended a school where teachers could give us little more than love, my father and stepmother created an incredibly rich intellectual environment for me. These were the things that, in retrospect, probably prepared me academically for Masterman, even as they made me the odd child out at school. For me, going to Masterman promised that I would finally find other kids like me. Educator Salome Thomas-El, who attended Masterman for 5-8 grade in the late 1970s, recalls his own sense of dislocation as he tried to negotiate between the culture at Masterman and that of his inner-city neighborhood:

“I never felt that I was as good as many of my [Masterman] peers, or that I belonged there, or that I was part of [Masterman.]…The kids I knew and liked were still back in the inner-city.

“Each school day, as they went in one direction, I took the bus and went a different way. By my second year at Masterman, I felt strange. I didn’t feel comfortable at Masterman, and yet I no longer belonged with my old friends.” (Thomas-El)

This feeling of dislocation strikes me as a  natural companion for child sent on a journey across the boundaries inscribed by race, class, gender, age and geography – what the late newspaper publisher Robert Maynard called the “fault lines” of  American culture.  It was a journey made by thousands of black children between the 1950 and 1970s  – children integrating schools with or without federal troops, court orders, or civil rights marches. We did not face dogs, hoses or jeering crowds as we entered schools such as Masterman, and except for one teacher, I don’t recall any instances of racism there, but we were crossing barriers nonetheless. Masterman, and later, Girls’ High, would also teach me that black children weren’t the only ones facing obstacles to academic achievement. It was there that I would begin to be introduced to the frustrations experienced by the white ethnic families in Philadelphia who had, they thought, played by the rules of immigration and assimilation only to see those rules change overnight.

What I would come to understand in later years is that Masterman not only afforded me an opportunity for a superior education – it was an opportunity to be socialized into an intellectual community. Without the sympathetic touch of Mrs. Jefferson and her colleagues at Kearny, and the reinforcement I received at home, it’s very possible that it’s an opportunity that I would have wasted.


Endnotes

  1. “Mrs. John Masterman.” New York Times (1923-Current file); Mar 8, 1958; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007) pg. 17
  2. Sources for Peter Binzen’s description of Add Anderson and racial disparities in the Philadelphia school district: Paul Lyons, The people of this generation: The rise and fall of the New Left in Philadelphia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania press, 2003. p. 15; and Lisa Levenstein, A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia UNC Press, April, 2009. p. 125. Levenstein details the policies that shunted black students into inferior schools, and the scapegoating of black families for the subsequent poor performance of black students on pages 126-137.
  3. Levenstein, p. 137
  4. Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40-Year Retrospective
    Adam Gamoran and Daniel A. Long, WCER Working Paper No. 2006-9 December 2006, 27 p.
  5. Thomas-El, Salome and Cecil Murphrey. I Choose to Stay: A Black Teacher Refuses to Desert the Inner City. New York: Kensington Publishing. 2004, p. 26
  6. “Englewood Educator Named Head of Philadelphia Schools.” New York Times, Dec. 1, 1966. ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007)
    pg. 77