Able Audio: Gareth Pring
This episode looks at Gareth Pring from Sychronised Music Creation based in Aotearoa New Zealand. Gareth works with disabled and non-disabled young people giving them the opportunity and encouragment to experiment and play with multiple creative tools.
Inspired by the work in of Drake Music in accessible music technology, Synchronised Music Creation uses a range of types of music technology to make it quick and easy for people to engage collaboratively with eachother in music making. Gareth runs various sessions which aim to give autonomy to participants over their musical experience where people may explore DJ turntables, drum percussion pads, writing lyrics, playing instruments, and much more.
In this episode, Gareth talks to host Sam Morgan about Sychronised Music Creation and his work with disabled and non-disabled young people giving them the opportunity and encouragment to experiment and play with multiple creative tools.
Sam Morgan: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and how Synchronised Music Creation came about?
Gareth Pring: Yeah, sure. So, as a teenager I was immersed in music. I was learning the guitar, doing it quite formally, grades, all that kind of thing. I was a teenager in the nineties when the house music boom happened and the superstar DJ thing.
So I got some turntables just like everyone else upon completion of my schooling. For my tertiary study, I went to the School of Sound in Manchester where I got a diploma in audio engineering. I was playing in bands, but I didn't feel confident enough to pursue a career in music or anything at that time.
It's not like I was a good enough instrumentalist to pursue it in that way. And, with regards to the audio engineering, I was still quite young. I was intimidated by all the adults that were around me that already had all the gear and were out there looking for careers in that kind of work.
So I went off on a totally different tangent. I went and joined the police and I did that for many years. My most enjoyable time in the police was working with teenagers, generally young, at-risk youth who were coming to the attention of police because of their offending. So I did enjoy hanging out with them.
I felt I could be a positive influence on their life as much as I could, as any police officer can on a teenager who doesn't wanna hear it from an adult. Then we moved to New Zealand. I came across as a police officer and not long after being in New Zealand my now 14 year old son (my middle son as a two-year-old) who was diagnosed with a rare chromosome disorder. And what that meant was, as a family, we were exposed to the disability sector and all the different services that you otherwise wouldn't be aware of and we had to learn how to navigate that sector. And part and parcel of that was we spent a good few years working with the [people] at RA Tower Music Therapy Center based here in Auckland.
They were absolutely amazing for our son and our family. And whilst he was going through that, it did get me thinking, oh, is there any potential for me, perhaps going to this line of work? You know, music therapy. I mean, I was a good few years into my police career and it would've meant a big commitment to leave that and get retrained.
But nonetheless, I decided to make the decision to do that. So I left the police. I went to university and got a degree. And whilst I was studying, I did a couple of work placements as a teacher aid and I would often get the at-risk kids in school to work with. And what I found was, every now and then when I brought an instrument in, whether it be a guitar or a ukulele or some of the other music making gear I had at the time, the kids I was working with would get a real enjoyment out of it and it would help in terms of developing our relationship.
So I was always thinking, oh, maybe there’s scope for something like this. I ended up being a classroom teacher upon completing my degree at a school for kids who'd had a trauma-based start to life. And that was playing out in their behaviour. And again, every now and then when I brought in some instruments or some music making stuff, I'd managed to engage them for a little while.
So I thought maybe there's something in this. And in the meantime, I always had music making gear at home. So I was aware of what was going on in terms of technology and how it was advancing. And the software via iOS devices etc. And um, I started to see who else was doing it beyond traditional music therapy.
I found a couple of groups overseas, one in particular - Drake Music, who were based in the UK doing amazing work using iOS devices with [people] who have quite profound disabilities, both intellectual and physical. And they were getting groups of [people] together. Making quite amazing music using iOS devices and assistive technology.
So, over a period of time, I kind of messed about with the gear that I had at home and thought, how can I make this serve a lot of the kids that I know? What would they enjoy? What would they be into? And I put together a mobile studio that I could easily get into the back of a car and set up and take down, ready to go onto the next place.
And then I took the plunge, went public with who I was, applied for a couple of grants, made myself known to a couple of groups locally here where I live in North Auckland, and they were keen to have me on board to come in and do some sessions, and that's where it's gone from there.
Sam: So what does a class usually look like?
Gareth: To be honest, Sam, it's a mixed bag. I do one-to-one sessions here at home, so if you can see over my shoulder there’s sewing machines, but, um, there's some gear set up there, a couple of guitars lying around, ukulele, and then I've got some gear that plugs into my iOS devices.
I've got a percussion pad there, MIDI keyboards. And what we'll do is with the kids who come here who can't play an instrument, we tend to just mess around making noises. And with some of the software that we've got available to us, it's not too difficult to quite quickly make a decent sound using the loops, putting down a beat and then messing around, putting other noises on top of that so that's what can happen in a one-to-one setting.
And then at the other end, I do some group work with one of the groups here in Warkworth with some of the [people] with intellectual and physical disabilities. And we use my space. I'm really fortunate that I get to use my classroom space at a school that I work at, just up the road and it's basically an old theatre space.
I've got access to a projector screen and stuff and that turns into a big jam session. So the camera might be on them, but being projected onto the screen so they can see themselves as they're jamming. But there's a few more things, instruments that the guys can jump on. So there's an acoustic drum kit, there's a couple more keyboards, and that can turn into a big jam session.
That can go on for like 20-25 minutes. So it can either be really intimate or it can be really loud with quite a big crowd.
Sam: So what types of music technologies do you use? Do you use assistive technologies at all?
Gareth: Yeah, I'm not at the point yet where I'm using any specific adapted instruments, which I have seen being used overseas, and I'm certainly not savvy enough to be able to adapt anything that I have. But I lean heavily on iOS devices and some of the applications that you can access on there. So, there's some really prominent ones within the sector. Thumb Jam, Touch Scape. These are both applications that just require touch on the screen.
So I've got some guys who really struggle with their fine motor skills but just by applying a slight touch to the screen, these applications make the most amazing sounds, and when you mess around with the settings you can make sure that you can program what key they're played in, so you cannot play a wrong note.
So the people who are using the apps can jam alongside someone who might know a couple of chords on the piano, someone else might be doing something on ukulele. I might have the electric guitar out, and you can make it sound really coherent. Everyone's playing in the same key. So I rely quite heavily on applications and iOS devices.
I've always got my iPad and a couple of iPhones at our sessions so that everyone's got access to something and they all feed in via a mixer into a big sound system. But I am always on the lookout for what's available on the market. One of the things I use, don’t know if you're familiar with, one of these devices called the Odd Ball.
It's a rubber ball about tennis ball size, and it sends a MIDI signal to an application on my phone and it's velocity sensitive. So whatever sounds I've got loaded into the app, I trigger via Bluetooth signal, just by tapping the ball. So again, that's good for anyone who perhaps struggles with fine motor skills and they can just sit there with this in their lap and either hit it with a drumstick or hit it with a fist.
And that can be programmed to all sorts of crazy sounds, drum noises, guitar noises, keyboard synthesisers, synthesiser noises, and you can also program your own vocal samples into it and all sorts. So we have a lot of fun with the Odd Ball and of course this is a good one for attracting people into the space because if I have people come in who perhaps are a little bit nervous or are intimidated by the fact that it's a music session and they feel they might have to try and play an instrument, which can be daunting for some people. When they see this being thrown around the room, It will just be bounced between myself and someone else and they can hear the noises coming out of it. Initially, of course, they're intrigued and then once they get their hands on it and realize it's not scary and makes terrific noises then then that can often be a winner.
Certainly a good icebreaker. And alongside that, another one I use, which is really common in electronic music production is a Launchpad, which many people will be familiar with. Again, the Launchpad is a hardware piece of material that hooks into either my phone or my iPad, and it triggers samples.
Remix Live is one of the applications I use, and again, what's brilliant about that is, is with those iOS applications, you have already got all the samples and sounds and you can't play anything out of time. So again, you don't have to be a musician as such. You just have to have a feel for what sounds, what bass line sounds nice alongside what melody line and what drumbeat you'd like to put with it. And again, because of the rubber pads and the way it's built, it's basically unbreakable and they're all colour coded as well. These rubber pads all light up. And it's just a case of you can't use any two of the same colour and there's only eight different colours. Even though there's so many buttons on there - there's like 64 buttons on there.
All you're doing is combining a button from any one of the eight colours and before you know it, you've got a jam coming outta the sound system. So that's the kind of gear I'm relying on. I've also got a couple of MIDI keyboards that I plug into Garage Band because the sounds that you can get out Garage Band on your iOS device as well are quite fantastic.
Sam: Yeah, it sounds like there's a focus on the expression part of music as opposed to the the learning side of it. So you didn't go back and study music therapy yourself?
Gareth: I went and studied educational psychology. So I spent most of my time writing papers on how to engage people basically, and that's where it's come into its own with these sessions. So I did that degree, it got me into a teaching position. But yes, it was all about creating an environment where people feel comfortable to express themselves. And again, if I can just show them a little bit how to use the equipment, I basically then just try and get out of their way.
I set it up and once they can hear the sounds coming out of it for themselves, then I just let them get on with it. If I'm doing my job right and I've got them engaged, then I feel it's a good session when I've managed to almost sit out of the way and let them do the wrong thing.
Sam: So what types of music do the participants generally create? Is it a mixed bag?
Gareth: Yeah, absolutely. So I work here with another group in the town that I live, with at risk youth who attend an education centre that caters for teenagers who struggle in mainstream education. So I go and work with them and a big influence on them is hip hop and that kind of culture.
You know, certainly the young males, teenage males that, you know, when you turn up there you can hear the music coming out of some of the UE Booms that they've got lying around. That's the stuff that appears that they are most drawn to.
And I remember my first session with them. I was sat with three teenage boys in the room and, I’m a big fan of house music, so I have the turntables there, I have the Launchpad there. I was like, house music's great, and I banged on about it for about 10 minutes, didn't let them get a word in, and then when I finished my spiel, I said, so what do you think about that?
And one of them just looked me up and down and said “Yeah, but have you got any drill?” And you know what, Sam, on on the spot I felt all the years that I am. I honestly did. I was like, drill, what on earth is that? So I kind of, I thought here I am, first session, I'm about to lose the three teenage boys that they think are gonna be most into this.
And so I quickly made myself scarce from the room, disappeared to the toilet, and I looked through one of my apps, the music creation apps, Remix Live. It stores hundreds of genres and most of them, as you go through that, I've never heard of them. And I'm searching through and I thought drill. I found some drill.
So I went back to the room and I was like “So what are we gonna work on boys? Are we gonna work on Paris drill, are we gonna work on pure drill, or UK drill?” And then, you know, I managed to catch them at that point cuz they were like, oh, maybe we could do something. So I plugged in the Launchpad into my iPhone, and of course all the sounds were already there.
We turned up the speaker as loud as it would go, and I just let them get on with it for the hour and a half I was there. So drill, to answer your question, came out of that session.
When I work with some of the other [people], those jam sessions that we do in my classroom at school, they’re kind of dictated by the instruments that we use. So someone jumps on the acoustic drum kit and does a beat there. There's a couple of keyboards. I'll jump on the electric guitar, so maybe a bit more of a rock feel there. What I also do in those sessions, because I've got the projector, I will put YouTube videos beamed up onto the projector screen.
It's a huge screen and I will mix between different playlists of videos and use that as an inspiration for them to play music. Almost like to put a soundtrack to a movie. So I'll find something, for instance, like, Drone footage of flying over a desert, so where you can see all the animals, you know, 4K stuff, so it's brilliant footage, or underwater footage or footage from space. And then I'll set up the applications so that all the buttons, all the sounds in it are perhaps ethereal sounds or kind of, pad sounds, you know, atmospheric sounds. And we can sometimes just sit there for 15-20 minutes letting them just get in the vibe of being inspired by what's up on the screen. And then there's other times where I'll put a video up of someone like Carl Cox playing Tomorrow Land festival with obviously no noise coming outta the speakers. Then I'll put on a techno or house genre set of samples and they'll just bang the beats out of that.
So, I will occasionally set the tone if they've said something to me previously, if I pick up on them saying, “Oh, I kind of like this,” because I get surprised all the time. And then there's times where they'll just take the session where they want it to go, and I'll just do my best to make sure the right buttons are being pressed and that it occasionally gets recorded and they get a recording of it when they leave.
Sam: Have you seen any positive impacts since you've started running the classes?
Gareth: Yeah, I think each session has proved quite positive and the feedback is often given by the support staff that are often there with them. Because I'm getting to know these people. That's why I like to commit. Or if I've got funding, I will say, look, I'll commit and work with these guys for a term or two terms.
So ten, 20 weeks, because, over that time I get to know their personalities and then I can see a difference if something's working or if they're not so interested in it. Because in those first few weeks I might leave a session going, oh maybe that wasn't quite working, only for then one of their support workers to say “Don’t be disheartened by that. Normally they just get up and walk out the room or they won't sit there for that long.” So even if they were perhaps just listening, you have them for 20 minutes, which is more than we might have previously had them. The same as when I work with the teenage boys or whoever I'm working with at that education centre, you just gotta learn to accept the small wins when they come along because there's been a lot of negativity in some of their lives. So to go in expecting that they're gonna sit there and smack out a six minute piece of music that all just knocks our socks off, I've learned to realize that those aren't the expectations I should be walking in with.
It's just the small wins. And sometimes they'll just verbalise it themselves, and it might sometimes be that we're doing a session in the little porta-cabin that we work in, and they'll call over their mates or their mates from outside who are doing a different activity and might say “Hey, what's going on here?”
And if they don't say that they've made the music that they can hear, I certainly do tell 'em. I'll say, look, this is what Sam's been doing for the last half hour. He's done this. So that's where I get my kick now.
Sam: Why do you think it's important that something like this exists?
Gareth: I've always got a lot of enjoyment out of music, and I was always really fortunate growing up that my parents had the means to get me an instrument when I kind of verbalised to them that I was kind of keen to play the guitar when I was a young boy. They were able to act on it. They were in a position to afford lessons for me to do that. And what I learned through my work in the police and going into hundreds of different houses is that not everyone has the same opportunities. When we started to get immersed in the disability sector, again, realising that not everyone else gets access to some of the things that we all take for granted.
So all I'm doing is, is just giving people the opportunity to have a go on these things and they get to express themselves because that's what it is all about at the end of the day.
It's a form of expression. I'm just happy to facilitate that when I can.
Sam: So where to next? Do you have any projects you and the students are working towards?
Gareth: Yes. So when I initially made the pitch to both these groups as well as participating, there were some goals that we wanted to put at the end of it.
So, for my guys that I work with, those who have disabilities, they've got an end of year disco coming up, and one of the intentions was as well as having the jam sessions and the interactive session, was to perhaps be in a position where once a few of them have learned how to use the DJ mixer that I've got, that they would play some of their own recordings at the disco, at the Christmas disco.
So I'm really looking forward to seeing that come December. Again, for the guys who I work with at the education centre, we’re gonna put together a playlist on SoundCloud. So, an international website that shares music that many people go on. So, you know, we create a playlist of their music. So even though it's something that's been quite an intimate thing for them to do (creating it) it’s about sharing it with people and putting it out there as well. And then a few weeks ago, I put in a funding application to basically do what Drake Music do in the UK. Basically set up a band/orchestra here in the area where I live. And just yesterday I got given the green lights to go ahead with that. I received a grant to do that. Which is fantastic. That's Auckland Council. That's a couple of times they've supported what I'm doing in the community. So I was over the moon to get that email yesterday. So that's a project that I'll be doing next year .
So I'll go public with that in the new year. I'll get my hands on a couple of other iPads if I can. And that'll mean getting together once a week, maybe on a Saturday morning, for a couple of hours aiming to what will hopefully culminate in a public performance at the town hall.
That's kind of where I want to get.
Sam: So they'll be using assistive technologies or the iPads or a mix of both acoustic and iPads?
Gareth: That’s exactly it. Yeah. I mean, I say orchestra, that's as again, I've seen Drake Music do it and you know, these applications that you've got access to all the sounds of all the instruments you can think of. And it is really nice for the guys to sit down. The samples are of such good quality. So when I place my iPhone in front of someone and it's, for instance, got the cello sounds loaded into it, and they just run their finger up and down the iPad screen and the sound that comes outta the speakers is incredible.
So again, when we've got them all locked in the same key, and of course do some practice, do some rehearsals, and hope that we come up with something special at the end of it. But yes, leaning heavily on iOS Devices and assistive technology.
Sam: If you were to have all the money in the world to do whatever you'd like, what would you kind of envision for Synchronised Music Creation?
Gareth: I’ve made the setup as mobile as possible, and of course, when you're using iPads and stuff, it's not too tough to make it mobile, you know, it's basically, I've got a vehicle full of gear. There might be a couple of keyboards in there, a guitar, the iPads or speaker.
So I'm relatively mobile, but I suppose if I could have almost like a van, if I could kit out a van, you know, that that would be just set up like a studio basically, where [people] would be able to get into the van, you know, all the ramps and everything, for those who need the ramps and that kind of access, so that I could just turn up, do a session wherever I need to do it.
And then the ideal would be that I'd be in a different part of Auckland or North Auckland where we are a different day of the week, so that I'd just be able to pull up and do a session and hopefully have someone on hand that at the click of my fingers could adapt an instrument to make it work for someone in particular who I'm working with. Because I know that there are a couple of [people] doing that in the UK who have adapted instruments or are savvy enough to know their way around MIDI programming and have adapted all sorts of things. Cause PlayStation controllers, you know, gaming controllers, guys are doing really good things with them. I mean, my son for instance, who's got the rare chromosome disorder, he's just starting to pick up a guitar now, which has been fantastic.
His fine motor skills weren't great for many years. His ability to use a PlayStation controller is second to none. So I need to become a bit more savvy in that field. But, yeah, following the lead of those peoples. But if I had access to all those kind of toys, I’d be a happy person I think.
Sam Morgan: It was really interesting talking to Gareth. Hearing his passion for creating shared music making experiences was really exciting. Listening to him speak about making sure music making experiences are accessible, regardless of previous experiences of music, leaves a lot to consider for the way we engage with others.
This podcast has been funded by the New Zealand Music Commission and brought to you with help from producer Jesse Austin-Stewart, and Arts Access Aotearoa. I’m Sam Morgan and this has been Able Audio.