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What Is a Laptop Orchestra? 

By April 22, 2024May 22nd, 2024Music Education, News

How Simple Coding Can Make Music More Accessible in the Classroom  

April 22, 2024 

Longy faculty member Garo Saraydarian is using the magic of coding to spark a musical fire in middle and high school students, and you can do the same in your classroom. 

With a laptop orchestra, you can compose, improvise, and perform, while appealing to students who may not be interested in traditional instruments or ensembles. Since no coding experience is necessary to get started, it is a stress-free, innovative way for educators to engage every musician. 

We sat down with Saraydarian to get more details about what a laptop orchestra is, why it’s beneficial to teachers and students, and why making music more accessible is important. 

  

Q: What is a laptop orchestra? 

Garo Saraydarian: A laptop orchestra is an orchestra like any ensemble, except you use devices like laptops or tablets as instruments. Sometimes, they’ll also have external controllers, joysticks, or pads to manipulate sounds. You use those devices to respond to other performers or conductors. 

Garo Saraydarian

Q: Why might teachers bring a laptop orchestra into their classroom instead of sticking with traditional instruments?  

GS: At least in Massachusetts, students start their music education by being very involved. They’re moving, singing, and playing instruments. As they get into middle and high school, things are more limited to the point where most high schools only have a chorus, orchestra, band, and maybe a jazz ensemble. 

That leaves out a lot of kids who are musical but aren’t interested in playing traditional instruments. Even within traditional ensembles, they can really restrict the idea of what it means to be musical. 

Q: Can you describe reactions you’ve experienced from students when you’ve introduced them to a laptop orchestra?  

GS: You have students who weren’t interested in learning or playing an instrument, but they’re smiling when they hear the laptop music they’ve created. Other students suddenly become interested in music, but they’re 16 and can’t join an ensemble without years of practice. They find they can execute their musical vision and explore composition and expression with something much more accessible. 

Q: Do teachers need to be expert coders to teach with a laptop orchestra? Do their students need to know how to code?  

GS: Not at all. For music teachers, it will probably be new like it was for me. I didn’t start coding until my mid-40s, so it’s never too late. Most students are already experiencing coding at the elementary level, so they’ll come in with some background.  

Teachers shouldn’t feel intimidated by the word “coding.” There’s this mystique that coding is an esoteric thing that only geniuses can do, but it’s just a different way of thinking. It’s very accessible. The program I use for laptop orchestra is designed by a musician, so it’s made for the layperson. 

Q: How does a laptop orchestra increase accessibility in the classroom?  

GS: It does a lot in terms of traditional accessibility for students who might not have the motor skills or a physical disability that prevents them from drawing a bow across a violin string, for example. 

Especially in the upper grades, it increases accessibility because you tap into a huge number of students who are interested in music but aren’t given anything besides those traditional options for getting involved. It gets them to understand that they also are musical people and removes those barriers to getting started.  

Q: Why is accessibility in the music classroom important?  

GS: There’s this myth that being a musician is a niche thing. You must receive lots of training and private lessons, and you have to be talented. 

In any field, some people really excel. Only some readers go on to become authors, but that doesn’t mean we don’t teach people how to read. Some people go on to be physicists, but we still want everyone to understand basic mathematics.  

I think music teachers are fighting against this idea of students thinking they’re not musical. I think that every human being is musical. It’s part of our DNA; just because someone’s not performing at Carnegie Hall doesn’t mean it has to be all or nothing. 

I think that’s why accessibility is so important. If everyone realized that they’re inherently musical, the world would be a better place. 

Q: What advice would you give to teachers trying to implement a laptop orchestra into their curriculum? Do you have any tips and tricks for success?  

GS: Originally, I ran a laptop orchestra as an after-school activity because it wasn’t written into the curriculum. There will be that advocacy piece, fighting for its place in the curriculum so students can receive credit for it and experience it during the school day. 

At some schools, teachers have run a laptop orchestra concurrently with the Media Lab where they have some computers, but you might need to do extra fundraising, which can be difficult. In my class, I also demonstrate ways to run a laptop orchestra with just the teacher having a laptop, so there are ways to do it while you’re building the program. 

Like with anything in music, you first have to prove its success to the powers that be, and then they become invested. 

Q: What advice would you give to music teachers trying something new in the classroom?  

GS: Just dive into it, and don’t be afraid. Things won’t always work out at first—just say, “Oh, that was a mistake. I don’t want to do that anymore.” 

I recommend pushing through the initial discomfort; I’ve found that the first time I try anything drastically different in the classroom, it takes time to work the bugs out. Stick with it! 

To learn more about how to integrate a laptop orchestra into your classroom, register for the hands-on, experiential Summer@Longy course Laptop Orchestra for Middle and High School Students, taught by Garo Saraydarian. 

Register now for Laptop Orchestra and learn more about other Summer@Longy courses for music educators here: https://bit.ly/3xMILMb.