• Darby VanDeVeen

TCNJ professor integrates technology into music classes

The Collaborating Across Boundaries (CAB) model of teaching blends STEM disciplines with other fields in the classroom. A wide range of disciplines are supported by this program including natural and social sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Community partners can also be involved to further expand the reach of each project.


Theresa Nakra is a professor at The College of New Jersey specializing in music technology. Over the years, she started to implement the CAB model into her classroom by giving her students a variety of projects that blended music and technology together.


One of the projects that she was most excited about was in collaboration with John Oswald, a Canadian composer most known for his work with “plunderphonics.” Oswald approached Nakra about “organiz[ing] all of his materials because he want[ed] to make them readily available through the Canadian Music Center. He want[ed] to be able to create these performable packages of scores, parts, and technology so that any orchestra could rent out the whole package and perform his pieces without him having to be involved.”


Nakra and her User-Centered Musical Design class also worked in conjunction with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton to create a music therapy app that can be used by chemotherapy patients. Coders, user experience researchers, and designers helped work on the project. This team has been researching music therapy and conducting testing of the app in hopes of rolling out a pilot program.


Her latest project involves working with Thomas Dolby, who came to prominence in the 1980s, releasing hit singles including “She Blinded Me With Science” (1982) and “Hyperactive!” (1984), to create a compelling virtual reality conducting simulation. Marin Alsop, the chief conductor of the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra, is also involved and guides the students through the simulation.


Nakra shared a sample of the simulation and explained: “It’s in a training mode, the idea being that orchestral conducting is a fairly advanced topic and it needs some sort of tutorial at the beginning. Eventually, they’ll gamify it so that as you move through the experience, it’ll be more like Guitar Hero, where you’re meeting certain benchmarks and getting points.”


Nakra consults with the team on what kinds of gestures can be measured with the software they use. As the project is waiting on further funding, Nakra and the team have decided that the Oculus software they are currently working with is not ideal for the conducting simulation, as it is too bulky to simulate the movements effectively. She is experimenting with Mimu gloves, developed by Imogen Heap, in the hope that this will allow students to move their hands more freely while practicing.


Nakra hopes to be able to incorporate Dolby’s project into her classroom in the future, once the scope of the project is more clearly defined. She states, “At a future date when the actual deliverables are much more tightly scoped, I might be able to include students.”


Music and technology are carefully intertwined during the creation, promotion, and distribution of new songs and pieces. Classical music is one of the last genres to be brought into the digital age, and Nakra expressed a lot of enthusiasm when considering that she might be one of the people to help it find its footing.


“[Classical music] is not a dying art form. But it’s an art form that is not well-suited to the digital age, so for me, I think finding hooks and ways of spinning classical music that works for digital modalities is a very exciting project because it’s creating a home for classical music within the technology” she expressed.


That is the type of goal that the Collaborating Across Boundaries model has in mind. By combining two fields, something can be created to bring new life to them both.


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