Confessions of a Luddite: My eventual acceptance of technology in performance

Fulfilling my overlapping roles as a drummer, a teacher of aspiring musicians in a London music college, and a ponderer on what it is some of us are trying to achieve in and through higher popular music education, I spend a good portion of my time worrying about what kind of example I set, and to what extent how many students will see my example, casually ignore it, and go their own way. Most of the music I play is perhaps most easily grouped under the broad descriptor of “popular” – although the relative popularity of that music is borne testament by the collection of boxes I have at home containing CDs of the Eruptörs’ first (OK, and also our second) punk-metal quasi-concept-album from 2008 (and 2010). That being said, I just finished a run of panto in Essex, and the show was 99% sold out – an impressive box office feat that I am confident had nothing at all to do with my being involved in the production. But although panto is popular and I hardly stopped drumming throughout, isn’t it much more theatre than music? Where does one draw the line, and why? All of this (and more) has me wondering about my relevance, anxious about the pedagogic authority – as Bourdieu and Passeron (1977) have termed it – that students, consciously or unconsciously, ascribe to me.

My portmanteau of pedagogic authority concerns me as much in any domain as it does in my sloth-like adoption of technology in performance. I came slowly and late to using technology as a drummer, and never even considered it in my former life as a clarinettist. Growing up in the ‘80s, I quite liked the idea of electronic drums, but was put off them by my dad, who said they didn’t sound like real drums. I couldn’t hear the difference, but believed him anyway. I have more recently come to discover my father was right, and to think that the last job electronic drum kits ought be doing is trying to sound like their acoustic counterparts that already sound very much like themselves. I have gigged many times with borrowed electronic kits, and I find in really hard to play “drums” on them. Those mesh heads that the higher-spec Roland kits use invariably end up hurting my wrists, and all the movements I habitually make as a drummer backfire in sometimes the most spectacular of unmusical ways in performance. I vowed I’d buy an electronic kit when I needed one for a gig, and while I have come perilously close to a purchase I have yet to take that pecuniary plunge. When I am confronted with technological obligations in performance, I generally cope all right, but I always end up feeling like the robots are in control.


In 2012 I took a gig in a fringe theatre production of Parade, and, when it turned out that, despite requesting them, the company had no intention of actually shelling out to buy or rent the tubular bells and timpani that were integral to the sound and feel of the show, it was assumed that I would simply provide the necessary sounds from my electronic drum module. The next morning I spent my entire fee for the four-and-a-half-week run of the show on a Roland SPD-S sampling pad. Borrowing and installing samples from a very resourceful and tolerant friend (and learning to ignore the bafflement and misdirection from the manufacturers’ manual), I came up with the goods in time for dress rehearsals.

Buoyed by my technological triumph, eight months later I bought an iPad, wondering how the Kindle app would look, and keen to experience the fullness of the Björk album I’d bought a couple of years earlier. After a year-and-a-half or so as a glorified magazine rack, the iPad (and I) joined a band in which we provide playback of the gorgeous backing tracks along to which the band performs. I press “go” in an app on the iPad for each song, count the band in from a click track, and trigger samples from my SPD-S. It seems incredibly unfair to me that, while the drums are usually at least 10 inches in diameter, the pads on the SPD-S, and on its successor, the seductively-named SPD-SX, are all of four inches wide – how on earth a man of my heritage and clumsiness is expected to strike anything that small with any degree of predictability or consistency, I have no idea. For precisely this reason, having convincingly sampled and EQ’d a couple of kitchen knives in my office using Logic Pro 9 for the first time, when I programmed my new Peter-Pan-and-Captain-Hook’s-Swords-clashing sound in to the SPD-S six weeks ago I made sure that each of the nine playing surfaces on the pad triggered the sound, thereby increasing my chances of getting the right noise by a handy 800%. I still often missed the module altogether in performance.

And so it is that I have stumbled, and continue to stumble, into incorporating technology into (un)popular music performance. As such an epic Luddite, I marvel at students less than half my age who create luscious soundscapes with just a loop pedal and their voices, and who play incredible live sets in bands using laptops and Ableton. Sometimes in the student bands at my institution there are dancers too, but dancing is still largely verboten in music education.

Touch and tone:

For a while I was terribly confused by a colleague in Florida, who would often repeat his impassioned mantra that “the iPad is a musical instrument”, and then, with his iPad ensemble, would play the blues and Nirvana covers, with members (all white and male, of course) respectively playing vaguely-convincing samples of guitar, bass and drums through a PA system. This annoyed me, as I kept thinking that, much like with electronic drums, if iPads were so good at being iPads, why were these blokes using them to sound not quite like guitars and definitely not much like drums?! But of course, the degree of fidelity to “real” instruments was not the point my colleague was trying to make: interaction with an iPad is a discrete form of tactile play that offers possibilities for people who might not be able or have access to use traditional instruments to make music. My epiphany came when I followed a friend’s suggestion to download a bagpipes app. The app is hard to make work, but it’s a good deal cheaper and more sociable than learning actual military pipes, and it sounds close enough that I’m happy to invoke the murky Scotch heritage of my maternal ancestors by having a go every now and then on a plane ride with a pair of headphones. (Please do not wait up for my performance debut with the i-pipes.)

The same nouveau-Floridian colleague also owns and continues to build a substantial collection of guitar pedals, as do all of my axe-wielding muso friends. Some indeed have more than one collection, and they each spend countless hours configuring and reconfiguring, buying and selling, imagining and re-imagining their pedal boards. Guitarists, and increasingly, it seems to me, bassists, obsess about tone. Anyone who has ever met an adult male who owns an electric guitar knows exactly what I’m talking about – and if you’re a guitarist reading this, we both know you’re thinking about your sound right now. As to my keyboard-playing associates, most of what they do might as well be magic – they all play gigs with a minimum setup of two keyboards, at least one laptop, a whole bunch of unidentifiable paraphernalia, some stuff running from their phone, and maybe Ableton Live. The range and specificity of sounds at their disposal is confounding – I am still content (to the point, actually, of being almost overcome with emotion) when my drums sound like drums. Which is nearly always.

Spin doctors:

DJ-ing never really made sense to me. Somehow, over 30 years of electronic dance music passed me by as I indulged in a fantasy of acoustic-only music and Rock, a product of my life as a hermit of high school and then conservative classical training, with a penchant for spending all of my leisure time locked in small, dingy rehearsal spaces with friends making noise with guitars and drums. I remember driving my congas and shakers to a gig in Sussex one Friday night to accompany a friend, and getting stuck in so much southbound traffic that I arrived late and had to set up during the first song, despite having allowed nearly four hours for the 90-minute drive. I was incensed that Fat Boy Slim was “playing” on Brighton beach, and felt insulted by the hundreds of thousands of people flocking to hear the man play his record collection in public. I have always resisted clubbing – I hate to dance, and I recoil when people scream in my ear to be heard – but I am overcoming my ridiculous aloofness regarding DJs – I know a few, and I hear that their work is exhausting, difficult and immersive, and is often way more creative than playing though a bunch of tired and well-worn cover songs or originals, as is the most one can hope for from even the best popular bands (unless you are American, and a fan of that all-but-dead genre, jam band).

Your turn:

Reflecting upon my shortcomings, and finally acknowledging (as legendary progressive rock drummer Bill Bruford, recalling a former mentor, urges us drummers to do) that there is “life beyond the cymbals”, I am finally excited by technology in performance. I also still fear it, confident in my inability to harness and use it. Thus and despite this, I am delighted, with my colleague Dr Bryan Powell, to advise readers who have made it this far of a call for papers for a special issue of Journal of Music, Technology and Education. We encourage anyone with an interest to submit papers in response to the following:

Call for Papers:

Journal of Music, Technology and Education
Special issue on Technology and Performance in Popular Music Education

Guest editors: Gareth Dylan Smith and Bryan Powell

Performance in popular music education is an increasingly technologised space. As guitars, drums and microphones are gaining greater acceptance in school music curricula around the world through performance-based pedagogical models, such as the Modern Band curriculum of Little Kids Rock, and Musical Futures’ informal learning approach. Turntablism, music production and rapping have a growing presence in programmes from primary school to graduate level. In fact, you can easily attend rap concerts nowadays by searching for rap concerts near me. Songwriting courses, rock camps and international collaborative pop projects sprout up globally in physical spaces and on line, while children and young people write, produce and release multi-media popular music artefacts from their bedrooms and basements. Popular music has always relied on, grown through, and pushed innovation in technology. With students embracing change faster than many teachers can imagine relevant pedagogical approaches, new paradigms of performance are emerging: drummers become musical directors at the helm of a plethora of technologies, bassists play synthesisers as much as guitars, and front-people are masters of Ableton, loop pedals and computerised gloves. As performance and production skill sets thus diversify and converge, so other technologies democratise the music-making landscape.

The domains of technologically mediated popular music performance in educational contexts require the attention of critical scholars and actions researchers. This special issue of JMTE invites colleagues to submit papers including, but not be limited to, critical perspectives on the following:

  • Epistemologies and intersectionality in technology and popular music performance;
  • Music, technology and the liminal popular music performance classroom space;
  • Negotiating performance, (social) media and intellectual property in popular music performance;
  • Gender and technology in popular music performance;
  • Ethics and technologically mediated pro-sumption of popular music.

Please submit full papers of between 5,000 and 7,000 words to: by 1 May 2015.


Share Button

Gareth Dylan Smith is Assistant Professor of Music at Boston University, founding editor of the Journal of Popular Music Education, and a drummer. His research interests include drumming, meaning and value in music making, teaching and learning in popular music, and eudaimonia. Gareth lives online at

One thought on “Confessions of a Luddite: My eventual acceptance of technology in performance”

  1. I was an early adopter of Music Technology in the 1970’s, eventually tending in a somewhat opposite direction to yours, in the sense of nowadays eschewing the machine in favour of live musicians where they’re simply being replaced by samplers for economy’s sake, as distinct from sounds that can be made only by machines as in MAX/MSP et al. I refer of course to early attempts by synthesizers to emulate real instruments, followed by far more convincing, and therefore employment-threatening work with samplers that fooled many people for a while until they started recognising the loops’ crossover points on movie scores. Since then, sample players have improved immensely, to the point where they can take the place of musicians far more surreptitiously, while our own Dr Stefan Bilbao has succeeded in modelling sounds with algorithms that can generate instruments first principles, with all the diminution of demand on RAM and CPU that connotes.

    One of the early casualties in the rise of music technology was drummers, as you well know, at the hands of drum machines, so where this will all end is conjecture. For many though, it’s a matter of either “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” or ‘Rage Against The Machine’. There’s an old joke, no doubt you’ve heard it, but I’ll repeat here for your delectation and summary deletion:

    Question: “How many drummers does take to change a light bulb?
    Answer: “None, they have machines to do that now.”

    Music technology serves me well in my professional life as an orchestrator working with students composing scores using scorewriters like Sibelius and Finale, and clients who want to hear what the composition or orchestration might sound like. I have amassed enough highly convincing “before and after” demos in my portfolio now, to make opting for a live orchestra a no-brainer for those with the budget. It also offers sounds I cannot obtain with ‘real’ instruments (at the risk of patronising musicians who work in electronica), indeed oftentimes serves as the final track for clients who don’t have the wherewithal to pay for a live ensemble.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *