As a first-time exhibitor at this year’s SXSW Edu Playground, it was inspiring to witness the animated reactions from the attendees that joined around our booth. From seasoned educators and student clusters to families and neighboring exhibitors, there was an experience for every visitor to enjoy. Why? DJ technology is curious to most, and music resonates with everyone.
Most people today will recognize a DJ deck, but what the process of DJing actually entails eludes them.
Adults who approached our booth exclaimed, “I’ve always wanted to be a DJ! How does it work?” After a few minutes on the DJ controller many expressed, “I wish I had this when I was a kid!”
An observing father asked his daughter, “Can you let daddy try?”
My intended audience was not only the students that I aim to work with, but also adults and educators yet unfamiliar with the pure fun of DJ music-making. Underlying the experiences of those adults is a character I observed the whole week long: a human predisposition for musical play.
There is an unsatiated impulse in everyone to work within and without sound, a natural sense to discover — for instance, how it can be manipulated toward emotional release and otherwise communicate words we cannot say. Sound is fluid. It can transform on a whim. And it is the building block to music and language.
Bridging the Gap between Pop Culture and Classroom Pedagogy
On the last day of the SXSW Edu conference, local students were able to attend. Cliques of middle and high schoolers, both girls and boys, flocked at our booth within the first hour. They hopped on their cell phones to call or text their friends to come meet them until every station was filled. DJing is exciting. It’s relevant. And students have no access to it in schools.
Each laptop was loaded with a range of music from all genres, including current pop songs. We showed them a few introductory navigation techniques to get them to perform a simple mix — match the BPMs, drop on the 1, use filters or effects for transitions. My only parameter: filter out inappropriate words from pop songs when they play on the loudspeaker. Giving them this agency to control their song choice and responsibility to stay appropriate inspired them to really get creative and also think critically about the songs they are playing.
“Do you know when that word comes on?”
“Turn it down, it’s coming up.”
“Wow, we can’t play this whole line out loud. Just filter.”
As I listened to their conversations and they talked to each other about who is responsible for making sure that the song is clean, I noticed that it became a collective effort to figure out ways to musically navigate through the explicit content of many songs they like. Groups of 2 to 4 friends hovered over one DJ set-up and suggested songs to mix together. They lit up and gave each other positive feedback as they employed special effects and filters to successfully remove explicit content. They continued to tinker with the different knobs and buttons that I did not show them to see how else they can improvise on the mix.
Laughter. High-fives. Bopping heads. Surprised faces and loud whoas. All indicators that they’re having fun. They’re able to share the experience with their friends. They can play what they like, and they’re trusted to make responsible musical choices. This is what brings them back — time and time again.
We can’t do much about the pop music content that is released for consumption. As educators, we need to recognize what our students are exposed to outside of the classrooms, and give them a chance to engage with the content in a constructive space. DJing requires active thinking. It requires intimate knowledge of the music. It’s also an avenue for creativity that is accessible to all ages given the advances in technology.
While middle school and high school students benefited from the freedom of choice and the social learning experience, the younger attendees simply wanted to play. As the sounds tickled their ears and they associated each press of a button or turn of a knob with an opportunity for a new melodic creation, they grew eager to explore. They became more curious about the different functionalities of the DJ controller and asked questions about navigation in order to execute the sound they hear in their heads. Many did not know the names of artists or song titles, but they recognized common melodic patterns and shared “Oh! I like this one!”
Young or old, the DJ controller affords creative opportunities for all audiences. It inspires innovation and preserves the essence of musical play that has been lost in the formal music curriculum that students receive in schools. It refreshes the basic knowledge that music-making is fun.