On Technology and Musical Expression: An Interview with Alex Ruthmann

Alex Ruthmann is the director of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab.  He has received grants National Science Foundation grants to explore the interdisciplinary teaching of computational and musical thinking and commercialization strategies for music and media education technologies.  We asked him recently about his work at NYU’s Music and Audio Research Lab.

You began your musical journey as a horn player.  How did your music technology interest evolve?

I attended the University of Michigan as an undergrad and I was initially pursued a music performance degree focusing on the French horn. While there, I added additional studies in performing arts technology, interactive art and engineering, blending those into an interdisciplinary degree. I was always interested in hardware and designing new interfaces for expression, so I spent time integrating sensors into my French horn and exploring methods for adding tangibility to electronic music creation and performance. This work led to consulting with a startup in Quebec that focused on designing new electronic musical instruments for elementary music teaching. It was there that I learned how poorly designed technologies were for classroom music teaching and learning. This realization led to me pursuing masters and doctoral studies in music education, and teaching at the middle school level so that I would have the background to better design technologies for music learning and teaching like I am now doing at NYU as part of my dual appointment across the programs in Music Education and Music Technology.

Can you tell us a little about the NYU Music Experience Design Lab?  What is an average day at work like in the lab?

My main work is as Director of the Music Experience Design Lab (MusEDLab). In the MusEDLab, we collaboratively research and design new technologies and experiences for music making, learning, and engagement with young people, educators, non-profit and industry partners. We’re in the process of spinning off a commercialization/translation lab called MusEDWorks, which will exist to help mature and commercialize innovations coming from the students and staff in the MusEDLab. A day in the lab is a busy one spent user testing with kids and teachers, prototyping new innovations, and getting out of the building doing customer discovery and business model validation. We spend most of our days in residence at the Leslie eLab, which is a great space on campus to network and learn from other entrepreneurs on campus.

What are you most passionate about?  Are there specific questions that interest you, ideas you are working to puzzle out?

Our focus is on developing technologies that lower barriers to creative musical and artistic expression for young people, their teachers, and novices in general. We’re passionate about tangible play directly with music recordings and supporting creative expression. A large part of our work happens in partnership with various community arts/education non-profits, including the Urban Arts Partnership and Little Kids Rock. This past summer we ran a product design workshop with four middle and high school teams of students and teachers designing solutions to everyday problems at the intersection of the arts and technology. We love working with young people and teachers in the collaborative design of solutions to real world challenges they face.