AH: Hello, it’s Anita here and welcome to the latest podcast. In this episode, I’m talking with Emma Supica who is the education co-ordinator for Artiphon. Artiphon is a music tech company that creates virtual instruments to enable everyone to be creative. Its latest instrument is the Orba, which is a round handheld instrument that people are able to instantly make music with. And another recent innovation is a musical lens for Snapchat called ‘Scan Band’, which lets you point your phone at an everyday object and get coloured stickers which you can then play. So why I thought you’d be interested in Artiphon is that the company wants to break down barriers to making music, bringing music into the hands of more people of all skill levels. Their founder Mike recently featured on a series of seminars called ‘Over the digital horizon’ hosted by the music education hub in England called Wiltshire Music Connect. So hi Emma, and welcome to the podcast. What you’re doing sounds really important in terms of access, and really interesting because it’s so disruptive. So I’m looking forward to hearing more.
ES: Hi Anita. I need to thank you so much for having me. I’m extremely excited to discuss all the sorts of things we’re doing at Artiphon specifically, tied into music education and inclusion there.
AH: So to start off with, can you tell me where you are in the world today? And how did you end up professionally where you are today?
ES: Sure. I am in Nashville, Tennessee. And that is also where Artiphon’s headquarters are. We are a pretty globally distributed team. I just happen to live in the same city where our global headquarters exists. And so I, my background is as a music educator, I’ve always been deeply involved in the arts and arts education. I was a public school music teacher for years, band directors specifically. And then I moved into the nonprofit world as a programme leader and director in a nonprofit music school here in Nashville, and then went on to found my own arts-based nonprofit. I am also an improviser, and a theatre artist and so that nonprofit has to do with theatre and improv. And so then, in late 2020, I started working with Artiphon as a Customer Support Specialist. I actually have been just like a big fan of the company for a long time, and was specifically sparked at the beginning by Instrument 1 for its possibilities within music education and music therapy settings. In sort of the adaptive instrument world, I thought that it could really open up just a wide variety of possibilities for students who needed, you know, different access to instruments. And so that was like, ‘Oh, this looks so cool’, so I just followed the company for a long time, then had the opportunity to work with them briefly. When Orba was launched, there was a big influx of customer support needs and so I hopped on the team for a little bit, and then I came back as education co-ordinator this fall, in fall 2021.
AH: Brilliant, what a great role for you. It sounds as though it’s absolutely perfect.
ES: It feels perfect. I’m very excited to be here. I had been chatting with them about this for a long time. And so ingesting the mission and the approach to music creation that the company has, the company’s values, that I just became more and more just into the idea of really helping lead this education initiative. So I’m very excited to be here.
AH: So can you tell me more about your kind of beliefs about music education and music, and then Artiphon’s mission and its history and their beliefs?
ES: Sure. So my focus is all about, it holds play above anything else in learning. I’m also you know, as I said, I’m an improviser and improv is also all about play, and accepting what’s there and playing with what you have and following the fun and being joyful. And I think that those just lead to really great educational and wellness outcomes if you hold play and fun at a really, really high level. And so all of my curriculum development, all of my programme development, it really values play as a big part of the approach there. And then with that, I hold access to be one of the greatest things that we should focus on in all of our programming. I’m just not interested in gatekeeping in the arts. I think that there are, you know, a lot of gates and a lot of gatekeepers, whether they mean to be or not. And so I’m just, I’m not interested in that. And I am highly interested in removing those barriers as much as possible with resources or approaches, or just outreach space, you know, all of those things I just that really drives my own personal motivation and education. And then goes really well hand-in-hand with Artiphon’s mission, which is that, you know, anybody can be musical, that everybody is creative, and they want to create products and support that is all about just right away, here you go create. You know, create with sound, now create with video. Let’s be together, connected through this creativity and use technology to just move that needle a bit in terms of letting people create and be creative.
AH: So how does it all come about? Did it come from your founder’s sort of frustration with not being able to find instruments that were really, really accessible? Did he have an experience himself, personal experience of that?
ES: Yeah. So Dr. Mike Butera, has a PhD in Sound Studies. And so he thought a lot about how people make music and how sound affects people. And yeah, a lot of these instruments are super expensive, and really, technically behind a large learning curve. And so the mission is just to bring music into the hands of as many people of all skill levels no matter where they are. And so the Instrument 1 was created in 2015, to try to make this as accessible as possible. In that sense, here you go, I think you should have sound at your fingertips, you should be able to touch sound and be able to make this right away. And then Orba was launched just in the last few years to push that even further and open it up even more with an even more affordable price point, size and interface. So that’s, it just drives all of the work that Artiphon does based on that initial move by our founder, Dr. Mike Butera.
AH: So we’ve talked about the instruments, about Instrument 1 and the Orba, but is it possible to demonstrate them over the podcast or to describe them to me?
ES: Mmm, so I think that demonstrating might be kind of tough because of my own home sound set-up. Truly only because of that. But I can do a great job or I can attempt a great job of describing it, specifically Orba. Briefly, Instrument 1 is a magnificent tool and instrument. It was the first instrument. It can be played like touching and drum pads or keyboard. It can be strummed like a guitar, it is an excellent MIDI controller. So it’s going to be hooked into, you know, some kind of way for you to connect with something that makes music like GarageBand was my favourite one that I used personally and in a classroom. Orba goes a little further in that it can fit in the palm of your hand, it’s round, it is almost exactly a half sphere. I like to use it with a silicone sleeve because I like the tactile nature of how grippy that is for me. And you can play it with your fingertips. There are eight pads that are wedge shaped on the top of this, surrounded by a centre ‘A’ button, A for the Artiphon logo. And these pads, they represent pitches. The default setting is typically in a pentatonic mode, but you can switch that using the companion app that’s connected by Bluetooth to create sounds inside the instrument itself. So the instrument has an onboard synth, so it can make sounds all on its own. Instrument 1 didn’t do that, but Orba does. So I can pick this up, I can connect it to nothing, just turn it on and it makes sound when I’m pressing the top buttons. It’s also a looper. So onboard there is a recorder that you can just loop and layer four modes, drum mode, bass mode, chord mode, or lead mode. So there are these four layers to creating this beat looping pattern. And you can do that all just onboard the instrument itself. Let’s see what else can you do? You can adjust tempo, you can adjust the octave, you can play and pause, you can erase loops, that’s all without hooking it up to anything. But additionally, it’s also a MIDI controller and you can still hook Orba into you know your preferred DAW [Digital Audio Workstation] to create music just using it as a MIDI controller. What I love about Orba is that it starts from a very simple approach. Here you go just make music without anything else, standalone with these four modes. Or you can hook it into the companion app, the Orba app, in which you can change the key, you can change the sounds that are preset within each of these modes. You can adjust tempo, you can do all of those things, and then even more, hook it into GarageBand and use it as a MIDI controller. And then it’s really, really possibilities are endless there. So that’s the thing I love about it more than anything is it’s super approachable. Here it is, seems pretty simple, straightforward. Let’s just create some loops using these really cool onboard sounds. And then if you want to go further, you can.
AH: That’s amazing. It doesn’t sound intimidating, it doesn’t look intimidating, does it? And I think that’s a really brilliant thing that it seems very simple, but it is actually quite complex if you want it to be. I just wanted to, have you used this in a teaching context? And are there any teaching guidelines for music teachers who want to use it in the classroom?
ES: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I have used this virtually, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. So that’s how I have personally used it interacting with students. We are also building up a series of videos where I teach, like imaginary students, or I basically model a lesson. And in those videos, what I typically do is I begin without an Orba. Because we’re generally, we just want to offer these types of lessons, whether you have an Orba yet or not. And so most of them start with like, body percussion, or describing the sort of elements of music without the Orba. And then we bring Orba on and show how I use it in a lesson or use it in a classroom. Those videos haven’t been published yet, but they possibly might be by the time this podcast comes out. So stay tuned for those. We’re also developing a curriculum to support Orba’s use in a classroom that is tied to standards that really focus on music education and creation, using the instrument. And then we’re also building community of people who are using this in a classroom, we’ve got educators, at least in North America, but moving more globally by the minute using this in their classrooms, and we’re communicating with them, you know, getting that feedback is so important so that we can continue to support teachers in the field using Orba.
AH: That’s so interesting. And before I forget, because I know I will forget, just a practical question. How much is it? Because it isn’t very much money, is it? And are there discounts for educators? And where would people buy them?
ES: Yes, so Orba retails for $99 USD but and those are, we sell directly to US and Canada, but where to buy internationally is listed directly on our sales page. But Gear4music is our UK distributor, and we’ve got tons of resellers around the world, but there are education discounts. And that information is also listed on our website.
AH: Brilliant. Glad I’ve done that. I know people will be interested in that. Have you had much of an uptake from educators? And can you tell me a little bit about how they are using them?
ES: Mm hmm. Yes, we have had several educators and also therapists or wellness practitioners, we refer to them. I had one person reach out about using Orba in sound healing and sound baths. One who was an OT, an occupational therapist, but many, many educators reaching out. We have a partnership with Anaheim public schools, they received Orba right before the pandemic hit. They developed this entire curriculum around social and emotional learning, which was incredible. And so cool, because I think that really speaks to the way that Orba facilitates innovation, both in terms of students and learners having it but also teachers. You know, we’re developing curriculum, we have these video lessons, we’re trying to put things out there so that teachers can use them if they want. But also, the whole concept is, here’s a tool for you to create right away and feel really comfortable and safe and successful, creating, innovating. And I think that we’ve seen that from our teachers so far as well. So they created this whole curriculum, and they really liked the instrument during, it was the elementary school district in Anaheim. So these are younger students. They do instrumental units and they couldn’t use any wind instruments, understandably, you know, and so they liked that Orba is easy to clean. It’s easy to keep sanitary and let students explore it in a really safe way. And so that’s one way we’ve seen this. I just received an email that I really loved from a teacher who has 18 Orba’s for his classroom. And he just said, ‘This is so awesome. I just want to say this – Orba orchestra.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Please tell me more’. So excited to learn more about how they’re using it in an individual way, in a collaborative way. We received some feedback from a nonprofit partner who works in music production. So they teach students, you know, they’re in studios and teaching how to produce music. And they said that it was tough to get kids to feel safe, sharing what they did when they were working with, like a keyboard, or other instruments. But when they got Orba, it was like, ‘Oh, I get it, just leave me alone, and I got this’. Which I think is the best, you know, if you hand an instrument to a student, and they say, ‘Okay, cool. Leave me alone so I can explore this for a while’. I mean …
AH: That’s amazing, isn’t it?
ES: That’s amazing. Yeah, that’s the coolest thing. And so she said that that’s what happened with their students. So we’re getting excellent feedback from educators in the field who are using this now and, and communicating to get even more in the future. So really exciting stuff.
AH: Oh, fantastic. And what about young people? And how are they using it? It might be difficult for you to answer, but have you heard from individual young people about, who you know, aren’t doing this in lessons or in any other context, they’re just buying it like an instrument and playing around with it?
ES: Yeah, so I’m generally speaking, and also sort of individually, and anecdotally, I’ve heard some stories of students and younger players who honestly, I don’t even know if I would call them musicians prior to picking up an Orba. One of them was like, interested in drums, but you know, hadn’t really taken lessons. And she got an Orba, and she is super creative, but was kind of struggling with attention in school. And understandably, online learning isn’t always the most engaging space. And so she has an Orba and was just using it as kind of a creative fidgeter in between moments of school or spaces where she needed to focus a lot. I think that it’s not a fidget spinner, by any means. But it is something to fidget with, like, we want you to just feel like picking it up and playing it in micro moments. Just fit that creative expression and just playing in as many tiny little moments, the nooks and crannies of your day, as much as possible. And that’s what I’ve heard from young people is that they can either just pick it up and play with it for a little bit and put it back down. Or there’s a headphone jack, thankfully, for parents. I am also a parent and my almost four year old plays with Orba, and I hook him right into headphones. So he just explores, you know, for a long, long time, and it’s so, this sort of like ephemeral nature of just picking it up and going for it looping for a little bit, letting that loop go, adding on, taking back, it can just exist in that moment. And so being present, and that creative expression, I think is just really valuable to young people. I think particularly right now when detaching from the present moment is, understandably, a move that a lot of them are making, you know, we’ve just experienced a pretty tough few years. And so I think globally, feeling the weight of that and being able to have an outlet that is creative, I think that’s such a great opportunity for them.
AH: Yeah, and that’s just such a completely different feel, and experience and kind of intention for an instrument, isn’t it? And that goes back to that theme you were saying about play, and about not being so intentional with it, and not being so worried and stressed about it. Because often practise can be joyful. But it can also be a little bit, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve got to do this, set aside this time. And I’ve got to do this many minutes. And I’ve got to get to this outcome with it’. But to be able to just pick it up like you would a phone with a game on it or whatever is fantastic. So you were talking about the person using it for her sort of attention difficulties? Can you tell me more about the inclusivity of these instruments?
ES: Hmm. So I think that the immediate response about inclusivity of, or best specifically, or just sort of Artiphon instruments in general is that it’s what I’ve spoken to already, which is that they are inviting of adaptation in the sense that there is no right way to play this. There’s no performance practice technique we’re not interested in technical prowess in any way. Are there people on, like our Instagram page who are showing off a little bit? Totally. That is there, and that’s cool too, and keep going. But that’s not, it’s never like, that’s not the right way to do it. You know, there’s no there’s no right there’s no wrong it just is. It’s just, go for it. And so I think that that’s setting it up to be a really inclusive instrument. Again, that there’s no gatekeeping of technical ability or physical ability or neuro ability, any of that. It’s a pretty technically responsive instrument, there’s haptic response, you know, it’s relatively great to hold, you know, it feels good, it’s not too heavy, it’s got a pretty good drop radius, we like to not really treat it as a too precious, you know, there’s a lot of great technical things going on inside this little thing, but it can be dropped, it can be used, you know, we want people to use it, and play it. The nature of how it is circular, I’m going to get into, it sounds really simple. But I think the simplicity of it makes it so that it can be really adaptive. It’s a circle, there is tactile, you can feel the difference in those pads. I was speaking to somebody recently about, who works with children who are blind about, you know, what kind of additions we could make to the top to be like, kind of homing bars, or ways to make it more accessible for those who are visually impaired. But even just like the pads themselves, they’re about the size, you know, they’re meant for fingers, so single fingers. But when I’ve used this before, what’s cool about it is that even if you tap or hit the entire circle, so maybe you like, you know, many pads at the same time, it’s set up so that it still sounds good. If you’re in chord mode, all those chords sound great together, they’re pitched so that, and voiced so that, it sounds great right away when you’re playing it. So there’s that. But then there are also these more gross motor gestures built into the instrument. You can tap the side, you can tilt the instrument. There’s a shake function. So not only is it this, like touch-pad top, but you can move the entire Orba itself, which allows for maybe physical adaptations in the sense of like, what is possible and motor skills. So I think I could keep going, I’m trying to really think about other ways that it’s inclusive. I like that it’s, it can be used with or without a screen. You know, if we’ve got any again, like visual impairment or just tired of using a screen stimulated by using a screen and you don’t want to use a screen for a while, there is just a ton of possibilities if you hook it into some kind of iOS device with the app, or if you’re going on to a computer, but you can also just throw it in a backpack, take it somewhere, we have people who are using it in prison settings. Things that are brought into prisons get to play and have Wi Fi access. And so that’s cool they get they don’t have to hook it into anything they can use it without so I just think that the possibilities are pretty wide open for being a really approachable at the onset instrument. There’s a really steep incline to what’s possible with the instrument that I just think is really, really cool.
AH: Have you got, you know you talked about community, have you got examples of people uploading videos of them playing the instrument?
ES: If you check out our Instagram page, I mean there’s just tons of videos. Instagram, Tik Tok, all of those, Snapchat, we’ve got people playing Orba all over the place and sharing that with us. And I mean that’s the best part of all of this is seeing what people do that made me go, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea. Oh, that’s so cool’. I just love seeing that and I feel like those are just pouring in daily.
AH: Yeah, well I wonder when we’re going to see the Orba in the charts, or used by a famous rock band or a famous classical artist or something, that’d be really interesting. Have you actually had any interesting customers?
ES: Kids and teachers are the coolest, most famous people who use our instruments. But you know, there are, I would say there are tons of very prolific, impressive, just way beyond what I understand even in music making to be, because I am a traditionally trained musician and I’m pretty just enamoured with what’s going on in music tech right now, and how people are making music together and alone. And you know, especially when everything shut down and they were siloed in their own homes just what happened there and I think Orba and Instrument 1 were a part of a lot of people’s ‘at home music making’ journeys during that time which I thought was super cool. The most famous person that I recall is T-Pain used Instrument 1 – that was pretty cool. But tons of like lo-fi beat makers and you know influencers in the beat making world, so cool using Orba and it’s really fun to scroll through that and see what’s going on.
AH: So it’s not going to be long before we do see it used, and go to a gig or something and see it used, or go to a concert and see it used.
ES: True. Yeah, well that it’s so small that I have a feeling we’ll miss it at first.
AH: Ah, yes, of course.
ES: It’s such, it’s just a little guy on stage and I have a feeling they’ll set their loop and they’ll put it down and maybe interact with it. Plus people who use electronic instruments, it’s so nimble, a lot of the time you don’t even notice what happens, it just almost looks like magic seamlessly working together. So yeah.
AH: Yeah. Another aspect of your work is that you’ve been working with Snapchat, which sounds very interesting, and of course, a great way to access young people. So tell me a little bit about that work and how it came about?
ES: At Artiphon, we want to inspire everyone to be just as creative as possible. As I said, like all those nooks and crannies of their day, just all the time. And AR, you know, augmented reality, music is a super powerful idea. And it really enables everyone to just add sound to everything that they do, all the bits of their life. So it’s, with Scan Band, that was about turning objects around us into like, you know, delightful, charming little musical instruments that you could play wherever, and Scan Band specifically, so powerful, so cool. But it’s just the beginning of just a whole bouquet of interactive musical experiences, that’s part of the art of fun ecosystem. You know, we’ve got Orbacam as well, which is a visual element, you know, you can create sound as you record video. That’s a really cool app. And there is even more coming through as we speak.
AH: Oh, that’s really interesting. I was curious about whether you had anything in the pipeline that you’d be able to give us a sneak preview of or sort of talk to us about, is there anything you’re particularly excited about?
ES: That’s a great question. I would say, generally, we love hearing feedback from the community and putting that back into the product plans. So that happens all the time, like, as somebody who was in the Customer Support Department, you know, we were taking feedback and saying, ‘Hey, this seems like a really cool thought’. Moving forward, ‘How can we make this happen?’, so it’s a really interactive sort of experience, the way that products are developed, and things are developed. So specifically, I want to really mention that for education partners, like, let’s get that feedback here. Because I’m your champion in that space. So something comes up and you’re like, ‘What if we did this?’, you know, this is a company that just applauds that type of conversation. Let’s talk about it, let’s talk about possibilities for us, like down the pipeline, just more exciting things that’s going to continue serving that mission of allowing people to be creative, just immediately, and all day as much as possible.
AH: That’s certainly exciting for music educators, isn’t it? Because they’re not really used to having instrument producers saying, come back to us with your great ideas about how we can look again at this instrument and do it differently. So yeah, very exciting. I’m always interested in different perspectives on communications and advocacy, because that’s my background. What have you learned that works for advocating this type of more inclusive, boundary-breaking, tech-driven, creative approach to music making? Are you finding people are a little bit fearful of it? And how do you overcome that?
ES: Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, I was fearful of it, and I’m a trained musician. And so I think music tech is … I think that music tech has this optic of being really male-dominated, too, and like that, we have a sense of who that might serve. And so I think that the quickest way to advocate for inclusivity in that space is to put voices and images and what people are making. I mean even their songs, like their music out in the forefront. So I think that’s like, the lowest hanging fruit is just here – here, this is what we look like, this is what people sound like. This is, I guess, the representation of the bottom line, which is to represent as many people as possible of all skill levels, abilities, gender, just all of it across the board. But I think that the approach to communicating and advocating is that two-way street that we’ve sort of already been talking about, which is truly valuing that feedback and listening. I mean, I have witnessed the founder of the company and the co-founder of the company truly listening to, even within Artiphon, listening to one of the more junior staff members speaking about something and truly hearing what they were saying. And that radiates, that sort of value radiates outside of the company into product development. And just the way that the company works. We’re set up to be able to be communicating and advocating for a really inclusive and creative approach to music making within music tech, with our instruments, but just with the culture and the company broadly. Personally, it sounds simple to say listen to those who you are advocating for or representing, but it’s just the truth. You know, I think even in education, if you’re just speaking about younger people, like let’s say you’re just talking about public school, young voices are undervalued. Those feelings, those viewpoints, those perspectives, they’re the most valuable and they’re valid. And I think also, my last point, thinking about advocacy on a broader level is, I’m going to lean on my improv experience a little bit, which is, you should have perspective and you should keep values. But don’t go in knowing the outcome because you’ll get lost. If you go in knowing what you value, what’s important and who you’re going to bat for, or why, then that’s what really will work. That was what will really carry you through the process. If you go in thinking, I have to go convince this person for this outcome specifically, it won’t land as deeply and as impactfully as it as it maybe could have. And you may be disappointed at the end. And you may miss an even better outcome, because you weren’t present and responsive, while holding your values and your perspectives at the forefront. So that’s always the advice that I give to somebody who’s in an advocacy role. Yeah, don’t set out with the outcome already decided, let your perspective and your values lead the way in a collaborative way.
AH: Yeah. And same, you know, whether you’re working in advocacy or whether you’re teaching in music. Same principles, isn’t it really?
ES: That’s right.
AH: This has been so interesting, Emma, and just before we wrap up, I just wondered if – you’ve already shared some tips really – but I wonder if you could share either three practical pieces of advice for people looking to incorporate this type of music making into their education work, or wellbeing work, or maybe three calls to action for others working in music for wellbeing, education or social justice, things you’d like to see happen in the next few years? That’s kind of two options really?
ES: Yeah, that’s great. I might combine these a little bit. And I also wanted to think about these more leading up to it but then I started to get really in my head about it and decided to just again, see where it took me. I’m a really processed person.
AH: Improv. Improv. [Laughs]
ES: Exactly, that’s exactly right. So things that I think are important or pieces of advice, or even calls to action. One is, just do it. You know, I think that perfectionism keeps us from making moves, and then we wake up and the moment has passed, or we can’t do that any longer, whatever it is, and if there’s action to be taken, just try it and allow mistakes that may be made along the way to be gifts or opportunities for growth. Because this, I think, would be my second thing of pieces of advice to people in education, which is, allow yourself to be fallible and allow yourself to be open to sharing the process of learning. Because if you don’t model the kind of approach to learning and playing and trying and risk taking, if you don’t model that, how can you possibly ask your students to do that with you, or for you, or in front of you? You know, approaching it from a really processed, driven perspective and a sort of a decentralised power perspective, I think has been how I approach teaching, and learning for that matter. And I think the last thing, let’s see education and social justice, I think it has to go back to what I was thinking about before with advocacy, which is, these are all conversations, these are all processes. There is not a capital ‘T’ truth all the time. And I think you need to be willing to be curious, because allowing yourself to be curious in the space of working in music for wellbeing. Those of us who are in Applied Arts or therapeutic arts or any of these spaces, we really care. We care very, very deeply about what we do. But it means that sometimes it walls us off from trying things. There’s way more to be gained for trying something that may not work right away. And of course, I’m not talking about putting anybody in danger or harm. But something that is fun, has value. If it is fun, and it brings joy, joy is an outcome. And I think fun and play can open doors that you never thought possible. And embrace that. I think I started thinking one thought and I ended somewhere else. But that’s how my brain works as an improviser.
AH: Those are really fantastic. Such a lot of food for thought there, and really, really interesting insights from you on not only technology but inclusion and simply being a great practitioner. So that was a brilliant way to wrap up our conversation. So thank you so much, Emma for making the time to talk with me. The very best of luck with getting your instruments into the hands of people all across the world.
ES: Thank you Anita, it’s been a joy to talk to you today.
AH: And if you want to read more about Artiphon I’ll share more information in the show notes that accompany his podcast on my website at www.writing-services.co.uk, and look for the podcast section. Thanks very much for listening.