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Student Projects Impress Keyboard Legend

New Instruments Built by Students Highlight Rudess Visit

UMass Lowell Image by Meghan Moore
Jordan Rudess plays Alisha LeBlanc's, left, Drumbot, a drum machine controlled by a video game controller she designed in the contemporary electronic ensemble with visiting Asst. Prof. Mike Testa, center background.

By Julia Gavin

When Derek Tanch heard Jordan Rudess was coming to campus, he hoped for a chance to meet his musical idol. He and other students did more than meet Rudess. They impressed him.

Rudess spent the day with students performing, explaining his path from classically trained young pianist to progressive rock leader in the musical app development field and trying out student-built instruments. Visiting Asst. Prof. Mike Testa ’04 ’09 reached out to the musician through his website, hoping for a quick meeting with students.

“The day with Jordan was a semester highlight for our students and was so much more than we expected,” says Testa. 

Music students attending  Rudess’ master class listened as he explained the different instruments he uses and those he has created by partnering with app developers. His apps allow musicians and the musically curious to play and compose music on their mobile devices. Rudess used the applications to perform an intricate version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and often uses them while performing.

“It’s inspiring to see how young people can use this technology,” Rudess says. “This is a way to put music-making into more hands.”

Tanch, a music education major who plays piano, says seeing Rudess use technology to open new musical doors gets him thinking about what else is possible. "If you can imagine it, you can make it."

Students in the electronic contemporary ensemble have embraced that idea in their work, creating instruments out of everyday objects and big ideas. Rudess spent time with the students playing their instruments and brainstorming how to improve the projects.

Alisha LeBlanc wanted to play the drums without dealing with sticks and a lot of equipment, so she created her own method. Rudess found the result, Drumbot, engaging and helped her create music with it by composing with her instrument on the spot.

“It blew my mind that someone like Jordan Rudess would find something I made interesting,” says LeBlanc, a sound recording technology and music business student. “It was really inspiring because now we see that what we do and make can be brought into the world. It’s not just a school project.”

Testa says that combining Rudess’ abilities and creativity with the students’ passion brought the project full circle for the class. 

“Everything he did with them was musical,” says Testa. “They designed and built instruments in the mechanical sense and he brought the musicality that really clicked for everyone.”

Rudess is just one of many professional musicians to visit with University students in recent semesters, a trend the department is hoping to expand. Billy Joel, Neil Young’s producer John Hanlon and renowned harmonica player Howard Levy have all shared their stories with students recently.

“Meeting with professional musicians and performers allows us to get different perspectives on our careers,” says Ben Aiken, a sound recording student who noted that the range of visiting artists from Cambodian to jazz have each shared a different potential path to students. “Being flexible with music is a huge asset and learning about as many career paths as possible allows us to prepare for the future.”

Visit the University's Facebook page to see photos from the class.

Concert Benefits Scholarships

Rudess also shared his talents with the larger community at an evening concert to benefit scholarships in the music department. 

"I'm a big believer in education," says Rudess. "It's especially important these days to have training. You have to have the foundations and education or you're just limiting yourself."

Knowing that Rudess was supporting him and other students made the experience that much better for Tanch.

“I admire him even more now,” Tanch says. “He supports aspiring musicians and knows it can be a tough field to break into. He has succeeded and now he’s doing anything he can to pass it on.”

“He really gave us two gifts at once: his time and more opportunities for students,” says LeBlanc. “He was a student at one point, too, and look at what he’s done. He’s creating new instruments and opportunities for musicians.” 

The experience left LeBlanc feeling more confident that she and her fellow students will make an impact in the world with their work and creativity.

“With these opportunities, I can’t wait to see what we dream up and do.”