Ethan Och blazing new trails with iPad and iPhone musical applications

Ethan Och sits next to a shop project he designed with Google SketchUp. He drew up an X-Box storage cube and with the help of teacher Gary Bah and paraprofessional Sandy Kirk, put it together and finished it.

Marched with LPGE area band using iPhone and ‘Cowbell Plus’

By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer 

Swanville student Ethan Och, left, played percussion with the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle area marching band in five parades this past summer. Swanville Band Director Gina Christopherson strapped her iPhone to Och’s leg with Velcro. Pushing the stroller carrying an amplifier is Long Prairie student Austin Kielty.

Ethan Och couldn’t have anticipated spending the summer participating in marching band, but by doing so he blazed new trails with his use of technology.

Living with the challenge of spinal muscular atrophy, Och’s mind works to find new and different ways of doing things. “Ethan is very intuitive and catches on easily,” said Swanville Technology Coordinator and Dean of Students Sheryl Johnson. “He is always up.”

Swanville Band Director Gina Christopherson said, “Ethan discovered an application (app) on his android phone. That app had too much of a time lag, so I checked my iPhone and found several apps. ‘Cowbell Plus’ had the least time lag.”

“It was quite a commitment for Ethan to be in marching band,” said his mom, Stephanie. “Practices were five days a week from 6 to 9 p.m., with five parades.”

For the summer’s marching band activities, Christopherson set Och up with her iPhone strapped to his leg with Velcro, so it wouldn’t shift. He had to drive his wheelchair and play at the same time.

The iPhone was connected by a four-foot cord to an amplifier riding in a stroller next to him. Long Prairie student Austin Kielty usually drove the amplifier.

“Curves were tough sometimes,” said Och. “Trying to turn, keep playing and not get too far from the stroller didn’t always work. And I had to look at the ground to avoid potholes. Sometimes the cord would come out of the amplifier or my hand would bump the wrong part of the screen.”

At one parade, Christopherson overhead a spectator comment, “I hear cymbals but I don’t see them anywhere.” Och played bass drum for one parade and cymbals for the other four parades.

In the fall of 2011, Christopherson had made an adjustment to Och’s individual education plan (IEP) and before Christmas he received an iPad to use.

He joined the speech team and used the iBooks app for contests. He had to draw three ideas and choose one topic to prepare a piece to deliver for the judges, with 30 minutes of preparation time.

“The iPad is great for concert band because he is able to play multiple drums,” said Christopherson. Och used the iPad for rehearsals and concerts.

“I can play piano, two or three different types of cymbals, bass drums, snare drums, the high hat and different toms,” Och said.

Christopherson approached the Minnesota State High School League for approval of Och’s method. “They argued that by allowing him to use electronics we were trying to ‘cheat’ the system,” she said. But it was approved in May.

This coming spring, Och will be allowed to participate in the large-group contest and in small ensembles.

Och, fellow student Tori Leyk and Johnson were the only people at Swanville School to have iPads last year. Johnson suggested that Och use the iBooks Author app to write a book about guitars.

“I inserted a YouTube video, made three-dimensional models and just experimented to see if that would be an option for other students,” he said.

“The independent study Ethan did on creating an iBook was a key piece in convincing the school board of the value of iPads for education,” said Johnson. “It’s one of the reasons we decided to go forward with getting iPads for staff this year and rolling out to students next year. I believe that Ethan will be one of the students who will be a great help to staff in understanding the iPads and the apps.”

Och uses the iPad for a scientific calculator for math, e-mails and typing. He has tried the voice program, but it doesn’t always recognize what he says. Last year he did his school work in

“I was kind of the test group,” he said. “I was using it for a while and now, everyone is using it.”

Stephanie said, “He’s learned how to use it and now he’s fearless — he’s not afraid of deleting anything and will try new things.”

The Muscular Dystrophy Association’s magazine, Quest, is doing an article about Och. “They don’t know anyone else doing these things with iPad,” he said.

Och has been using Sibelius, a music composing program, for a couple of years already.

“Whatever I write, the computer will play it,” he said. “In marching band I played drumline pieces during marching interludes.”

“He writes some pretty intense stuff,” said Christopherson. “He overlays rhythms that are very unique; it’s really kind of cool. I’m hoping we will be able to work those into our concert band repertoire this year.”

When a technology trainer from Apple was in Swanville recently to introduce the teachers to their iPads, he asked the teachers if any of them were at a level where they were redirecting or reconfiguring applications.

“When I told him Ethan was playing an iPad in a live wind ensemble, his jaw dropped,” said Christopherson. “He had never, ever heard of anyone doing that. It’s exciting to discover this for Ethan.”

“It was getting harder for Ethan to do the snare drums,” Stephanie said. “This has opened up a whole new realm for him.”

“Band is the most fun thing to do with the iPad; I wish band was more like two hours a day,” Och said.