Och blazing new technology trails

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


By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
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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.

Swanville Band Director Gina Christopherson said, “Ethan discovered an application (app) on his Android phone so he could play rhythm instruments along with band music, but it had too much of a time lag. I checked my iPhone and found ‘Cowbell Plus,’ which had the least time lag.”

For the summer’s marching band, with Swanville students joining the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle band, 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.

Swanville student Ethan Och, left, played percussion with the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle area marching band 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.

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.”

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

“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. “I believe that Ethan will be one of the students who will be a great help to staff in understanding the new iPads and the apps this year.”

Last year, Och did his school work in Google.docs. “I was kind of the test group,” he said. “I was using it for a while and now, everyone is using it.”

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.”

A technology trainer from Apple was in Swanville recently to introduce the teachers to their iPads.

“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,” his mom, 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.