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Farwell Band Director Shimmons lauded in national magazine

A simple blog on the internet about how Band Director Paul Shimmons is incorporating electronic instruments and his own iPad into the Farwell band program, led to a cover story and feature article in the April issue magazine School Band and Orchestra (SBO).

They wrote, “Paul Shimmons, band director at Farwell Area Schools in Central Michigan, is one such educator who has been steadily implementing innovative devices, software and instruments into his teaching methods since the dawn of the digital age.”

Shimmons, who has been Farwell’s Band Director since 1996, said he has held the position longer than anyone. “I love it here,” he said, “The community is very supportive of the schools and fine arts. The administration is wonderful to work with. I think I got lucky when I came here.”

About five years back the Band Boosters also provided three computers for the band program. “That was the real start of this unique program,” Shimmons said.

He said he started storing his music for conducting on his iPad about four years ago and it grew from there.

And two years ago the Boosters purchased several electronic instruments and now the Farwell program includes both traditional and electronic musicians.

An eight to fifteen member student group using the electronic instruments have named themselves Melodic Fusion. They perform along with the traditional acoustic band at concerts and sometimes by themselves at local community events, said Shimmons.

He credits the Boosters for helping to develop the innovative Farwell program. “There’s no way we could have done this without their financial support,” he said. “They work hard to raise money throughout the school year and the funds go to support the program above and beyond what the school district could afford. They have provided uniforms, color guard equipment, new computers, software, and instruments, both electronic and acoustic.”

The Boosters raised money and purchased two electronic wind instruments (EWIs), a couple of electric keyboards, a Mallet Kat (electronic xylophone), a digital mixer, an electronic drum set, an electronic marching drum, and an electronic drum module.

“Adding these was our big push a couple of years ago,” Shimmons said.

The group Melodic Fusion was formed to fuse together the new electronic equipment with traditional instruments and occasionally with singers.” Shimmons said he believes the electronic group is the only one in the area. “Part of my goal is to get kids involved that might not be involved with the traditional band and choir program but that still love to play and sing.”

“The goal for the program,” he said, “is to give kids that do play a chance to expand their options and learn something new.” He said electronic instruments are played just like a traditional instrument but can sound like anything. “It’s kind of like learning to color with crayons. You start with that little box of five, and then go on to the middle size and finally on to the large, economy box with every color you can imagine.”

He told SBO, “My goal from the start was to make sure that my band room isn’t like the band room that I experienced when I was in high school. Today’s world doesn’t look like the world that I grew up in, so I’m trying to make the musical experience that I’m giving my kids a little more meaningful and connected to their everyday life.”

One of the new programs that helps him to do that is the software SmartMusic – which he said “helps me better assess my students.” He said before using the computer program, it “was really difficult for me to be able to listen to my students on an individual basis. Now over the course of a week, I can listen to every single one of my students and give them feedback. I can sit at home with my computer – or anywhere with an internet connection — with my iPad or computer, and listen to their exercises at my convenience.”

He said the Farwell band room also has a projector connected to a computer and sound system, which is used every day for announcements, rehearsal plans and even YouTube videos to access other performing groups. “We can listen to a recording of a middle school band from Ohio and evaluate it with our students.”

He used a program called Air Sketch, connecting his iPad to the computer and projector to help with classwork. “I can use it like a white board,” he said, “I can circle things, write answers on worksheets and more.”

He also has the room set up to record and play back music sessions. “That is useful to show students how they are doing.”

Using devices, software and digital instruments in the classroom can be challenging. Shimmons said he tries out new technology often to see what “enhances” the program. “It is trial and error,” he said, “finding things that help the students understand the work they have to do.”

He said, “It’s all about doing things in the classroom that weren’t done when I was a kid – doing things in ways that make it better for my students to understand, helps them understand quicker and easier and that will stick with them longer.”

He said he hopes that students will all have iPads, which really are a small computer, in the future. “There are schools in Michigan that already have it for their students,” he said

You can hear the results of Farwell’s new direction in music. As part of Farwell’s Fine Arts Week starting today, the High School Band, Choir and Melodic Fusion will all perform Monday (April 30) in the Jaime Performing Arts Center at 6:30 p.m. On May 2, the Middle School Band will perform in the Center at 6:30 p.m.