USC professor develops new Apple app


If there’s still room in your schedule for the fall semester, a certain Grammy Award-winning professor might have some insights worth considering.

Techno-logic · Peter Erskine uses cutting-edge technology to develop a minus-one application for instrumentalists looking to jam along with his latest jazz album. Now, everyone can be his student. – | Photo courtesy of Peter Erskine

“I used to joke that if someone needed two credits — and it’s a toss up between medieval German literature and beginning drumming —it’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Peter Erskine, professor of jazz studies for the Thornton School of Music.

Erskine not only understands the appeal of music to younger generations but is participating in the creation of new media to enhance his students’ experience with his new Apple application “Erskine Joy Luck PlayAlong,” which allows its user to follow the instrumentation and play along with his jazz album Joy Luck.

The application distinguishes itself from other minus-one offerings by providing isolated stems for individual instruments. Karaoke, for example, is a popular music-minus-one offering limited in that only the voice is replaced. Likewise, Guitar Hero simply removes the guitar track. Additionally, both of these platforms remove the technicality from playing music. With Erskine’s app, practicing musicians can substitute Erskine’s studio recorded bass, drums or keyboard for their own live instruments using the original sheet music for guidance.

With his own 15-year-old record label, Fuzzy Music, Erskine has the artistic and financial freedom to pursue his own creative visions. For his latest project, Erskine decided to reach out to a diverse team of musicians and after teaming up with pianist Vardan Ovsepian and his nephew, electric bassist Damian Erskine, the jazz CD Joy Luck was born.

But through a new development, the album didn’t abide by normal recording protocol.

“We made this album in contrast to a lot of the other recordings I’ve done, where all of the instruments are in the same room. We did this in such a way that we could separate each instrument and its performance from the others so that we could create a music-minus-one play-along product,” said Erskine in regard to the app developed for iPhone and iPad by drummer Lucas Ives.

By combining his  jazz album with Apple software, Erskine’s project took on a second dimension. “Erskine Joy Luck PlayAlong” rejects the passive listening experience, providing instead a platform that invites active musical engagement.

Erskine should be praised for his own intrinsic curiosity, but the professor never fails to give credit where credit is due. When plans for a mobile application began materializing in Erskine’s head, Erskine turned to advice from those who use apps most — his Thornton students.

“I began asking my students at USC, ‘What’s the magic number to buy an app?’ Everyone said $4.99 — any more than that would give them pause.”

Erskine’s natural reaction to this: “All right, cool. No one’s going to get rich from this.”

But profit was not Erskine’s ultimate goal, anyway.

“It looked like the app store represented a new paradigm in getting music out to people,” Erskine said. “The app store provided inspiration for us to create musical tools not only for our students but for students all over the place. This is a good branding and representation of some of what we do at USC.”

The jazz studies professor is certainly proud about Thornton’s contribution to USC’s initiative to incorporate technology into formal education. Erskine cites Thornton’s popular music program and introductory drumming class MPPM 240 as prime examples of technology at work in the music curriculum.

Erskine might in fact be one of the most qualified people in the music world to teach such courses because of his affinity for technology and his industry experience.

“Electronics and music technology play a very big role in what we do in music technology courses. The dean gives full support to requiring drum proficiency to all pop music majors,” Erskine said. “In contemporary American music, the drums are really the grandfather of everything that’s going on.”

Still, even though Erskine raves about the benefits of technology in the classroom, he wants his students to know that there’s more to music than an iPad and a computer — true artistry happens through a mastery of the instrument on top of an openness to technological advancement.

“I’m happy to say that I see that happening more and more at USC — the blend of old and new, embracing technology but also realizing that what we do is a human art,” Erskine said.

Regarding the future of the music industry, Erskine thinks that the pendulum will swing in the right direction if musicians recognize that instantaneous access to music-related videos, archives and programs can spoil the artist.

“The challenge is in reminding ourselves and each other how magical playing an instrument is and how we can’t forget the importance of a piece of paper and a pencil and what it’s like to really sit with one piece of music,” Erskine said.

Erskine’s “warning hashtag,” as he calls it: “Don’t get lost in Candyland here. You have to focus on the instrument.”

Erskine, nevertheless, is clearly a believer in exploring and creating new technologies to amplify the musical experience. His recent album-app combination exemplifies forward thinking in today’s music industry and a type of adaptation necessary for artists and bands to survive.

“It’s an exciting, daunting time to be a musician because the relationship between the musician and the audience is changing every day thanks to technology,” Erskine said. “We can spend our days banging our heads against the wall, agonizing over the change, or try to embrace it in some positive way.”

  • “Erskine Joy Luck PlayAlong,” ….. kinda’ like Kareoke for drummers?