Marching to an iPad Drummer

Here’s yet another way technology lets the music come through

During practice with the Swanville (Minn.) Senior High Concert Band, Ethan Och plays a variety of percussion instruments using GarageBand on his iPad. Photo by Gina Christopherson.
Article Highlights:
  • Ethan Och, who has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a power wheelchair, has been a drummer with his school band for four years. He recently switched to playing drums on an iPad and iPhone when arm weakness made drumming with sticks too exhausting. 
  • Technology has allowed Och to continue playing with his school band, participate in competitions, compose and arrange music, and even march with a marching band.
by Kathy Wechsler on October 1, 2012 - 9:00am

QUEST Vol. 19, No. 4

"I hear cymbals, but I don't see them," Stephenie Och recalls a fellow parade watcher announcing as the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Area High School Marching Band marched by this summer.

Upon closer examination of the percussion section, one could see 14-year-old Ethan Och, who has spinal muscular atrophy, "marching" from his power wheelchair, tapping on an iPhone strapped to his leg to play the cymbals on an application called Shaker. A student marched alongside pushing a guitar amplifier powered by a car battery.

Ethan, who lives with his parents, Stephenie and James Och, in Swanville, Minn., is a ninth-grader at Swanville High School and plays the drums in the Swanville Senior High Concert Band.

Drumming ‘old school’

When Ethan joined the Swanville Elementary band in fifth grade, he chose the drums because he wanted to try something new and challenging. He started playing the snare drum, timpani and bells, and his band director, Gina Christopherson, found a pair of lightweight drum sticks to make drumming less exhausting for him.

But even with the lightweight drumsticks, drumming was taxing for Ethan. His arm weakness and balance issues left him extremely fatigued, especially as the rhythm picked up speed. He became frustrated that exhaustion wouldn't allow him to continue drumming through an entire song.

"I was kind of bummed about it, but I decided I would try doing band until I absolutely could not do it anymore," Ethan says.

Although Ethan tried to keep a positive attitude, drumming was becoming extremely difficult by the time he reached eighth grade at Swanville Junior High School, and he feared he might not be able to continue.

Technology to the rescue

An alternative "pretty much fell in our lap," says Stephenie.

Although he didn’t realize it at the time, Ethan started the ball rolling when he discovered a piano app (downloadable program) on his smartphone and brought it to school to show Christopherson. The band director was inspired to research drum apps, but unfortunately the one she found wasn't compatible with Ethan’s smartphone. So Christopherson let Ethan borrow her iPhone during band class until a better solution could be discovered.

With the iPhone hooked up to a sound system, Ethan was able to play along with the rest of the band using the iPhone apps Cowbell Plus and Shaker (now called Pocket Shaker). He played by tapping his finger on one of the images of percussion instruments on the screen, controlling the tempo and volume by how quickly and where he tapped the image.

Meanwhile, Christopherson and Ethan’s mother, Stephenie, worked to get Ethan an iPad2 through his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The iPad2, which he received a few months later, gave him access to more music apps, and, because it was his, allowed him to practice at home. He also could use it for classes other than band because of the many different apps available.

These days, Ethan uses an app called GarageBand for band class. This app follows the basic idea of the iPhone apps but, because the iPad2’s screen is larger than the iPhone’s, it can display a full drum set, allowing Ethan to play multiple percussion instruments using multiple fingers. He also uses Cowbell Plus, Shaker, Claves, WoodBlock, SnareDrum and Virtuoso, which allows him to play the xylophone. Some percussion apps are free, and others cost up to $20.

Ethan’s iPad2 was working well for band practice, but he wanted to compete with the rest of his band. Since no student had ever competed using an iPad2, Christopherson worked with the Minnesota State High School League to get approval for Ethan to participate in concerts and band competitions using his iPad2.

“I have been very impressed with Gina’s enthusiasm and dedication to making sure that Ethan is able to continue with band," says Stephenie of the creative band director.

Drumming on the go

Marching directly behind the bass drum line in his power chair, Ethan Och plays a percussion app on an iPhone while a fellow band member pushes his amplifier and speakers.

When Ethan was finishing up the eighth grade earlier this year, his band class was given the opportunity to join the Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Area High School Marching Band for five parades during the summer. The band, in their blue-and-white shirts and black pants, was comprised of students from several area high schools.

Ethan was interested in playing in a marching band, but uncertain how to make it work. Christopherson, who served as the assistant marching band director, took on the project of making it possible. The iPad2 was too cumbersome, so she strapped her iPhone to his leg. He used Cowbell Plus and Shaker as the iPhone apps for marching band.

So that Ethan’s cymbals could be heard, Christopherson’s husband’s came up with the idea of having another student push a stroller holding a guitar amplifier powered by a car battery attached to a power inverter.

Gettin’ ‘techy’ with it

As technology keeps evolving, Ethan and other students with disabilities find themselves opening more doors than they may have ever thought possible.

“I think that every kid should get to participate [in band] whether they have a challenge or not," says Christopherson. "It's just a matter of figuring which instrument works and how we can get it done."

Ethan will probably stay in band until graduation in four years. He's thinking of participating in instrumental competitions for small groups, trios and duets.

“Ethan can do anything he wants to with music,” Christopherson says. “He has a phenomenal ability to compose, so we’re looking at doing some extra stuff this year with arranging and composing, because that’s something that really excites him."

Interested in doing something similar and need some advice? Feel free to email Gina Christopherson at

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (2 votes)
MDA cannot respond to questions asked in the comments field. For help with questions, contact your local MDA office or clinic or email See comment policy