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Israeli music school teaches programming

As the concept of innovation becomes increasingly more important in Israel’s growing hi-tech sector, it is also finding its way to other – less-expected – arenas, creating previously unexplored opportunities. One of those fields is the music industry.

The Innovation Lab in Ramat Hasharon’s prestigious Rimon School of Music may sound counterintuitive at first: What does music – a form of art – and a lab, usually connected to scientific research, have in common? The answer: The constant need for innovation in a rapidly changing world.

Nava Swersky Sofer, head of Rimon’s innovation program, understands the importance of adaptation. As a former entrepreneur, she has witnessed the power of innovation and cross-genre integration firsthand. Sofer joined the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya five years ago and established a program called IDC Beyond, aimed at connecting people from different professional backgrounds and coming up with ideas that would answer the challenges of the 21st century.

Then, a year ago, she got an offer from Rimon and agreed to lead the school’s innovation program, which was established the year prior. “The program includes two main pillars,” she says. “The first one is innovation and entrepreneurship... starting with an introduction to entrepreneurship in the first year.” In the second year, students start attending what Sofer calls a “start-up lab,” learning what building a start-up entails. The program’s third year, which has not started yet, will let students focus more closely on developing their personal projects while bringing them to life with the help of the program’s second pillar.

That pillar is technology and programming, Sofer explains, noting that one of the teachers is a programmer and a musician who works at Waves Audio, “the world’s largest selection of pro-quality audio plugins,” according to the company’s website.

Students can choose to combine the innovation program with pretty much any other field of study offered at Rimon, meaning it allows the ambitious to further develop their interests, while finding new and previously unexplored ways of implementing them.

From a basic introductory course in the first year, students eventually learn advanced programming and are then asked to apply what they learned on their own projects. And though it’s done in a relatively short time, it provides them with a varied and practical toolkit. “Look, we’re not going to turn our students into programmers, but we are going to give them an understanding of another language,” Sofer says. “And I don’t just mean different programming languages, but the language of the future.”

She’s not wrong. Technology, whether we like it or not, is becoming an integral part of the way we experience reality. In fact, it won’t be an exaggeration to say that many people today have become completely dependent on their technological utilities and would probably shut down without them. “So much of music today is related to technology... you need to be able to at least understand what’s going on... to produce your own music,” Sofer says.

And her eager students seem to agree, pointing to the difficulty of self-promotion in today’s competitive world. “The connection between music and technology makes sense in a world where every musician is independent,” says Roy Belkin, a student in Rimon’s innovation program.

Belkin says he had no programming knowledge before starting the program but felt the urge to promote his ideas in a practical way, “instead of simply sitting in my room and playing my guitar.” Today, two years into his studies, he is the proud co-founder of an app called Artery, which aims to become the “Airbnb of music concerts,” and make the process of connecting musicians and venues easier and cheaper for all parties involved.

Artery is a good example of how innovation is never solely technological in nature. It must include networking and creating opportunities rather than waiting for them to magically appear. To this end, Sofer makes sure students meet with industry leaders and visit companies or hear from successful musicians, all of which is meant to provide the class with a thorough understanding of what it means to found a start-up.

And while this understanding has been implemented in major music schools around the world in recent years, it still seems like innovation in music is quite the late bloomer compared to other fields. This is especially true in Israel, where albeit leading the revolution in our small country, Rimon lags behind other leading music institutions in this field like Boston’s Berklee College of Music and Florida State University’s music program.

“Artists, musicians, are very focused on their own form of art,” Sofer says when asked why it took so long for innovation and music to reach formal education programs. “It takes new kinds of encounters with new kinds of people to really open their minds to what’s available out there.”

But that is changing, and rapidly. Spotify is a prime example. It allows users an accessible database of tens of millions of songs, which up until a few years ago would seem imaginary. More than that, the app includes artificial intelligence models that can identify musical preferences and suggest users with new songs accordingly – a technological miracle of its own that did not exist a few years ago on such a large scale.

Israeli musicians are now hurrying to fill up the gap and hopefully be the next big entrepreneurs in their field. And Sofer is certain that “the best is yet to come.”

Tobias Siegal