Philly high school students re-imagine ‘West Side Story’ ‘Mambo’ using mobile app


The elementary school musicians at Saint Francis DeSales in West Philadelphia get excited when they get to perform “Mambo” from West Side Story, because it’s fun to play.

“Mambo!” the students yelled during an empty beat in the song, flipping around their instruments and picking up the melody without missing their mark.

The students are part of the musical education program “Play On! Philly,” which has partnered with two high schools schools – Springside Chestnut Hill Academy and Boys Latin in West Philly – to change things up.

For an educational experiment in both music and technology, these students pulled apart the pieces of Mambo and reinvented it from the inside-out.

“I gave them little snippets of Mambo,” said Dr. Ellen Fishman-Johnson, the director of arts and new media at SCH. “I said, ‘you can do anything you want with this – you can slow it, you can put it in different settings – but you have to keep the orchestra part intact, so we can send it back to the orchestra.'”

The students of Dr. F-J, as they call her, uploaded the written score into computer software that allows them to twist, add, and stretch notes and sounds however they wish. Fishman-Johnson assembled each student composers section into a 14-minute electronic track, over which the elementary students of Play On! Philly perform live.

“I tried to stay as close to what they had done, and put them into sections,” said Fishman-Johnson. “That way the piece as a form and a structure, it’s not just a whole lot of mumbo-jumbo.”

By dissecting the work of the composer, Leonard Bernstein, they learned how he put together Mambo, originally.

“I’ve actually never seen West Side Story, believe it or not,” said Olivia Byron, 17, of SCH, who had played around with soun don her own, using the rudimentary program Garage Band. “I wouldn’t have ever done something like this is I hadn’t gotten into it. I usually work from scratch, rather than be presented with a piece.”

Both Mambo and the Mambo Remix will be performed this Saturday at World Café Live in West Philadelphia, as part of the Philadelphia Science Festival.

It has one more trick up its technical sleeve.

The performance will be synchronized to a free mobile phone app, which – if everyone in the audience downloads it – will create a unified light show flickering across all the cell phones in the room.

World Café Live will divided into 16 sections, and the audience members will use the app to locate themselves within that space. When the music begins, their collective mobile screens will create color patterns.

“There’s going to be checkerboard patters. There’s going to be one where one section will be illuminated, and it will move like a wave around in a spiral,” said Jordan Zaggerman, a 17 year-old junior at SCH who helped design and code the app.

With other computer-minded classmates, Zaggerman went to the new App Lab in Drexel University’s ExCITe Center to learn how to make the mobile app. They worked directly with graduate and undergraduate computer science scholars at Drexel.

“There’s the old adage – you don’t really know how to do something until you try to teach it,” said Youngmoo Kim, the director of the ExCITe Center, who has created sophisticated music apps for organizations like the Philadelphia Orchestra. His son attends kindergarten at SCH.

“We have this issue, where there is so much interest in mobile app development, but there is no mature curriculum to support it,” said Kim. “We’ve developed principles, and working with high school kids was a good way to put those to the test.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal