Educational design with Roel Verberk

Meet our (new) Academic Director, Roel Verberk.

In April last year (2020), Roel Verberk took over the Academic Director role at Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam, bringing a fresh new breeze to the team. What was supposed to be a smooth transition, turned into a rollercoaster ride, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Moving to online teaching, adapting the practical lessons, while taking a fresh new look at our curriculum, was quite a challenging task, to say the least.

Even though the challenges around the pandemic are not over yet, we thought it was time to do an interview with Roel, to learn more about his background and his approach to teaching and learning. Roel has a background in audio engineering, is actively involved in education design and works as a music producer while at the same time, fulfilling one of his most important roles as a father.

What inspired him to start a career in music and taking the educational path. Let’s find out!

Hi Roel, So let’s start at the beginning; what inspired you to do music?

I started with music lessons at the age of six at the local music school. My mother said I wanted to go to the conservatory since I was four because that was the place where there’s music all day through. I started with learning the recorder flute and ended up in the marching band, playing the small snare drum and eventually the quint. It was a serious marching band, like those American bands, which was super nice and it was on a high level.

“I quit the marching band when I was 19 and started playing the organ, which was very popular in the 80s. It had a drum computer, you could play the bass with your feet, chords with the left hand, the melody on the right, it really felt like I could do everything, almost like being a producer”, he explains smiling, “although I did not know of the existence of that profession yet.”

At a certain point, with the money I saved from birthdays and a little help from my parents, I bought my first keyboard, then a Juno 60 and soon a computer with a Soundblaster card. That’s how it all grew. Then I applied for the Royal Conservatory in The Hague for electronic music technology and applied electronics at the Rotterdam Conservatory.

In the meantime, shortly after I got my drivers license, I started playing in bands. I remember playing in a band, just outside my own village, and the rest of the members were like five years older than me and very talented. I was quite shy at the time, but at the same time very observant. So we were recording this Fleetwood Mac song, ‘Go Your Own Way’, and I noticed something was missing in the vocal parts. So I asked if I could try something. The rest of the band agreed, probably thinking it was cute or something, and I took each singer in the band separately to practice on some subtle notes and other parts, being very precise. And then they came back and sang together in this new way, it sounded a lot more like Fleetwood Mac. They were surprised by their own performance in some way and they all had this big smile on their face while singing.

That has been quite a pivoting point for me. It made me realize, ‘hey, I can do this. I can bring people together.’ Coach them individually and make them better as a group. That’s what a big part of producing is about.

But the Royal Conservatory in The Hague was not quite working for me. It’s a great school, but I didn’t entirely connect with their philosophy. Then my main teacher at the time advised me to go to the HKU in Hilversum instead, which was a very broad education in music technology. In the first year, we would get everything from composition, studio production, analyses and programming, literally everything. During the second year, you could choose certain elements yourself and that’s when I entered the studio. And I never left the studio ever since, started working with bands and off I went.

Roel Verberk in the old Kytopia studio

Roel Verberk in the old Kytopia studio with his friend Maarten.

That’s when you started as a music producer?

Yes and no. I started more from an engineer’s perspective. But then again, I’m also a musician, so I understand music very well. You have producers that are songwriters as well and they really have their own taste and sound. And I never wanted to be that person. If I produce, my goal is to make emphasize the identity of the artists in every sonic way possible. I try to minimize my own influence. That’s what I like the most.

You have an extensive track record in the education field. How did that come about?

There was a time that I was in the studio with Will Maas, the keyboard player of Marco Borsato, and Ilse de Lange. He was the coordinator of Music Lab at the Rock Academy in Tilburg and they had an audio engineering department. At the time he was looking for someone with studio experience, and he was hinting to me by saying: “we need someone like you”.

And I told him I’m not going to teach. At the time I hated school and everything related to it. I just wanted to do stuff. I was never a big fan of schools because of the educational system. But at a certain point, he made a very interesting offer for me. I said, ‘ok, I’ll do it for half a year and then we’ll evaluate. And from the first or second class, I was off, it was great!

I had great students, some of them I’m still in contact with and they had all these great questions. It really helped me a lot becoming a better engineer because I had to explain almost everything I was actually doing. I mean, when you are working you do most of it unknowingly, just doing by gut feeling. But then when you need to explain something it can be really confronting. It makes you question, ‘what am I actually doing? It felt I had no idea what I was doing. And then you start analyzing yourself and your working methods more closely.

I also had a lot of autonomy, so I started analyzing how the school was organized and looking into other schools like Berklee and Harvard, learning from their methodologies. It really got me interested and I went into meta concepts and designing curriculums.
For instance, after the first half of the year, I wanted students to be able to assist me during a session at Wisseloord Studios. And then we worked backwards from that idea in designing the curriculum, which actually looks a lot like the way the Abbey Road Institute programme is set up.

“…after the first half of the year, I wanted students to be able to assist me during a session at Wisseloord Studios. And then we worked backwards from that idea in designing the curriculum, which actually looks a lot like the way the Abbey Road Institute programme is set up.”

Long story short; that’s when I became an educational designer and at a certain point, I became a consultant at the Fontys University in Eindhoven and later on Educational Designer at the HKU in Utrecht.

You are an educational designer and use design thinking methodology in your current work. Can you tell us a bit more about those principles?

As an educational designer, instead of directing the school or dictating teachers and staff what to do (working top-down), you try to stand beside them, and through ‘designing’, create something new and build a sense of ownership. At the same time we look at the bigger movements that are happening in society and start asking questions like; how does your subject or your profession relate to that? Do you need to adapt? Do you need to do anything?

And then you build and design something, with everybody involved. And not only from the start but throughout the whole process. And what often happens in education is that we design things together with the students involved.

Does that mean you design the curriculum together?

Yes, and there are several so-called design tools and methods for that. One of them is the most ubiquitous, which is the ‘design-thinking’ method, but nowadays I prefer the ‘design sprints’ method because it’s far more practical. The ‘design sprint’ is a system that is developed by Jade Knapp, a formal designer of Google, who turned the design thinking into five steps, which you can apply to any idea, so not only curriculums.

The main concepts are like this: First, you define and empathize with something, that you get a feeling for it. So you talk to people, learn their perspectives and get a sort of general idea. Then you define the problem. Then you make a prototype, you test and implement. And that’s an iterative process. So it’s not static, meaning you continuously adapt to new changes

Often you work on something and at a certain point, you’ll show examples of what it could be like. And then, based on the response of the users or client, you go back. Sometimes that means that you start from the bottom up, but oftentimes you analyze what you have, look at the things that are good, and build on that by making small changes and adjustments. And especially in education, that’s a good thing because you have a basis, something to rely on and familiarize with, without changing everything.

Roel Verberk behind mixing console

Roel Verberk in the producer/engineering seat.

How does that work with the Progressive Continuous Learning method at Abbey Road Institute?

The Progressive Continuous Learning method is great. Especially at the beginning of the programme. It breaks down the modules into shorter sessions which are linked together and delivered in a progressive logical manner, combining theory and practice.

This means, for instance, that we talk about a general idea on Monday, like something production or history related. And then on Tuesday, we dive into the theory, while on Wednesday we make it more practical and Thursday you apply it yourself. And we repeat that every week. So let’s say we talk about production techniques in the 60s, then we talk about relevant EQ’s and how they work, the next day, we do practical EQing the day after and apply that in your Protools workflow on the following. So it’s still the same subject but approached from different perspectives.

For the extracurricular activities in the programme, we take a more personalized learning approach. That’s also the part where some of the design-thinking principles are used.

Can you explain the extracurricular part a bit more?

When I start with a group I like to introduce a central question that I want to have answered at the end of the class. This could be a question in the direction of: “Imagine yourself getting a maximum score on all the subjects that are taught in the Abbey Road Institute curriculum. What do you still miss or what do you need to develop to achieve that?”

And then we discuss that further and then you see that there are different perspectives, which helps us to fine-tune the curriculum. Each group is different and each student is unique, which is something I really want to embrace. I want to nurture that in a group, to embrace diversity. I mean, it’s actually a great blessing to have someone sitting next to you who’s completely different, because you can learn so much more from that person, compared to someone who has the same mindset and same set of skills.

And these differences can be on all levels. It can be personal, it can be music related,… for instance, we have a journalist in the current group that is so interesting or someone who ran a company for several years, while other people are really great in IT. Or some of them are good with synthesis, others are good at organizing or very direct and impulsive in their communication. And that’s also great! You know, all these differences add to the group’s diversity and dynamic. And instead of rejecting it or hiding it and follow a fixed path for the whole group, you can also try to embrace it and see where it’s going.

So the feedback gives us a ‘map’ of the group, a perspective on what they need.
For some of them this could be related to songwriting, for others more musical or production, etcetera. This summary of the group is introduced to our teacher team as well, which gives them a better idea of what the group needs, what they like and creates all kinds of new ideas and perspectives, which we can introduce in the extracurricular part of the programme. We got a really good response so far, from both the students and the teachers.

Let’s face it, the teacher has to bring the curriculum to life in the end. And the teaching team in Amsterdam has a high standard. They really know what they are doing and really engage with the students. And our students have four hours of class every day, which is really a lot. I would say it’s actually very luxurious for the students because, in no higher education, you get this amount of attention as a student. There is really a lot of guidance.

What can students learn from design-thinking, or what’s the main takeaway?

I think people who are in music production already think this way. As a producer, you get interdisciplinary, complex problems on your plate on a daily basis, just by engaging with music production at all. You have to try things out, make mistakes and learn from them. But also, you need to work with people, understand their perspectives and be able to communicate. There is a lot of interpersonal stuff and engaging with people in this process. This means you have to be frustrated, you have to learn and you might get mad at a person or they might get mad at you and you need to deal with that. That’s the real learning experience, being able to manage yourself, and for example, not to get offended too easily. There is so much to learn, and you should embrace the fact that if you don’t know, you don’t know.

Roel Verberk behind the Neve console

Roel Verberk behind the Neve console in studio 1.

Can you give us an example from your own experience?

Oh yes, this is a great story. I had an experience with Glyn Johns, who worked as an engineer/producer with artists like The Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Eagles, Eric Clapton and the Clash.

At the time I was working for Sony as a technical support consultant for Super Audio CD (DSD) and was sent out to Sphere studios in London. Glyn Johns was remixing Slowhand, Eric Clapton’s fifth full-length studio album, for Super Audio in surround. It was mixed and transferred from 8-track two-inch tape to the DSD system.

So, I set everything up and played it back. Usually, that’s the moment when engineers would respond with a jaw-dropping ‘whoa, this sounds as good as analogue!’ It was like the closest thing to analog in the digital domain at the time. So while I was listening to ‘Slowhand’, which is an iconic album, in 5.1 surround sound, I was totally amazed by how great it was.

And I remember I was sitting in the back of the control room, with Glyn Johns behind the console, and he would turn to his assistant and instruct him to stop the tape. Then he turned to me with the famous word: “this sounds like shit really”, and his assistant confirmed that. I was completely flabbergasted and responded brutally honest: “forgive me, but I think it sounds beautiful. I can’t help it, it sounds amazing!”

So, Glyn Johns looked a bit confused and said that he heard a lot of good things about the Sony system, but it seems to lose a lot of detail. And I just couldn’t relate to that.

And then he stood up, turned to his assistant again and said: “All right. Let’s educate the boy.” So he asked me to sit behind the console and they would disconnect my digital system, hook it straight up to the monitoring system, so basically I could listen to the analog reel directly. Remember, it has been analog since the 70s when the album was recorded onto this 2-inch tape and there I was, listening to their remix (mixed on an SSL and a substantial amount of outboard gear), in surround, and it was amazing.

What I heard there at that moment was from another dimension, something I had never heard before. And he smiled at me with a face like ‘you see what I mean’, and I responded, ok, this is mindblowing, thank you for this amazing learning experience.

So again, always embrace the fact that if you don’t know, you don’t know. There is always something new to learn, be open to it.

Thank you so much, Roel for this interview and for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

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