I’m loving writing this blog. To give myself a termly direction and I’ve chosen to set out a sort of manifesto on how I feel technology can support the teaching and learning of music. From here I will use the content as the topics for the follow up newsletters to dive deeper into how each area can be developed, personalised for the teacher and made bespoke for the needs of the students. I hope you find it useful – let me know how it resonates with you.
First and foremost technology is a great enabler for getting organised, finding the edges of your resources and wrangling them into a system that works for you. Whatever your platform (Windows, Mac, Google, etc) or subject/s having a system that allows everything to have place is key to feeling in control and ready for all classroom eventualities. I’m going to talk later about how to organise your files in a way that suits you, and what to do with the mess you may be facing to start with. Be it planning documents, audio files, recordings, backing tracks, manuscript PDFs, or whatever, we will deal with it together.
General Classroom Music Tools
To deliver classroom music there are a few key tool types that are invaluable. The first is a whiteboard app of some sort (Jamboard, MS Whiteboard, OneNote, Smart Notebook, etc), then a presentation maker (PowerPoint, Google Slides, Apple Keynote, etc). Confidence with one of each of these can be all you need to effectively prepare and deliver classroom music. We can do better, but this is a baseline for solid prep and confidence to adapt on the fly.
Listening to Music with Students
This leads me to talk about playing music in class. A good deal of listening and appraising, reflecting and discovering music requires first the educator to be able to play music to students, and ideally later a way for them to replay the music themselves to explore further.
Initially subscription services are a great start (think Apple Music, Spotify, etc), as they allow streaming, downloading, searching, playlist creation and make the teacher’s life much easier. Following this to be able to visualise the music through tools that can show the piece visually are a great progression. Audacity for example allows most any track to be dragged onto its window and a wavetable view to move around the piece.
Playing Accompaniment Tracks
As an extension to listening to music, if you lead choirs and/or bands, then reliable ways to play accompaniment tracks can be game changing, especially if you are not an accompanist yourself. Although I’ve learnt to note-bash a melody or plonk out some basic chords to accompany, I would still put myself in this category. That is one reason I have worked hard over the years to find innovative ways to support leading choirs and bands as that beings me so much pleasure, regardless of my ability on accompanying instruments.
As an extension to this, there are a number of apps and services that allow you to play accompaniments but select live what instruments and parts you hear in the accompaniment. A large range of church-orientated tools are available for the support of worship bands who may have a pianist but no drummer for example, or different people available each week. Many of these allow the track to be split into sections, and then random movement between them in a live setting for improvisation (think ‘let’s do that chorus again’ or ‘I want to go to the bridge now’).
I am also a big fan of ‘band in a box‘ style apps that allow you to chose a style and chord pattern and the app creates a backing live that can be used to model or practice against.
Skills Practice Tools
There are an overwhelming number of skills practice sites, apps and YouTube channels for practicing music skills in isolation and in concert. Growing your own library of these can be incredibly beneficial to drop into a start or end of lesson as well as give to a group or individual to move their understanding or skills forward.
Again, sites and apps for basic tools like metronomes and instrument tuners are well worth having at your disposal, for your own use and to clone yourself to support multiple students at once.
Listening Feedback Tools
Feedback tools for student players can be a powerful way to support learning. A number of services can listen to a player and give feedback, a rating and tips for improvement automatically. Smart Music is a well known example of this. Like most, there is a subscription cost to use the service, but a large library of music, accompaniments and learning books are available.
Personal Research and Reading
As an educator the importance of a growth mindset in modelling lifelong learning as well as current pedagogy is a key quality. There are many ways to utilise technology to support this, and fit in around your lifestyle and habits.
If you like to read in the traditional sense then I highly recommend borrowing a kindle from a friend (or this is a good starter model I still use) to see if the digital version is equally agreeable to you. There are many benefits of reading a digital book in terms of storage, search, retrieval, not to mention the space saving and convenience factors. If you find yourself coming across a lot of online content then a ‘read it later’ service such as Pocket is a game changing tool for gathering content and consuming it at more convenient times.
If you have never given audiobooks a go I highly recommend trying it out. This can really up your reading opportunities as audiobooks can be consumed while doing a wide range of other tasks. I highly recommend Audible, but your local library will also have a free equivalent that you can get started with. For my area that is BorrowBox, but you can go ask very easily. Some apps like Speechify will let you upload your own docs that it will read to you.
Recording practice and performance
Its never been easier to record a performance or rehearsal to review later, in both audio and video as needed. Most of us carry around a high quality microphone and camera in our smartphone all the time, without even starting on specialist tools. However a good quality app such as AudioShare can make all the difference to the ease of use, enjoyment and ability to edit or share afterwards.
Editing Audio Files
Once you have a recording, or an existing backing track or piece for listening, there are many reasons you may want to edit it. Length, structure, quality, are all factors that you may wish to change. On every platform there is a range of easy and powerful tools for doing this. My favourite is Audacity, as it is simple, free but powerful enough to handle effects, fades, cutting, layering and making changes with an ease that makes it great for students as well as teacher use. Its great for sound walks and podcast creation as well.
Notation and Annotation Tools
Both in the browser (try Noteflight or my favourite; Flat for example) and on your device (consider Sibelius First, Musescore or for a different approach Dorico for this) there are a wide range of free and paid for notation tools that can raise both your speed of writing and quality, as well as play back your creations to allow you to check the resulting sounds.
Composition and Music Creation Tools
Let’s touch on tools to support music creation. There a number of browser based free tools that are well worth learning and using in class. Chrome Music Lab and GroovePizza are two that immediately come to mind as well worth your time, as each are a suite of small and quickly learnt tools.
Online tools have become incredibly powerful in recent years, to the point now where you can access a full Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) in the browser. Well known options like BandLab (and Edu version) and SoundTrap can be used whole class very easily and often for free to edit a library of sounds and combine these with your own recordings and by playing in a range of MIDI instruments such as keyboards and guitars. There are of course app based recorders and DAWs as well for all platforms, so we will dig into this exciting range of tools in the future.
Communicate With Students and Staff
Whatever your organisation platform, use it. If there isn’t one, campaign gently to get one. You can always try to get something in place yourself for music, but there is so much friction to its adoption when it is not organisation-wide, and the ownness of training and evangelising is all on you. By making the most of the chosen platform staff and students will already know how to use it to communicate, submit and get back work, organise their digital files, and this frees you up to innovate with how it will best support music teaching, nit be tech support for everybody else. MS Teams, Google Classroom are both good solutions, and have a number of great built in tools for sharing and exploring music both face to face and in blended situations. Assignments on both are robust systems to share work back and forth and take the heavy lifting out of document management as well.
So that’s a start. Over the coming weeks I will dig deeper into each one of these uses and tool types, and share my favourite solutions as well as how I have made the most of them in the classroom, choir/band room and on stage. I hope you will find them interesting and of value. Do get in on the discussion and tell me what I’ve missed out and what works for you.