How Modern Technology Can Revolutionize Music Education
If you are an average American over the age of 25, you most likely had a high school experience that included some form of traditional fine arts department. That department most likely has a band, chorus, or orchestra program that spent 95% of its available classroom time preparing student performing ensembles for public performances. The commitment level and rehearsal demands on the average member of a marching band in particular were very high, demanding as much time outside of class as inside. Studying a musical instrument was reserved for only the most dedicated, the most self-motivated, the most successful students, because to play a musical instrument proficiently requires years of extended study.
For cultural and historic reasons, American public school music education has favored these highly-trained, specialized performing ensembles. These ensembles serve only about 20% of the student population, and in many cases the percentage is skewed as far as 1%. Music Education as a whole has either been a training ground for the future music professional or has been a factory for churning out another high quality high school ensemble performance. The majority of American high school students stopped receiving a music education at the end of 8th grade or earlier, and those who continue into high school but are not involved in band, chorus, or orchestra have traditionally taken music appreciation survey courses or class guitar.
Even among those students who do participate in school performing ensembles, only a small percentage go on to a career in music, and many of those who do become music teachers themselves simply to stay involved with the activity that has done so much to shape them personally. The rest of the secondary performing ensemble members put away their instruments and never play again, or participate as vocalists at their local church. Playing their part in a school performing ensemble gave the average member a sense of purpose, a social circle, a host of utilitarian life skills, and a deeper appreciation for the art of music, but sadly much of that direct music creation goes by the wayside as they enter adulthood.
Fostering Lifelong Musical Creativity
Very few high school musicians are given opportunities to perform music outside of their individual part in large ensemble pieces. Band and orchestra students traditionally learn only their part to the public performance repertoire and the techniques necessary to perform those parts, but nothing more. Choral students learn the basics of vocal production and are drilled on their ensemble parts to the point where they can memorize the parts and perform them, whether or not they can actually read the printed music or understand the harmonies and counterpoint the composer wrote. The finest music education programs in America provide students not only with performance opportunities in these large ensembles, but also give them chances to perform as soloists and in small chamber music groups. They provide opportunities for students to improvise music without the written page, either as part of a jazz band program or in activities designed to encourage improvisation. Some also provide opportunities to learn basic music theory and apply it to original composition and arranging. These kinds of programs are in the minority, and of these only a few are able to provide meaningful opportunities in all of these areas.
To continue making music after their days in a high school or college performing ensemble, students need a more throrough and at the same time a more broad understanding of the art of music. Music performance, especially instrumental music, takes days, weeks, months, and years of application to become proficient enough to perform even the most average level of musical repertoire available. This has always been the focus of most music education programs. However, when this extensive study of music performance is combined with studies in music notation, ear training, improvisation, and composition, students gain the ability not only to perform music, but to begin creating their own music. It is this creative process that sets the student on fire - hearing the results of music you wrote is a very personal and meaningful experience that can be carried into adulthood and provide a lifelong love of music, whether or not regular performance opportunities present themselves.
How Technology is Opening the Door to Musical Creativity
In modern society, readily available software tools together with the ability of the internet to share information with anyone has ushered in a new era of creativity in all of the performing and fine arts. The music industry is still reeling from the likes of Napster, YouTube, iTunes, and now services like Pandora and Spotify. The publication systems have been democratized for the first time in history. You no longer need a printing press or a record label to share your art. You also do not need a professional recording studio to create professional level music sounds. One only has to explore social networks like MySpace and SoundCloud to see and hear amateur musicians creating some very professional sounds.
Music sequencing software like the Mac's GarageBand and the PC's Mixcraft have brought studio multi-tracking and music composition straight into the lives of middle school and high school students who do not read music notation and have never been exposed to anything other than mass media. Web-based services such as Noteflight are taking the power of more advanced notation programs like Finale and Sibelius and putting it in the hands of everyone, simultaneously making it possible to compose full scores and share them online with anyone, anywhere. Websites like Theta Music Trainer are creating a whole new genre of web-based games that provide ear training and music theory practice for middle school students all the way to professionals. Hybrid software/web-based services such as SmartMusic are serving as personal practice tools for musicians on their home computers while accessing an online library of over 50,000 different music accompaniments for them to play along with. And now, the iPad is changing the face of music education by making it possible for students to compose, record, and perform music anytime, anywhere.
Why Music Teachers Are Needed More Than Ever
With all of these fantastic tools now in the hands of "the other 80%" of students in our schools who are not in a musical ensemble, and even for that 20% who are, it is now possible for our young people to be personally involved with writing, recording, performing, and sharing their own music. When it becomes this easy to create music, the sheer amount of new creations, mash-ups, remixes, and so on is staggering. The issue, of course, is that all of those aspiring untrained musicians create sounds that emulate what they can pick up by ear, creating a vast amount of music that is only "a quarter inch deep" in terms of musical construction. There has never been a time in history when music education has been more necessary. To enrich the creativity coming out of our youth, music educators must learn how to use these new tools and incorporate them into currently existing and entirely new music curricula.
American secondary music ensemble directors - our band, chorus, and orchestra leaders, need to find ways to incorporate music theory, ear training, improvisation, and composition into their programs by utilizing the resources previously mentioned. Reducing the amount of time spent on public performance repertoire will obviously constitute a change in programming and a reassignment of resources and time. The potential benefits of such a reorganization are so numerous, it is difficult to quantify, and even more difficult to witness until such a program has been in existence for three to four years.
In addition to refocusing the traditional performing ensemble, every school district should be offering curricula that makes it possible for non-performing students to learn the fundamentals of music by using notation software, music sequencing software, and electronic instruments. Teaching students not only how to create music with these tools, but how to successfully and responsibly distribute them online is a vital course of study that will promote lifelong musical creativity and personal enrichment.
Music teachers, especially those who are not "digital natives" (people born after the advent of personal computers), have a challenge ahead of them in order to learn how to use these modern technological resources. It is difficult to integrate technology into the curriculum when the traditional methods of music education have been around for so long. It is safe to say, however, that traditional music education in American public schools has also had to fight to retain its legitimacy. Only those who have directly experienced the life-enriching power of performing in a quality musical ensemble can understand its importance in our way of life. "Academic music", along with the traditional classical symphony orchestra, continues to struggle to find a place in a modern society used to artistic consumerism at the hands of the behemoth recorded music industry.
All music teachers need to do is to choose a few new technology resources to incorporate into their teaching each year. Students will take to the technology very quickly and help guide the teacher on the best applications of those resources. Music education programs need to embrace these new resources or risk being antiquated right out of existence. Students are now able to make their own music without music teachers. To remain relevant to our students, music teachers must learn how to use these tools and to show students that there is much more to music-making than a "phat beat" and some "cool loops".
About the author: Thomas J. West is an award-winning music education blogger and is actively sought out as a clinician for integrating music technology and social media into the music classroom. He is an active music educator, composer, conductor, adjudicator, and clinician in the greater Philadelphia area. Visit his website at http://thomasjwestmusic.com
This article (c) 2011 Thomas J. West. All content on ThomasJWestMusic dot com is licensed under a Creative Contributions Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. Please contact the author before publishing on or off-line.
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