01 February, 2009

Getting Started with Technology in Music Education

 By Kelly Demoline
Technology is becoming more and more prevalent in schools across the country. Music educators see their fellow teachers benefit from the use of technology and often ask what technology can do for them and how they can get started.  These are important questions, yet there is one other important question that usually only the skeptics ask – why should I use technology in music education?  Technology is a tool, and as with any tool, it should be carefully evaluated to determine its effectiveness and appropriateness within our instructional situation.
These three questions: why should I use technology in music instruction, what can I do with music technology, and how do I get started need to be addressed.  Beware of people who oversimplify, touting one particular product or one particular method over another.  Each learning situation has different considerations, each teacher has his or her own style of teaching, and students have their own unique learning styles. 
Why should I use technology in music instruction?
Educators that incorporate technology into their instruction have indicated that some of the main benefits are individualized instruction, assessment and motivation.  These three areas are closely related.  Students are motivated when they achieve goals that were once slightly beyond their ability.  The process of instruction and assessment should be designed to help students set and achieve realistic goals, which in turn generates intrinsic motivation.  The more individualized we make the instruction and assessment, the more effective this process is.
Individualized instruction is beneficial since students do not develop musically at the same rate.  Students’ musical experiences and needs are so widely varied in a typical classroom and they are not all interested in the same types of music.  This makes it difficult to offer individualized instruction.  Additionally, many teachers find it hard to give as much individual attention and assessment to each student as they would like.  Budget cuts add to the time restraints, making this even more difficult.
Although computers can never replace a music educator, the benefits of individualized instruction, assessment and motivation can be used to supplement the learning that takes place through performing.  Using technology, students can work at their own pace, spending more time on what they need work on.  Student performance anxiety can be reduced by focusing on learning and not peer competition.  Evaluation of responses can be totally accurate and impartial.  Assessment is generally immediate, allowing students to correct their mistakes while fresh in their mind.  If there is any doubt about the motivating power of technology, one only has to observe students, especially young children, work with a well designed educational computer game.
The way computers describe or represent information often differs from our traditional perception.  Although this may be a source of frustration, it can also be beneficial to view information, and specifically music, in a new way.  This can be useful in developing and identifying new teaching and learning styles.  For example, many music programs represent music using a graph of pitch and time.  Some of my adult students have benefited from viewing music in this regard and then associated it with traditional notation.
Technology also creates possibilities for performance that may not have existed otherwise.  In a sense, a computer can become a musical instrument that students may use for creating or performing music.  Students can create and perform music that may previously have required skills or resources (such as large ensembles) that would have otherwise been unavailable. 
Any discussion focusing on the merits of using technology in music instruction must also address the potential problems.  One of the foremost concerns that has caused the acceptance of technology in music education to be slower than in other educational fields is that of ease of use. Cumbersome technology can quickly shift the focus off of music learning.  As well, some technology does not give control over to curriculum planning and evaluation techniques and criteria to the teacher.
Fortunately, these problems can be resolved by selecting the appropriate hardware and software.  Careful planning and thoughtful consideration can help avoid these problems.  Overall, the benefits of using music technology should outweigh the potential difficulties. 
What can I do with music technology – or what can music technology do for me.
Before developing guidelines for selecting appropriate materials and implementing them, it is important to note that the use of technology must be consistent with your instructional goals.  A particular program should not be used simply because it exists.  Instead, as with any tool, technology should be used because it assists in meeting your goals.
There are many ways that technology can help you meet your instructional goals.  I plan to discuss these in terms of musicianship/theory, creativity (composition, arranging and improvisation) and listening/music history.  There are many music programs designed to help students develop their musicianship or improve their note reading ability.  Notation and sequencing programs assist students in writing music.  Accompaniment software aids in improvisation and there is a plethora of CD-ROMs focusing on music history and listening.  In addition to all of these pre-made programs, educators can easily create their own resources for students.
How do I get started?
Most educators start out by cobbling together hardware and software from various sources.  Do not overlook the many sources of used computers.  Many businesses and parents are happy to donate their old computers to a school.  It is amazing what you can still do on older computers!  Eventually, however, you will probably need to invest some money into technology.  In addition to your typical sources, remember that technology sells.  Government, business and the public place a high value on technology.  Do not be afraid to promote the benefits of using technology in music education, you may be surprised at the interest in generates.
Start networking with people who have already started using music technology.  In additions to the MENC, get in touch with organizations such as the Association for Technology in Music Instruction (ATMI) or the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME).  Keep in mind that dealers should also be good sources of information.  When you buy hardware or software, remember that you are not just buying a product – you should be buying experience and expertise as well.  Find a dealer who will offer you advice based not only on your current situation, but also on your future goals.  In addition to just selling products, a dealer should be a resource person, offering suggestions for acquiring funding.  A good salesperson will have suggestions for you and ask you questions to help identify your needs. 
When it comes to choosing between a Mac and a PC, I do not believe that one is inherently better for musical applications than the other.  Instead, individual circumstances should be considered when making a decision. Among other things, consider your school’s policy, the hardware, software and support available, your experience and your students’ experience.  Listen to the opinions of people who carefully examine your situation.  There are many excellent books, magazines and buyer’s guides dedicated to helping people purchasing computers.  Community colleges often offer courses for first time computer buyers.  Do not trust a computer salesperson to recognize your needs, especially when it comes to music-related software and hardware.
In general terms there are few points to consider.  Whenever possible, obtain a demonstration version of the program so that you can evaluate it on your own.  Focus on the following points:
Technology must be musical.  The program should:
·         Produce musical sounds.
·         Endorse and reward musicality.
·         Use musical means of communication.  (Typing on a computer keyboard is not a very musical way of communicating.)
The program must be easy to use:
·         Is the manual useful?
·         Does it come with training videos?
·         Where will you find answers to questions?  (Can you turn to technical support, dealer support or colleagues?)
The program should be technologically sound:
·         Does it use standard file formats such as MIDI? 
·         Is it compatible with the equipment you have?
·         Does it crash frequently? (There are still programs sold on the market that do not work very often, if at all!)
·         How often, if ever, is the program updated?  How much does it cost to obtain the upgrades?
Do not make the mistake of buying the first program you try, without trying others of the same type.  Try to find a salesperson (or other resource person) who has experience with many different programs and can explain the differences.  Beware of people who use absolutes: there is usually not one program that is “the best” for everybody in every situation.
If you already own a computer, you may be surprised to find out what you can do without spending your life savings.  Most computers now come with some sort of sound capability built-in. 
If you already own a MIDI device, then an inexpensive MIDI interface will allow you to connect it to the computer.  In addition to allowing you to record MIDI information on your computer, you may also send the MIDI data to an external sound source (such as a synthesizer) instead of your soundcard.
You may notice that the sounds produced by your built-in card are not acceptable for anything more than playing games.  A quick comparison between even the top of the line SoundBlaster compatible game cards and a true professional MIDI card will quickly prove that there is a big difference between “game” cards and “music” cards.  Unfortunately, most buyers only have opportunity to hear the difference between the various game cards.  Purchasing a soundcard should be no different from purchasing a musical instrument – make sure you can try as many as you can!
There are a number of avenues available for improving the sound quality on your computer, including soft synths and sound modules.
The advantage to a sound module is that it can be used on any computer without having to remove a card from the computer.  They can act as a MIDI interface for the computer, allowing the connection of a MIDI device to the computer.  They can also be used independently of the computer with any other MIDI instrument and don't suffer from latency (delays between hitting a key and hearing the sound).
A new contender in this arena is software synthesis.  Rather than having a dedicated chip produce music, programmers have written software that uses the computer’s main chip to model real instruments.  Apple’s QuickTime features this type of software synthesis and Windows XP comes with a built in soft synth from Roland.  High end soft synths with very realistic playback are also available.
These programs are significantly less costly than a dedicated sound card, however they will only run on computers with fast processors.  Since they rely on the same chip that the rest of the computer is using, performance will often lag. 
There are many exciting develops in the area of music technology on the horizon.  However, it is essential to remember that technology is a tool, and as with any teaching tool should be carefully evaluated to determine its effectiveness in meeting our goals.  There is no better time to start using technology than the present.  Develop contacts who can offer suggestions and guidance, and be willing to share your own experiences with others.  Technology can help you and your students become better musicians. 
Kelly Demoline
 Kelly Demoline is a music educator and president of Kelly’s Music & Computers.  In addition to his K-12 teaching experience, Mr. Demoline was also the Music Technology coordinator for Brandon University.  Mr. Demoline can be reached by e-mail at kelly@kellysmusicandcomputers.com
Kelly’s Music & Computers provides a broad range of music technology solutions for music educators and can be found on the web at http://kellysmusicandcomputers.com or toll free 1-888-562-8822.


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