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Published in Print: May 8, 2002, as Music Educators Find Internet's Digital Tunes Enrich Their Teaching

Music Educators Find Internet's Digital Tunes Enrich Their Teaching

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A little-known fact outside of music circles: A lot of serious musicians are technology enthusiasts, using computers, electronic keyboards, and notation software to compose, manipulate, and perform music.

And what is grist for musicians is good for teaching music, some educators say.

They point to Web sites that provide classical music for listening or downloading, allow students to post their own performances and compositions, and offer venues for learning from skilled musicians.

"All of those things are valuable," said Michael J. Blakeslee, the deputy executive director of the Music Educators National Conference in Reston, Va., the group that composed national standards for music education in 1994.

Still, Mr. Blakeslee cautions that technology does not remedy the main problems of music education in the United States, namely inadequate staffing and too little time for music teachers to work with students.

18,000 Digital Files

One Web site that is catching on with music educators is the Classical Music Archives, which is online at classicalarchives.com. Run by a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company of the same name, it is a collection of more than 18,000 digital files of classical music representing 1,294 composers.

Any visitor to the site, at no charge, can download or just listen to music indexed by composer, instrument, and artist, as well as read biographies of composers.

Most of the music files use the Musical Instrument Digital Interface, or MIDI, protocol, a language for describing music so it can be reproduced by computers, electronic keyboards, and music synthesizers.

MIDI is a global standard used in composing, arranging, and performing. Loaded into a computer or an electronic instrument, a MIDI "sequence" plays the music, much as a piano roll operates a player piano.

Composers create, manipulate, and revise MIDI sequences—representing as many as 128 different musical parts—and present them as manuscript on a screen or printout, using music-notation software.

MIDI allows music students to open and study the composition of a master before writing their own pieces.

"By changing around the instrumentation, assigning the flute part to a violin, they can understand the choices composers made—it's a hands-on, ears- on experience," said David A. Barg, classicalarchives.com's artistic director.

More use of MIDI could help schools end their neglect of composing and arranging in the curriculum, said Mr. Blakeslee. "It's with the advent of MIDI that [the national standards for composition and arranging] becomes a more reachable goal for many teachers, who don't have the time [otherwise]," he said.

The Web site also plays classical music in two digital-audio formats, MP3 and Windows Media Audio. Digital-audio recordings cannot be altered in the same way as a MIDI sequence, although they are also useful in electronic music.

By offering several different performances of the same well-known pieces, the archive gives music educators a luxury few could afford otherwise, said Mr. Barg, who also works with young orchestras in the United States and conducts professional ensembles around the world.

Student Composers

Another online-music project, the Vermont MIDI Project, gives budding composers a place to share their work with others, and links them to professional musicians who give advice. The project, which originated in 1994 with a grant from the Vermont legislature, is intended to help students address academic standards that include problem-solving and musical composition and arranging.

Students and teachers in about 70 participating elementary, middle, and high schools visit a password-protected Web site, where they can listen to student compositions and submit their own works in MIDI format.

Students also submit descriptions of what they were trying to accomplish musically with their pieces and what they need help on, said Sandi W. MacLeod, the coordinator for the Vermont MIDI/ARTT Project Inc., a nonprofit group based in Montpelier.

The mentors then e-mail their critiques and answers to students. A live concert featuring some of the best student compositions is held each May.

Each year, about 7,000 Vermont students use the site, which receives about 450 submissions of student work, many by multiple composers, Ms. MacLeod said.

The results can be impressive, said Peggy Madden, an online mentor since 1997. "It's amazing what students even in younger grades can learn," she said.

Ms. Madden said the project has brought out surprising talents in students who have not taken special music classes or private lessons.

Last year, she said, a student in 6th or 7th grade submitted "a really nice piece."

"This was a student who never played any instrument," she pointed out. "This kid did this in a general-music class. He was able to write this incredible piece."


Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 21, Issue 34, Pages 6-7

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