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Teacher Preparation

A Recording Studio for Every Student: Teaching Music Class in the Digital Era

By Sarah Schwartz — October 03, 2018 6 min read
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After Kevin Lane watched the Beatles play on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in February 1964, he knew he needed to get his hands on a record player.

Lane, age 5 at the time, hounded his parents, who eventually gave in. He listened to the performance over and over, cataloging the different sounds in his memory: the guitar, the bass line, the voices harmonizing. He remembers asking an adult whether he might be able to make something like that, and being told no. “Only special people get to go to recording studios,” was the message that stuck with him, he said.

Now an elementary music teacher himself, Lane gives students at Woodstation Elementary School in Rock Spring, Ga., the opportunity he wished he could have had at their age: time to create and record in a “studio” of their own.

In Lane’s classes, students use iPad tablets to record themselves, mix arrangements, and play and replay their work.

“Without digital technology, we wouldn’t be able to do this,” said Lane.

Teachers say tech tools give young students more creative freedom in music classes, and offer older students who haven’t participated in band or choir an entry point into the subject. Integrating digital instruments and audio software has changed the landscape of music education, teachers say, broadening course offerings beyond ensemble performance and encouraging students to become authors of their own musical experiences.

“Historically, you were either a performer, a composer, or a listener,” said David Williams, the associate director for the School of Music at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Technology in the music classroom is starting to blur those lines.

Creative Exploration

Even though Lane weaves tech throughout his instruction, his students don’t start the year looking at screens. “I’m very old-fashioned when it comes to teaching the basic skills of singing and movement,” he said. His students begin by learning about rhythm and clapping along to call-and-response songs.

The big tech-related project in Lane’s class comes in the spring. After learning how to play chords on the ukulele over the course of the year, his 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders arrange and record their own original jazz songs in GarageBand, a digital audio platform for Mac and iOS devices.

With digital tools, students don’t need to know how to play scales on the piano or coax notes out of the clarinet before they can experiment and compose. “The good sound, the quality sound, comes out of the digital instrument from the start,” said Williams, from the University of South Florida. “What the teacher is allowed to do, then, is work with students as creative music-makers, not so much as a technician to make the instrument work.”

Arcadia students practice using an Ableton push pad controller.

First, students in Lane’s classes record themselves playing a short set of chords on the ukulele, and upload it to the digital platform. A loop of this piece forms the foundation of their song. Once the recordings are in GarageBand, the students have the option to add in riffs with other digital instruments. Exploring the platform is “like walking into a recording studio,” said Lane, with virtual basses, drums, guitars, and pianos all at students’ fingertips.

Lane’s students don’t actually know how to play these other instruments, let alone play chords on them. Playing chords on a ukulele is different than playing them on the piano. Instead, they use GarageBand’s “Smart Instruments.” If students want to include piano in their song using this tool, they won’t see a keyboard. The screen displays a set of vertical bars, labeled with individual chords. Clicking on one will play that piano chord, or a pattern of notes from that chord, which students can then add into their songs.

Creating and exploring with music is a shift from how the subject has long been taught in U.S. public schools, with a focus on “traditional Western ensembles,” like band, choir, and orchestra, said Williams.

Centering music education on these offerings has excluded countless students over the years, said Anne Fennell, a music teacher and the creative arts department chair at Mission Vista High School in Oceanside, Calif., who is known in the field for her work with innovation in music education.

The idea that students can’t participate or create until they’ve mastered technical skills—like how to play an instrument, or how to read sheet music—is “an old mindset,” said Fennell, who teaches three levels of music composition, including one for beginners.

And while lots of subjects offer courses for students at different proficiency levels, few require prior knowledge as a prerequiste for studying the subject at all. “Math does not get to audition their students,” said Fennell. Why should music be any different?

Digital Production vs. Ensemble Performance

Cost is often a barrier to using tech for this kind of differentiated instruction, in any subject. But integrating music production software can cost less than outfitting a band or orchestra with instruments—especially if the school already uses laptops or tablets for other courses.

Starting a music tech program “isn’t as expensive as some people might think,” said Williams. Most music-production software, like Ableton or Pro Tools, can be downloaded using schools’ existing technology—devices for a 1-to-1 initiative or desktops in a media center. And some platforms, like GarageBand and Audacity, are available for free.

Austin Suttill, a senior at Arcadia High School in Phoenix, performs a song while participating in the school's Creative Musical Arts & Sciences program.

But new music teachers often don’t have experience using digital production software, or even composing in a classroom setting, said Brian Meyers, an assistant professor in the department of music at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who works with preservice music educators: “They’re coming from high schools that are very traditional: Sit down, practice, leave.”

In Meyers’ introductory music education course, first-year education students explore and learn how to use composing software and platform-based music games, and they practice remixing recordings with digital tools.

Some current music teachers are wary of this new model, said Meyers, and he can understand why. Funding for music programs, and arts education in general, can be tenuous, and music teachers often feel as if their jobs are on the line. If schools implement music-tech programs, some teachers worry, their expertise in leading ensembles might be deemed irrelevant, said Meyers.

But introducing digital composing courses doesn’t necessarily put ensemble teachers out of work, said Williams. In fact, tech-infused courses can engage students who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the subject, he said.

Giving Students Options

When Richard Maxwell started working at Arcadia High School in Phoenix as a band teacher almost two decades ago, he realized that his class was off-limits to students who hadn’t taken music in middle school. And if students were interested in music, but didn’t want to play an instrument, there weren’t many other options for them. In his band class, “we were always recreating somebody else’s art,” he said.

So in 2008, he proposed a new music program through his school’s career-and-technical-education track: an “exploration of the music industry” that would be open to any student, regardless of prior experience.

The Creative Musical Arts and Sciences program functions as the school’s own record label, allowing students to take on the role of artist, producer, or music marketer. Some compose music across genres—country, pop, rock, electronic dance music—recording their own albums and participating in performances. Others learn how to run a sound stage or produce in the studio.

Richard Maxwell, a music teacher and creator of the Creative Musical Arts & Sciences program at Arcadia, demonstrates how to use an Ableton push pad controller for freshmen Carson Stern and Kennady MacDonald.

Students can work in groups and get feedback from each other, but they also have the opportunity to pursue independent projects—something that isn’t really possible in an ensemble class, said Maxwell. “If I pull my trumpet section from my band, we’re going to have a problem at our next concert.”

The school still has orchestra and band classes—last school year, Arcadia’s marching band won a state title. There’s some overlap in the students who participate in ensembles and take the creative musical courses, said Maxwell, but the variety of options mean that students can pursue different passions.

For Maxwell, exactly how kids engage with music isn’t so important. “What we need to focus on more is, ‘What are you interested in musically?’ Let’s start there,” he said.

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Coverage of learning through integrated designs for school innovation is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York at www.carnegie.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.


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