Music Tech On A Budget

Last spring, I was asked to create an entirely new music offering at my school, something to expand on our current program of band, jazz band and choir. After all of four seconds of deliberation, I decided that I was going to design a music technology class. My principal quickly jumped on board and said something to the effect of, “Oh by the way, we’d like you to do this on the cheap!”

Great, MIDI keyboards, Ableton Live and synthesizer rigs are probably out of the question. What the heck am I going to do?

This was a question that weighed heavily on me during the summer. I was starting a Master’s Degree, and one of the requirements was to design and present a curriculum in the span of five weeks. It was perfect in the sense that I needed to get this done anyway, but difficult in the sense that we were encouraged to pretend like money was no object. So I decided to design essentially two parallel curriculums, one for a school that spent money like a drunken Gordon Gecko, and one for the real world. Here are some of the things that I came up with.

Digital Audio Workstations (Ableton Live: $30/site, Soundation: Free)

In a perfect world, this class would be using Ableton Live. In fact, my colleague struck a deal with the good folks at Ableton which would have given us some dirt-cheap site licenses. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to find the money so we’ve adapted and started using Soundation as our go-to DAW.

Soundation offers a lot of the features that we were looking for as part of a basic music tech class, like the ability to compose using pre-recorded loops, ability to export saved files in .wav format, and the ability to do MIDI sequencing with a piano roll or virtual keyboard.

The student project using Soundation was the composition of a five-part Rondo. Students had to use three tracks of pre-recorded loops, and one MIDI track that they composed to create a piece in ABACA form.

Audio editing software (Audacity: Free)

Before this class began, I was relatively unfamiliar with Audacity. After two units using the program, I’m hooked. It’s a high-quality, powerful audio editor, and middle school students were able to use it fluently with a minimum of trouble.

Project #1 using Audacity was lifted straight from the pages of Dr. Scott Watson’s book. Students wrote, recorded and edited a podcast about one of their favorite musicians. To create an effective podcast, students had to import an MP3 clip, cut it up, and fade in and out. Students also had to adjust their own vocal recording levels so as not to interfere with their audio clips.

Project #2 involved students creating a piece similar to Lasse Gjertsen’s Hyperactive or PBS’ Garden of Your Mind. Students learn how to cut up and rearrange audio tracks as well as how to apply different audio effects, such as distortion or pitch correction.

Synthesizer rigs (Audiotool: Free)

Synthesizers are easily the most difficult thing to cover on a budget, at least so far. It’s impossible to replicate the tactile nature of programming a drum machine, but Audiotool makes a good go of it. Audiotool is essentially a virtual synthesizer rig, where students can sample, apply effects, sequence drum machines/synthesizers, apply automation curves, do MIDI sequencing, and a whole host of other capabilities. In short, it’s got the potential to be mindblowing deep and complex.

At this point in the semester, students are just learning the basics. It took only one class to show them how to create multiple drum patterns on one of the virtual drum machines, and add the patterns to the timeline (similar to a piano roll). Based on early impressions, it seems like we could spend an entire semester working in just Audiotool and still only scratch the surface.

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

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Becoming Creators, Not Just Consumers

Nothing makes a student’s eyes light up quite like the chance to independently create. For our students to realize their maximum potential, not just in music but in any subject, we must allow space for creation in our classrooms. Creativity is activity, while merely consuming content is largely passive. Creating content allows students to synthesize the skills learned in a classroom. Creation is relevant. Creation is problem-solving. Creation fosters all the traits that we supposedly desire in a student, yet we may be reluctant to allow those traits to develop.

To have a successful classroom that allows for content creation, a few things must be in place. First, the teacher must be willing to cede a great deal of control. In my classroom, students are encouraged to compose their own original music. Often this involves me saying something along the lines of, “Here is the task, you are free to accomplish this in any way you see fit.” From that point forward, the creative process is largely under the command of the student. If I, as the teacher, am overseeing every step of the process, is it their piece or mine? Relinquishing that control may be a difficult adjustment to make, but without it the students can not truly feel ownership.

Relinquishing control does not mean abandoning students. Far from it. Students will want guidance and feedback during the creative process. Students also benefit when a teacher shares new creative tools. My young composers really took off when I showed them how to use Noteflight and Musescore. They were still in control of their creations, I was merely showing them more options to accomplish their task.

Your classroom also has to be a safe environment. Students not only need to be allowed to make mistakes, it needs to be encouraged. Some of the most musically rewarding moments for our student composers have grown out of mistakes. One student has been composing a saxophone quartet, and struggling to find an ending.

“Mr. Guarr, this doesn’t sound very good.”

“Well, why not?”

“It doesn’t sound complete.” (He wasn’t ending on tonic.)

“What other notes have you tried?”

“Well, none.”

“Go try every note you can think of. Some might sound really bad, but some might sound really good, too. If you do that and still can’t find an ending you like, I’ve got some ideas for you.”

Five minutes later, the student had wrapped up his quartet with a perfect authentic cadence. Not through the study of music theory, but through rigorous trial and error. The student was told to go make mistakes, and the mistakes led to a great musical decision.

Lastly, we need to ensure that the student creations do not live in isolation. Record their creations, post them online, perform them in public. What good is the student’s effort and investment if they never get to share their product? We can distribute student work for FREE with a site like Soundcloud, so take advantage.

Allow your students space to create, and they will become more engaged and involved in your class. They will grow as students, and have a truly memorable experience.

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

How Can We Bring Back Creativity?

A colleague of mine forwarded this article around the school district today. In it, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss outlines her ideas for revitalizing and revamping the entire middle school experience. She advocates for some pretty radical changes, up to and including the abolishment of the entire traditional middle school model. She actually raises some good points, but change does not have to be so radical to result in a drastic improvement to the middle school experience.

The current battle in education reform focuses a lot on testing. The anti-testing side of the debate (of which I am a proud member) will tell you that such a huge emphasis on testing kills creativity in children. Teachers are pressured by their administrators and their governments to push a rigid, test-based curriculum on their children and as a result, little room is left for creativity in the classroom.

My middle/high school experience is a rarity today. Our board and administration recognized the importance of creativity in education, and made a commitment to give those opportunities to all students. Twice a week, for 80 minutes at a time, every single student in the school had an opportunity to explore their personal interests through an “out of the box” elective.

The traditional electives of art, music and foreign language were still available during the regular school day, so students did not have to choose between one of those and another interest; the option to pursue both was there, and strongly encouraged. During this special elective hour, students could pursue things such as robotics, creative writing, astronomy, digital photography, psychology and film studies. It was an ideal environment for a student looking to explore their passions.

In addition to this twice-weekly elective experience, the school ended the year with a four-week long experience called Project Term (PT). PT was the 80 minute elective experience on steroids. In my own PT experience, I was able to travel to Europe, write satire, play Kabbadi, and perform in a play. PT didn’t interfere with the structure of the academic year at all, and still allowed students a valuable creative outlet.

Even if a school is unwilling to devote 160 minutes a week, or four weeks at the end of the year to creative endeavors, there is still room in the existing school structure for creative pursuits. In his book Drive, author Daniel Pink talks about 20% Time, a concept pioneered by Google, and used extensively by software developer Atlassian. During this 20% Time, employees are expected to work on their own projects, and not something given to them by a higher-up.

At Google, 20% Time led to the creation of Adsense, Google News, and GMail. While not everybody will be able to reproduce those spectacular results with their own 20% time, it’s clear that a chunk of time set aside for creative freedom is a worthwhile experiment.

Employees at Google and Atlassian reported that this 20% Time has led to an increase in motivation and productivity. In fact, in the research outlined in Drive, we see that creative freedom is very closely linked to motivation in today’s world.

In our schools, 20% Time could translate to a weekly or bi-weekly independent study experience, or maybe even one week per semester devoted to more creative pursuits. It’s a fairly big change, but not nearly as drastic as the “cross between summer camp and the Civilian Conservation Corps camps of the Great Depression” mentioned in Strauss’ column.

The increasing absence of creativity in our schools is having a substantial negative effect on the students we teach. To help revive the American education system, we need to make a concerted effort to allow creativity back into the classroom. Each school needs to find its own version of Project Term or 20% Time.

For further reading/viewing

Dan Pink’s TED talk

Sir Ken Robinson on Changing Education Paradigms

Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia – How do the creative arts affect our brains?

This Is Your Brain on Music

What is 20% Time?

Sir Ken Robinson

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The Trombonist's Mouthpiece by Joe Guarr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License