The statistics are not pretty – 63 per cent of schools in Australia do not offer music education. Whether you are a specialist music teacher or just wanting to get your feet wet, technology is a great way to get started with and embellish collaborative music-making in the classroom.
When it comes to simple and powerful music technology tools, we are spoilt for choice. Technology can be used in many ways to service a creativity-based music education. Music is such a vast practice, so it is essential that we give students an opportunity to experience their own musical creativity. In this article, I will talk about looping audio; the challenges and solutions of a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) classroom; and strategies for building a lesson plan where technology can spark collaboration, peer review, and assessment.
The Substitution Augmentation Modification Redefinition (SAMR) model, developed by Dr Ruben Puentedura, is a great way to map your use of technology. The ideal is that technology is not just used to duplicate what could already be done by other means, but ultimately redefine the outcomes of the task itself. Particularly when you are getting started, the idea of redefining all your tasks can be daunting. But be assured they are all pieces of the same puzzle – you might have students writing notes on a tablet instead of pencil and paper (substitution), that gives a base from which you can then check spelling, grammar, or print (augmentation); add some multimedia and playback (modification) and publish it online or share it over video conference with an expert (redefinition).
For example, you may ask students to research and write a report on a composer. Students could also record and produce a podcast, including music clips and sound effects. Both could be published online and shared with parents and peers.
Looping is one of the easiest, yet most powerful ways to leverage technology in the music classroom and is a great way to improvise and compose in real time, and share and collaborate in your classroom.
There are a number of forms of looping – in this case I am talking about recording some audio, having it play and repeat over and over, allowing you to record additional layers of sound on top. For example, many musicians use looping devices to record and play back repetitive elements in music, such as rhythm tracks and simple harmonic structures in order to play melodies over the top, effectively being a self-made backing track that students can make their own. The process of adding layers to a loop allows a complex musical piece to grow before the students’ eyes and ears with a clear and audible structure. This allows students to think about music in terms of its vertical layers.
Looping devices take many software and hardware forms that are too numerous to mention here. But a few touchscreen apps to get started include Loopy (iOS), GarageBand (iOS), Audio Evolution DAW (Android), PocketBand (Android), FL Studio Mobile (iOS and Android), and Loopkit (Windows Phone). For more advanced students, IK Multimedia recently released Vocalive 2 for iPad – a suite of vocal recording, effects and multitrack recording. There is a great web-based looping game, Incredibox (incredibox.com), to introduce principles of layering with fun interactive animations. Other professional level software for Mac/PC includes Ableton Live, Propellerhead’s Reason, and Bitwig. Popular hardware includes Boss Loop Station, Line 6 DL-4 delay, and the TC Electronic VoiceLive.
Loopy – as simple or complex as you like
Loopy (loopyapp.com) is an iOS app with a simple interface consisting of a series of circular ‘loops’. To record a sound, simply tap one of the circles to start looping. Loops can be as long or as short as you like. The waveform (visual representation of the sound based on its amplitude) appears in the circle as it records. You can either ‘overdub’ on a layer or create a new one. Living up to its name, Loopy happily plays through and cycles around your recorded sounds. Repeat the process with the other loops and you will soon have a screen full of colourful and tasty looking discs.
Toc and Roll – start young!
Toc and Roll (iOS) is a great entry point for younger children and teachers who just want to get their feet wet in music technology. It comes with lots of instrument samples and you can record your voice or other acoustic instrument all as separate layers. It has an intuitive multitrack interface where all the sounds are quantised. Students (with the help of teachers/parents) can publish their creations on YouTube.
Keep it clean
Recording layers of audio is best done in isolation. Looping, in particular, can become unruly if you are recording as much of what is already playing as you are new material – i.e. keep the microphone away from the speakers! Once you have a few layers, things can escalate quickly. Headphones are the easiest the way to avoid issues, but getting your class involved means you need to be aware of where everything is positioned in the room.
The built-in microphones are a good start, just make sure you and your students use headphones when recording, otherwise it will pick up everything, including what is being played back! When you get more confident, look at using a purpose-built microphone. The simplest way is to get yourself a USB microphone (Core Audio compliant – check with your retailer) and load your favourite compatible app.
It is a BYOD world and you are all welcome
Smartphones, tablets, laptops, phablets and wearables – your students will most likely be familiar with, if not own, a range of these devices of various brands. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) is becoming more common in the classroom, but do not let variations in the technology stifle your lesson!
Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud and One Drive are the main players in cloud storage, and many apps utilise one of these to import and export their content. So make sure you are familiar with this part of the process when using different apps.
Look for apps that have similar features and understand how to get content to and from the devices. If you have a mixed device classroom, keep track of what devices the students have and make sure they tell you if things change. Many of the apps mentioned above could be used alongside one another to produce similar results. Also, and perhaps the clincher to make it all work, make it possible for all devices to share their screen. Whether it is over wireless (Apple TV, Chromecast or AirPlay for Mac/PC) or wired through a VGA, DVI or HDMI dongle. Just make sure you can amplify the sound too!
Planning and collaboration
Well-designed lessons and projects will allow advanced students to develop their ideas and explore while still giving less confident students the ability to enjoy the basic features of the task.
Music is best served socially, so get your students working together. You can generally count on students wanting to share their artistic selves – what they like and what they have created. Acknowledge this when you plan and you will be tapping into a core tenet of the creative process. Simple things like inviting students to share their favourite sound and share their enthusiasm for creativity can start everyone off on the right foot.
Music is not an island. If you are not a specialist music teacher, think about ways you can include a bit of music into your other lessons to build your confidence – e.g. record a poem, or act out a story with sound effects.
Share your sound
If you have got instruments in your classroom that can be plugged in (e.g. electric guitar/bass/drums/keyboards, iPads, microphones) consider something like a Jam Hub. A Jam Hub is a student-friendly mixer where students can set their own individual mix of an ensemble. It may not sound like much from the outside, but put on the headphones and you will be transported into their musical world.
The good kind of feedback!
The more opportunities you make to share feedback, the better. Give opportunities at the beginning, middle and end of a creative task for students to share their work with each other and offer feedback. It is a great way to help everyone stay on task and manage expectations. Again, model how to offer constructive and appropriate feedback and criticism, and your students will follow your cues. When reflection and critique is part of the culture of the classroom, their ability to listen to, analyse and describe music is enhanced, and will flow onto their own creative works.
The general shape of a lesson could look like this:
- Show previous examples of successful student work;
- Work alone/small groups;
Large group instruction is a great way to bookend your lessons. Use this time to demonstrate general features and ideas that are applicable to the whole class.
If you are introducing a brand new idea, get the ball rolling with an example that you have put together. Students thrive on you showing them creative examples, not just when you tell them. Upload your example to a class wiki page so students can listen to and deconstruct it as part of a homework task. This will also instil the notion of online publication as the goal. Creating a simple, attractive and functional wiki page is very easy to do and you will have a repository that is flexible and accessible.
Motivate your students by including end-of-project sharing, such as a performance or online publication. Take it further by moving from a collection of recordings to burning a CD, printing some artwork and sharing it with parents. Finally, save some examples (the best examples, and
those that need specific improvements) for the next time you run the project!
Well considered guidelines can kindle creativity. Particularly when getting started with technology, open slather can result in both you and your students losing focus and getting lost very quickly. Rules and restrictions are not the antithesis of creativity. Consider the skills of a soccer player – would the technical prowess of players in using their feet, legs, chest and head have improved so much if players could use their hands and arms? What of the tactics and problem solving without having to get around the offside rule? Working with and around the parameters can produce some of the most compelling moments and outcomes. If there were no rules, there would be no game, and no challenge. Restrict the length of the piece, restrict the notes or loops you can use, restrict the form ABA, etc.
Be brave, be excited and be committed to creativity – it is infectious and your students will thrive.
Dr Adrian Barr is a music technology and performance specialist with a passion for education and improvisation. Adrian is the Digital Resources Manager for Musica Viva In Schools where he is working on interactive, student-centred music education resources. For more information, please visit www.musicaviva.com.au/education/about
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