Epic economic dilemmas require epic solutions. Even while the struggling economy is negatively affecting education, positive and creative options are emerging in music education. We don't need to stand by while furloughs and cuts threaten our profession or watch fine performance ensembles be squeezed between single-section specialty classes. For years, School Band & Orchestra has thrown a spotlight on music educators who are thriving in spite of the downturns around us. And some of our finest innovators are using technology to come up with epic solutions.
One such innovator is Barbara Freedman, of Greenwich, Connecticut, TI:ME's 2012 Teacher of the Year. By reaching out to the wider student population with the help of technology, her music department is on stronger ground, music is being viewed as an educational necessity, and jobs and careers are no longer on the chopping block. As the music technologist at Greenwich High School for the past 11 years, Barbara successfully provides 300+ students (and a waiting list for more) with innovative composition and tech-performance experiences.
The non-traditional hand-held electronic music ensemble is a bold, new option for music educators. Barbara Freedman was first inspired by something she saw on YouTube back in 2008. The first ensemble to perform on their iPhones was the band called iBand (view a video of the iBand in action at: tinyurl.com/3exeyr). Another electronic composition was produced by a DJ called Spurt (tinyurl.com/4jwmm9).
One of the exceptional products introduced in those clips was produced on the Korg Kaossilator, and another was done with the mini KP. Technology expert and music educator Jim Frankel came to Greenwich to demonstrate them, and soon after Barbara had her students using these tools in their ensembles, after seeing what was capable via some performances on YouTube. That began a new chapter in Barbara's teaching.
"What we are doing," Barbara says today, "is not just fun and games. We are teaching people about musical intelligence, so that they can understand music and create a product that is valuable to their community and culture. Whether it is young people or their parents, they are actually creating music. How often in school do the students have a chance to hear a teacher say, 'Go create?' The model for education has been to listen to what the teacher tells you or shows you and then students show the teacher the knowledge they have gained by passing a test. I have students demonstrate their knowledge (music and music theory) by creating something they love – music. This is a unique way of assessing student knowledge by having them create something, even though it may seem to be more a difficult way to assess knowledge. It is what the new Common Core and STEM Standards (science, technology, engineering, math) try to achieve and we've been doing this in music technology classes for years.
"Adding performance ensembles using hand-held devices is just another way for students to create. In this environment, students need to work together. They need to create together and perform together. They get a taste of what students in traditional ensembles, band, orchestra and chorus get by having to play and perform with others. They get what students get out of playing in chamber groups only in this case, the instruments are electronic."
When she came to Greenwich High School in 2001, there were two Electronic Music classes which she developed into four classes: An Introduction to Electronic Music, Electronic Music I, Electronic Music II, and Electronic Music III, along with an additional honors section. She explains, "These classes are based in music composition, using a sequencing program. In my introduction course, I use GarageBand. And in all three upper level classes, we use Logic for student compositions. They learn about music through composition.
"The Electronic III and Honors class students are required to use the hand-held device and participate in ensembles. I break them into performing groups of three or four. They have time to create and collaborate together in class. They work on creating and composing a piece and then they perform it for the class. That's one part of the class requirements. Some students like to do this more than others and they stick together and do it after school. Some don't perform with non-traditional music instruments and would rather play their composition or spend more time on audio mixing and editing. I give them a little bit more freedom to explore the things they like or prefer. But all are required to participate in each module during the school year."
When I asked Barbara if improvisation played a role in their composition instruction on these hand-held devices she answered that while her focus is composition, students in her advanced classes add live improvisation into their creations. "I want students to experience composition. And they usually do all their own they work on a computer. But then the ensemble experience gives them a chance to work with people 'live.' In a live situation they can't go back and quantize (have the computer correct their timing). I want them to explore sounds and sound design and I would like them to improvise because these hand-helds are a wonderful way to explore music by improvisation. When you are improvising, it is a totally different thing than recording and going back and editing on a computer. Sometimes I require that they compose only one theme, a main melody. Even if there is an improvisation section, I want to know that the students are going back to the idea originally created, the main melody. It can't just be a free-for-all jam for two-and-a-half minutes."
Barbara started her non-traditional instrument ensembles because as a percussionist, she knows that playing in an ensemble is an invaluable experience for all students. Students who only create music at a computer with GarageBand or Ableton just don't get the same experience as playing in band, orchestra, chorus, chamber music, or even a rock band. "The experience of interacting with people live is totally unique; creating, manipulating music, and feeling how the music comes together," she says. "This is why we have sports teams. It is a unique experience participating, producing and creating something in a group. That's why I wanted my students to have ensemble experiences and that's why I require it in my advance electronic music classes. Not because it is cool and fun but because it gives them an experience they would not get any other place! And most of my students have never done it before. It is a really great experience."
In terms of the numbers of students who use the devices, Barbara limits it so not all 300 students will touch the Kaossilator or iPad or participate in the nanoBands. Only 20 or 30 students over the course of the year use these hand-held devices, although more make music with laptops and computers in the typical traditional ensembles. "We hook up a few computers running GarageBand or some other software through a JamHub (www.jamhub.com) and you can have an ensemble with laptop or desktop computers. It's just not as portable and may not look as cool; but it works!"
Kaossilators were used at first because they were the hand-held devices that were available. But the iPhone, iPod Touch, and now the iPad are readily available. Now that there are devices with multiple functions, this is where the future may be. For example, there is a Kaossilator App for the iPad now. The instruments and the selections available just for the iPad in the app store are incredible. They have some incredible, unbelievable instruments available.
"One of the iPad initiative's teachers can do is music composition using software like GarageBand or Music Studio (www.xewton.com/musicstudio/overview/), which are terrific software apps, plus music theory like musictheory.net," says Barbara. "Karajan (www.karajan-eartrainer.com/en/) is also a wonderful application for music theory.
I think the iPad can be a great access device for those that can't afford a computer or laptop lab. It can be used as a composition tool, a music theory trainer, and as an ensemble instrument where students who would never play in an ensemble will participate."
Band and orchestra teachers may sometimes fear that a music technology class is going to take students away from their ensembles, but this is just not the case. Barbara says that in the 11 years she has been at Greenwich High School, there have been few if any students who have stopped playing in a performing ensemble just to be in her electronic music class. As it turns out, her music tech classes have been a great recruiting class source for both instrumental and vocal ensembles. Barbara notes, "I send a lot of students to college for Music Composition, Audio Engineering and Music Business. I tell my students if you really want to go into this in college, you will most likely have to take an audition and be able to demonstrate a certain level of musical knowledge. Most four-year colleges with majors in music technology, composition or business, require some background in music and the music school requires the audition. Some of my students freak out because they don't play traditional instruments, so I encourage them to join the chorus as soon as possible and take as many music theory classes as they can. Voice lessons are great if they can afford it. This will help them prepare for the audition. I have so many guys in my classes. How many colleges would love to have more basses and tenors in their choruses?"
Surprisingly, the prices of these non-traditional electronic instruments are dropping steadily. Even the new iPad Minis have been released with lower price-points, making them more affordable for school music programs.
Many of these hand-held instruments do not require an amplifier because they have already have output built in. Barbara agrees, saying, "I don't need amplifiers but there is one device that I highly recommend – the JamHub, which allows me to mix a lot of instruments together. Students can plug their instruments into the JamHub and everybody can hear each other. They can play 'live' when they plug into a sound system or computer or some other output device and students can control their mix and submix. For example, if someone is playing a Kaossilator and someone else is on the Alesis drum machine SR16 or SR18, I can turn the drummer down in my headphone mix. Each student has his or her own headphone mix plugged into a single output device. This works out great since all my students can be working in the same room on their projects and each group won't interfere with another one since they only hear their own group practicing."
Music technology equipment often qualifies for budget monies outside of the regular music budget. Once a lab is up and running, it is very easy to maintain since large purchases for hardware, software, and server upgrades are sonly made every few years. More importantly, funding often comes through sources outside of the music department. For example, there are Perkins loans and all kinds of things that the district receives for technology from the local, state, and federal government.
"I get my annual funding from the same place as all the other music teachers in my district," confirms Barbara. "But when I need to make large purchases like a set of computers, the funding came from the school and district's technology budgets, as well as the music department. If you can demonstrate the need, you can find funding for technology."
For those looking to purchase tech equipment for school use, remember to always ask for an education discount.
As music educators, we recognize the value of the ensemble experience. Whether traditional or non-traditional, a music ensemble can provide a first-class experience in not only in creating music but also synthesizing all of the elements of rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, and form. And when technology skills are fused into music ensemble experience, you have a curriculum model the entire student population can gravitate to. It can also enhance your employment security. Barbara even combines mixing traditional instruments in her electronic ensembles. As Barbara says, "This is how you reach that 80 percent of the school population that doesn't participate in our traditional music programs or band, orchestra or chorus. Give them a class where they can learn about music by creating music even if they had little or no experience with music before. This is how you have all those other students in the school clamor to get into a music class. You want to save your job? Job security is when the administration and Board of Ed sees huge numbers of kids requesting your elective class."
Greenwich High School Music Tech Links
Music Tech Curriculum: www.greenwichschools.org/page.cfm?p=1460
Barbara Freedman's website: www.MusicEdTech.com.
A collection of performances by iPhones and iPad ensembles can be found at tinyurl.com/c76maem.
Teaching Music Through Composition: A Curriculum Using Technology," by Barbara Freedman, published by Oxford University Press, 2013. For more information about the Korg Kaossilator and other equipment info visit: www.kuzmich.com/SBO0213.html
Directors who make a Difference
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