UpClose: Richard McCready

Mike Lawson • ChoralFeatures • April 4, 2013

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A Glimpse into the Future of Music Education


As technology shifts the world around us, long-accepted paradigms about how we communicate, learn, and teach are rapidly evolving. Richard McCready of Clarksville, Maryland’s River Hill High School, recognizes this seismic shift in the educational landscape, and has been at the forefront of implementing a new reality. Recently named the Technology Institute for Music Education (TI:ME) 2013 “Teacher of the Year,” McCready uses technology to inspire and engage students in music making and composition using an assessable, task-based methodology.

“What we have in our whole assessment model and our whole curriculum model throughout schools is one based on mathematics: it follows a sequential order,” says McCready. “That certainly is an okay approach. However, kids today are learning in a totally different way.” McCready is referring to a new style of learning that he describes as being more like a spider web than a straight line. He continues, “The whole approach through creativity allows us to go into learning skills in a way that is not so linear. We don’t say, ‘We need to learn this skill and then we’ll go to the next one.’ What we do is we gradually impart skills as the students need them.”

In a recent conversation with SBO, McCready discusses the development of his lab and its curriculum, as well as his vision for the bright future of music education enabled by an array of new tools.


School Band & Orchestra: How did you end up in your current position, running a music tech lab at a high school?

Richard McCready: Music and Computer Science were my two top subjects when I was in high school. When I was looking at colleges, I faced a career choice: do I go into music or do I go into computers? I eventually chose to go to a music college, and just kept up with the computer side of things as a hobbyist. When I was in college and they started offering electronic music courses, I took every one that I could. I just loved making music on synthesizers and computers. When I went into teaching itself, I tried integrating what technology there was at the time into my curriculum: four-track tape recorders, typical ‘80s retro tools. Of course, we didn’t call them retro at the time. They were state-of-the-art back then! My students were always interested in those sorts of things. It’s always been a love of mine to use computers for making music, even though my degree is essentially a performance degree.

As my teaching has developed, at every stage I’ve tried to bring technology into what I do. When I was teaching middle school here in Howard County 11 years ago, I received a grant to bring in six computers. I had the kids composing on the computers using simple software – a very early version of Sibelius, Sony Acid – and then I got some Macs and started to use GarageBand. The band director here at River Hill, Joe Fischer, actually had the vision looking into the future. He saw that music technology was something that he wanted to have at the high school, so he got me on board to work out specs for a lab and took my advice regarding what keyboards and what software we should use. During the first year, demand for the program grew. The next year I transferred to the high school, and now I teach the music technology in this school full time.

This is the first of the music tech labs that came into our county. There were some scratch labs before that – a few computers huddled together – but this was the first real lab.Then, last year we extended the program across the county by putting similar labs in all of the high schools. We basically got a seven-figure grant to make it all happen. Our Board of Education realized what was so good about what was happening at River Hill, and they wanted to give that opportunity to all of the students throughout the county. So that’s how I ended up as a tuba player teaching music technology!


SBO: How many students come through your lab each day?

RM: We have three sections of Music Tech I, that’s 75 students. We have a section of Music Tech II, that’s another 25 students, and we also have the guitar classes in here, as well as the piano classes, so that’s another 75 students. Seven classes with 25 students in each equals 175 kids coming through here per day.


SBO: Do students in the performing ensembles also participate in these classes?

RM: One of the reasons we have music technology and have found it to be so great is that it picks up those kids who for whatever reason are no longer in performance ensembles. Perhaps they played clarinet in elementary school and then they dropped out, or it could sometimes be due to schedule changes or due to conflicts with athletics. They love music and want to continue in music, but if you drop out of the band for a year or two, you can find yourself extraordinarily behind. So they come in here because they love music, they want to compose music, and they want to create music. Once they are in here, they start to take an interest in our ensemble classes. They realize, “Hey, I’m having fun with music again,” even if they might have been a couple of years distant from it because they were too busy with something else. Then they want to join the choir or they want to join the marching band. We get a lot of kids like that who come back to music, when normally they would have given up on it by the time they come to high school.


SBO: So it serves as a gateway back into the music program, then?

RM: Yes, it can serve as a gateway back in, but also for those students who are in ensemble classes, it can absolutely assist with what they’re doing. I was just talking to our choral teacher about some of our choir kids who are also in music tech. They find that this so helps their songwriting abilities and other things like that.

We also have to be very careful. I know of certain schools where they make prerequisites for music tech classes, which, to me, is crazy. One school near us says that students must have two years of ensemble classes plus piano classes and music theory in order to be in music tech. And they can’t understand why year after year they don’t get the numbers to run the course. By putting those prerequisites in there, they’re putting a barrier up that’s going to keep a lot of kids from doing what they want to do – to be in music.

What I want to be able to do – and what many of my colleagues want to do, as well – is make music available to all students. For us, the kids have chosen the computer as their instrument. They want to learn music, only they’d rather use a computer than a trumpet or a trombone. In our music tech courses, we teach musical skills rather than technology skills. It counts as a music class – a fine arts credit – not a technology credit. It’s like how playing the clarinet isn’t a woodworking credit, or a plastic-working credit, as the case may be, and playing the trumpet does not give you credit for metalwork. We are learning music. The kids want to study music, they love music and they listen to it all the time, and for them to be able to create that in a multimedia environment – when we do things like scoring for videogames and scoring for movies – it absolutely brings it alive for them. They can also realize what people out there in those fields are doing.

You know, if Beethoven were alive today, he would be writing music for movies. If John Williams were alive in the 18th century, he would have been writing symphonies. It’s just a different time.


SBO: When you first opened up the lab at the high school, how did you go about spreading the word? 

RM: Before the first year, we introduced the idea to the performance students, telling them that we were going to be having this program. We encouraged them to participate with the idea that understanding the technological aspects of music would be very beneficial for them as their studies advanced. We had enough to run one section. And what we did that year was really let the school know by doing things like putting music in with the announcements and showing videos of the kids working, so the kids got to know that the lab was here. Of course, in most high schools, a buzz goes around pretty quickly. If you’ve got something new and exciting, the kids are going to talk about it over the lunch table and gradually they’re going to come down and check out what it’s all about.

We brought in some guest educators to do some demonstrations on Pro Tools and recording. We would show those demos to the whole band and choir and tell the students, “You know, there is a course where you can learn to do this.” Notably, Andy Synowiec, who now plays guitar with the Gordon Goodwin Band and did a lot of his recording out in L.A., came in and showed the band class how exciting this sort of stuff is. The second year we had a tripling of the numbers. There were so many people who wanted to take the class that we opened up a full-time instructor, which is my position here.

Before this happened, River Hill High School had 1.5 full-time music staff. There are 1,400 students here. We had a full-time band director and a part-time strings teacher, and choir and other classes like guitar or piano were taught by teachers of subjects, such as math or language arts. After we turned the lights on in the music tech lab, we grew to the largest music staff in the county. We have 4.5 music teachers here now, which is great for a population-1,400 school. We grew the numbers so big that the kids wanted to take guitar class, they wanted to take piano, and percussion, and jazz, and marching band. They could see the connection between making music and composing music, and they wanted to be a part of it. Music once again became vibrant throughout the school.

Our guitar numbers went through the roof as well, because many of my music tech kids also happened to play guitar. I would say that 75 percent of my advanced kids are good guitar players, and the other 25 percent can bang out chords well enough to lay down a rhythm track if needed. The guitar, the keyboard, and the music tech all go hand in hand. Those kids who decide that they want to study music tech in college and are asking what else they can take that might help them are realizing that taking keyboard and guitar classes will give them skills that will help them in the future.

Our numbers have exploded. This is a challenge as well, certainly for some people I speak to in the county because they’ve been used to the self-selection process that ensembles go through, the idea that “I’m only going to get good students who are really dedicated to playing their instruments.” We see a lot of teachers who are so comfortable with that situation that they don’t reach out to those forgotten kids.

I love to get those forgotten kids, because what in fact happens is that music gives them so much. Where they were lost before – and they might have had difficulty with school or in social situations because they were lost – now music gives them that impetus and creativity. It’s absolutely fabulous what music does for everybody, and it’s really a situation where we need to simply allow that to happen.


SBO: Have there been challenges associated with such quick expansion? Has it been a delicate course to navigate?

RM: The key is big administrative support. We have administrators here who really value what’s going on in the arts. When the music department also helps what the rest of the school does, it really feels like music is a welcome thing. For example, our athletic department knows just how important our marching band kids and pep band kids are to what they’re doing. If we were fighting for numbers, that sort of camaraderie wouldn’t exist, and people would be resentful. We as a music department always try to help out in any way we can with what’s going on – we want to be the spirit of the school. The kids that come through the program are very generous with their talents and their skills. If a teacher comes along and they want a little band to accompany their German day or whatever it may be, we’ll make it happen. We really regard ourselves not in service to the school, but supportive of the whole academic side of things.

You’re always going to get one or two teachers in any school who are resentful of things that other people are doing, but we’ve had a very positive experience here. We also believe in keeping communication open. We tell the rest of the school what we’re doing, what’s going on, and we invite them to events so people don’t feel like we’re trying to steal their kids from behind their backs. We’re always trying to make things happen for the good of the school.


SBO: What do you think the larger impact of technology on music education will be moving forward? 

RM: Technology is giving kids such great opportunities for changing the way that music is learned, as well as changing the whole paradigm of music education. We’ve taught in a traditional way for over 100 years because that’s how we have been giving students the opportunity and skills to continue to play music after they finish high school – and we certainly want that to continue to happen. But the number of jobs that are available in music performance is declining by the day. Even the number of community orchestras and bands is dwindling. While there is extraordinary benefit to continuing to teach music the traditional way – in terms of kids learning to love music and play it and all of the brain benefits that go along with that – sometimes we’re really trying to market an unmarketable skill.

Where technology changes the paradigm is the whole approach to how the material is taught. Rather than having the conductor in the middle of the room serving as the vessel through which music flows, what we’re doing is giving much more ownership to the kids to design their education their own way, how they want to learn, where the technology takes them. There are so many possibilities. What I hope is that eventually there will be more people entering politics who have a more rounded music education and, therefore, will realize on a bigger scale how important music education really is.

We often complain about the fact the people who are making decisions about education are not teachers, but we forget about the fact that they are all former students. If we teach people when they’re kids about all of the multiple ways that education can be measured, then we’re going to create the next generation that is much more open to all of the ways that music can be fostered. Looking 20 or 30 years ago, we only graded music according to ratings at festivals. That was appropriate then. So the people that experienced that and now are looking at how music fits in the school curriculum and how to assess that, they’re going on what they learned 20 or 30 years ago, when they were students.

Many of us are trying to move as far away from standardized testing as we can. We don’t want to test our students that way: we want to be grading someone for musicality rather than whether or not they played all the right notes. We can do that in the future because technology allows it. When kids are composing portfolios of compositions which can’t be graded according to an antiseptic rubric, then they’re going to learn in the future that there are more ways to learn than simply opening the books, starting at the beginning, and going through it to the end. There are more ways to assess then, “How many wrong notes did you make?”


SBO: Would you expand on the idea of an assessable curriculum that might not be standardized? 

RM: What we have in our whole assessment model and our whole curriculum model throughout schools is one based on mathematics: it follows a sequential order. For example, when we teach music, we also typically teach in a sequential order: we start to teach rhythm before we start to teach pitch, and we teach pitch before we teach timbre, and we teach timbre before we teach form, and we have to teach melody before we teach harmony, and so on. It’s the same as taking a book and working through it chapter by chapter until you get to the end – where students gradually develop skills as they go. And that certainly is an okay approach. However, kids today are learning in a totally different way. When kids are learning on the Internet, they’re not going page by page. You can never get a kid to sit down and read an entire article on the Internet, especially if it is more than one page long.

If you try to learn by Wikipedia, what happens is that you start reading about something and then you click on something else in that article that seems interesting, and that takes you to another article, and then five minutes later you go somewhere else, and all of a sudden you can’t remember what it is that you sat at the computer to do. Kids are learning that way – it’s almost a web-based method, rather than a linear format. If we continue to teach music education in a linear way, where we basically say, “You can’t move to the next point until you’ve mastered that rhythm,” then where’s that kid’s tone quality? Or do we have to forget about that until we’ve mastered rhythm and pitch?

The whole approach through creativity allows us to go into learning skills in a way that is not so linear. We don’t say, “We need to learn this skill and then we’ll go to the next one.” What we do is we gradually impart the skills as the students need them. We take a look at the challenges we face when we create a piece of music and ask, “What do I need to know to make that happen? What is my goal, what do I need to learn?”

We just see a different approach in the way that I teach music education than the idea of starting at the front of the book and moving sequentially to the back – that you have to develop the theoretical skills before you’re allowed to move to the next level. To me, that’s counter to what we want to achieve. For another example, some teachers will say that their students have to learn all of the notation before they let their students begin to compose, whereas I say, “Let’s make the sound. And when we need to learn how to notate it, we’ll do that.” Those necessary skills that people need to have in terms of theoretical knowledge, we’ll cover those when we get there.

When a student says, “Hey, I need a scale that can go over this chord,” that’s when I say, “Hey, you need to learn the mixolydian mode,” rather than me coming at them first, just saying, “Okay, today I’m going to teach you the mixolydian scale.”

So, for me, imparting those skills at the correct time is so important. There are lots of tutor books on how to play the guitar, but the first 30 pages are a primer on theory. How many kids will actually read through those 30 pages before they pick up the guitar? They don’t. They might come back to that later, if they think it’s necessary. A parallel is the natural way that kids play video games. There’s a booklet that comes with the video game. Do they read it? No!


SBO: Not until they encounter a problem or something they don’t know how to do.

RM: Exactly! When you have the problem or you come across something that you want to find out, then we need to learn that bit. And then we find ways to teach that. So what we do with music technology is we give kids projects and we tell them what we want to see in those projects, what elements we’re looking for. These can be a certain form, or the usage of compressors or EQs that don’t clip sounds – these are the things that I would want in a good recording. And so those are the things that are assessable. There are things that the students know and can hold on to, but then we can teach the musicality on top of that.

My students always have to do write-ups of their works, and we discuss those in the class. Many things come up in the write-ups and discussions that you can’t put in a rubric. But that adds to their assessment because it becomes a part of their portfolio and an indicator that they have learned something, even though it isn’t necessarily something that is on page 34 of the textbook. It’s something that came naturally out of the project.


SBO: Essentially a task or problem-based educational approach, then?

RM: Yes, exactly. We learn from experience, and we do that throughout life. Kids learn throughout life to deal with the problems they need to as they encounter them, at the time that they need to deal with them. For me, music education is the same: students should learn those skills when we need them, and when the kids naturally want to learn the material. And we do reach the points of curiosity, where they think, “You know what? Maybe I should take that theory class because I want to be able to write my music down.” I’d much rather they try to compose a lot of music before they take theory class rather than take theory class and then start writing.


SBO: Getting back to the practical for a moment, what advice do you have for educators who may be interested in creating a music tech lab similar to what you have implemented so successfully at River Hill High School?

RM: My first piece of advice would be to get a computer and some software, and then spend the summer creating, composing, and finding out all of the ways that the software helps people do that. Rather than buying a manual for the program, jump right in: start composing and writing. Once people start doing that, they’ll start to really experience the joy of creativity. We have been trained at our age to read the manual before you turn the microwave on. However, the software being made today is written from the point of view that it should be logical to find what you need without having to read the book. We see that more and more.

A lot of adults are also scared of breaking things. What many of us heard growing up was, “Don’t touch that – it’ll break!” Whereas with computers, that doesn’t happen. There’s safety built into the programs. Certainly for the teachers that I train, I try to get them to take the software home, sign out a computer from the school and then have fun with it. There are a number of great resources coming down the pike now, too. We’re having many books being written to fill this niche, giving teachers lesson plans and ideas for using this stuff.

Kids are less scared of software than teachers are, so it’s important to let them be resources, as well. The students can be a huge part of the teaching process, as well as the learning process. We have reached the point where we in music education are trained as directors. We stand on the podium and everybody is responding to us. We have to be in control. We have to know every instrument. With music technology, it doesn’t have to be like that; we can simply be in the center of this amazing hub of creativity.


Richard McCready’s Recommended Teaching Resources


“Learn the software by spending a couple of months playing with it – I was always impressed as a child by how Paul Hindemith learned every orchestral instrument so he knew better how to compose for it and how to coach the players when he conducted,” says McCready. “This approach really works with software. TI:ME offers many classes in learning the various packages, and you can usually find classes in your area throughout the year. You can also find lots of videos and webinars through the Soundtree Institute at institute.soundtree.com.”

• Making Music with GarageBand and Mixcraft by Jim Frankel, Robin Hodson, Michael Fein, and Richard McCready (Cengage Learning)

• Using Technology to Unlock Musical Creativity by Scott Watson (Oxford University Press)

• Teaching Composition Using Technology by Barbara Freedman (Oxford University Press)

• Using Pro Tools in Music Education by Robin Hodson (Hal Leonard)

• Sibelius 7 Music Notation Essentials by James Humberstone (Cengage Learning)

• Recording on a Budget by Brent Edstrom (Oxford University Press)

• Technology Integration in the Elementary Music Classroom by Amy Burns (Hal Leonard)





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