Tech Tools to Aid Student Performance

Mike Lawson • Technology • November 10, 2008

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Technology may appear to be the one ingredient that can help us maximize instructional time, especially outside of class, but implementing new tools may be challenging for those who feel under pressure and maxed out with learning curves. Ironically, many of our students are already stepping up to the plate in the technology sphere with blogging, podcasting, iTunes, YouTube, and MP3 players, while many of us are safely teaching dated methodologies and techniques governed by the limitations of our college curriculum which often included little, if any, music technology. Students are pretty techno-savvy and educators need to plug into that enthusiasm.

Music Publisher Technology Innovations
Ever wish your drum set players could play different styles of contemporary music besides rock? While play-along recordings can be helpful, a video presentation can be incredible. Tom Davis at Tom Davis Publications ( is both an unusual music publisher and an innovative high school band director in Canandaigua, New York. He offers many pedagogical aids for those using his charts, making it easy to perform his music at a high level. You can download all purchased parts and scores from the Internet. Imagine this: no need to purchase additional scores for festivals or ordering lost parts, you can just print them out. Along with his charts, Tom provides educational materials, such as worksheets, practice tracks for all players, rehearsal suggestions, notes about the music, interviews with soloists, solo transcriptions with alternative solo takes, and videos of soloists improvising on the chart. Perhaps most innovative of all is the OverheadDrumCam, which allows users to view the drum set video performance of each chart. Videos also include interviews with the drummer about performance techniques, along with downloadable and streaming audio rehearsal tips for every chart. This invaluable motivation tool allows students to see and hear the performance in real time. And all of this is provided by the publisher at no extra-charge.

On a philosophical footnote about Tom Davis’ charts and educational focus, students may be more comfortable than directors when it comes to accessing this information. The publisher’s goal is to promote and foster an independent learning community outside the classroom through technology by providing a “robust arsenal of multimedia support” for music that challenges the imagination and standard practices of “big box” publishers. Amen to this publisher’s credo!

Creative Solutions for Common Problems
Keeping time is a continual teaching challenge. Fortunately, there are many resources to consider when addressing this and other common performance problems. Automatic accompaniment generating software such as Band-In-A-Box by PG Music and SmartMusic by MakeMusic can provide authentic accompaniments that interactively engage students with concentrated practice that is more effective than the traditional metronome. Practicing with a rhythm section accompaniment gives students a keener awareness of the beat as they experience the unique functions and roles of individual rhythm section instruments.

Transcribing jazz solos has long been touted as the most authentic way to learn to improvise. Why? Because students become aurally involved with the recorded solo, notating it, analyzing it, and then transposing it. Without technology, this can be laborious process. But with either software or hardware tools, students can slow the recording without changing pitch, and be able to hear the nuances and articulations. There are several excellent transcribing software applications available, but Transcribe! 7.50 offers video playback that plays the video frame by frame, in sync with the audio at any speed.

Many students get a kick out of transcribing YouTube clips. I have a clarinet student who is going to be a featured soloist with the school’s symphonic band on the December concert. To make her practice more productive, she found a YouTube video of a professional playing her clarinet concerto. By downloading it into Transcribe!, she can practice with the video and control the playback tempo simultaneously. Using SmartMusic by MakeMusic, she has also downloaded a 99-cent recording of her concerto from iTunes and loaded it so she can practice with an entire symphony orchestra at any tempo, plus loop any section at any tempo for more in-depth practice. And she can also record herself with the symphony orchestra accompaniment.

I have a tuba/alto saxophone student preparing for his college auditions. He imports audio recordings of his concerti into SmartMusic and practices more creatively with SmartMusic than he would with the original recordings because SmartMusic allows him to control the tempo and looping boosts his practice miles ahead. Practice can really be fun and productive with technology.

Auditions and Testing
Ever wish you had time to assess students and improve accountability? With SmartMusic, software can record each student and can even grade the performances automatically if you pick music from its extensive library that includes more than 30,000 solo and ensemble titles and 50,000 exercises for woodwind, brass, string, and vocal musicians. In addition, there are 1,010 concert band, 161 string orchestra, 92 jazz ensemble and 14 full orchestra titles. SmartMusic Impact is a Web-based grade book for SmartMusic subscribers that automates administrative tasks to save time because it tracks all returned and late assignments, calculates grades for assignments based on the teacher’s grading criteria, collects audio recordings of student assignments, and shows how each student is progressing.

One of the SmartMusic sample files, “Straight Ahead Blues,” is a perfect tryout piece for a high school jazz band audition. Students are able to perform with a rhythm section and practice with it at home in preparation for the tryout. And if that’s not enough, educatros can listen to the recorded tryout at their convenience and print out the scores of students’ performances with errors indicated. For drummer tryouts in which students need to demonstrate different style grooves and fills, try selecting different from the jazz improvisation folders, especially the Aebersold repertory. Besides helping the evaluation, your drummers can practice keeping a steady beat, playing the correct style, and doing fills in time. The SmartMusic files can help teach drummers comping styles as well. This will also work well for the bass and piano players.

Bob Grifa, a retired middle/high school educator in Virginia, feels that grading for Jazz Ensemble is slightly different from Concert Band, especially for younger groups. In his opinion, in order to play in the Jazz Ensemble students must already have some degree of fundamental playing skill. Style also needs to be taken into consideration, and improvisation can raise the difficulty of a chart.

With that in mind, here are some titles in the Jazz Ensemble repertoire list at the SmartMusic Web site. Consider the headings below as to what level those pieces might be used for in terms of both of musical development and auditions.

Jazz Ensemble:

Very Easy
“Cherry Point” (Swing) Hefti, arr. Phillippe Belwin

“Mystic Traveler” (Psuedo bossa) Sweeney, Hal Leonard

More experienced:

Medium Easy
“Jumpin’ at the Woodside” (Swing) Basie, arr. DeRosa Belwin

Intermediate Jazz Ensemble:

“The Duke” (Swing) Brubeck

More advanced

“Caravan” (mixture) Ellington & Tizol, arr. Baylock Belwin
“R U Chicken” (funk) Berg Belwin

The strength and freedom that the process of improvisation provides can and should be part of any music student’s experience. I will be teaching in Maui in the near future, and improvisation will be taught to all band students at the middle and high school level, including marching band. SmartMusic offers a wealth of innovative instruction for contemporary music. Their latest jazz repertoire files for jazz band are particularly applicable to the entire ensemble. All the jazz improvisation materials can be played by any concert band or string instrument. Improvisation can now be introduced into the “regular” concert band or orchestra rehearsal, which neatly fits MENC National Music Standards. A list of key features at includes jazz-oriented items for the entire ensemble: Play by Ear, Improvisation Patterns, and Jazz Exercises.

For example, “Straight Ahead Blues” and “Rockin’ Blues” are great for teaching improvisation with the blues scale. Students start out playing the blues scale along with the file. Try using the file at the beginning of rehearsal with SmartMusic amplified through speakers. After instruction, each student could improvise one bar, one student after the other, all the way around the section. After students become more comfortable, the number of measures can be extended, until students are trading fours. More experienced improvisers could do an entire chorus. During this process, the amplified SmartMusic rhythm section keeps things moving and the tempo and key can be adjusted as needed. This is a great warm-up activity to focus the students’ creative juices and increase their musical confidence. (By the way, the two files mentioned here are available in SmartMusic demo mode.)

Coping With Comping
Band-In-A-Box can help teach those elusive comping skills. Your bass players can watch, listen, and read custom-made bass lines. Then, simply print out the Band-In-A-Box bass lines and help the students analyze the roots, 3rds, 5ths, flat 7ths, and passing tones. The bassist can quickly start to see and understand how walking bass lines function, that chord tones occur on the first and third beats and passing tones on beats two and four. You can also use this to teach Latin bass lines with most roots and 5ths.

The Wynton Marsalis repertoire in SmartMusic is valuable for all performers, but is particularly good for the rhythm section because it has transcriptions showing what Wynton’s rhythm section actually plays. This allows great opportunities for analysis. Students can practice published charts at any tempo, and even loop difficult measures. Piano players can see and hear exactly what comping is. All students will be able to experience different musical styles and play along with each of them by muting their instrument in the recording. For example, mute the drums so your drummers can play along with the piano and bass player, or the piano, so your piano player can play with just the bass and drums. These same features are available with Band-In-A-Box.

Practicing with Jazz Ensemble Repertoire
It’s amazing how we can now create automatic rhythm section accompaniments. In just minutes, users can build an entire rhythm section accompaniment in Band-In-A-Box for any chart and burn CDs for students to practice with. Just input the chord symbols and select from thousands of musical styles for as many tracks as necessary. For example, you could create separate tracks of “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane or “Magic Flea” by Sammy Nestico first as a bossa nova at 120 mm, medium tempo at 160 mm, uptempo at 220 mm, 260 mm. That’s a lot of assisted/sequential home practicing for teachers to creatively utilize with their students, and all from a single software application.

Our friend Bob Grifa regularly assigned a challenging part. He had the students send him a recording of the assignment using SmartMusic Impact. At the next rehearsal, before a note was ever played, he was able to tell students what they were doing incorrectly and how to fix it. In rehearsals, he used the recordings from the SmartMusic library to let students hear tone quality, interpretation of articulations, including unwritten dynamics. He even projected a part up on a screen so students could see and hear their parts in real time. With SmartMusic amplified, one section or the entire group can play along with the pros. Time can work for you when the creative energy of music technology opens up new possibilities for your students.


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