UpClose: Paul Shimmons

Mike Lawson • UpClose • April 9, 2012

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By Eliahu Sussman

When it comes to using the latest devices, software, and digital instruments in the classroom, finding the right tools for the job can be a challenging endeavor. What’s more, with the exciting possibilities presented by touch screens, cloud storage, and the endless array of innovative products, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that this technology is only useful to music educators if it successfully enhances instruction, or creates new educational possibilities. Fortunately, there are some people out there who have been trying out and using increasingly sophisticated technological tools in their music rooms for years.

Paul Shimmons, band director at Farwell Area Schools in Central Michigan, is one such educator who has been steadily implementing innovative devices, software, and instruments into his teaching methods since the dawn of the digital age. Shimmons has an impressive assortment of technology that he uses with his traditional ensembles, in addition to creating several new course offerings designed to keep up with the latest trends and tools used in music making today.

In this recent interview with School Band & Orchestra, Shimmons provides insight into his approach to finding, selecting, purchasing, and implementing new technological devices into his classes and ensembles.

School Band & Orchestra: How did your interest in technology make its way into your classroom?

Paul Shimmons: My goal from the start was to make sure that my band room isn’t like the band room that I experienced when I was in high school. Today’s world doesn’t look like the world that I grew up in, so I’m trying to make the musical experience that I’m giving my kids a little more meaningful and connected to their every day life.

I want to give my students the opportunity to create music with electronic instruments. I want to give them a chance to understand how some of the music that they are listening to outside of my band room is being created, as well, so we’re not using just the traditional wind instruments and having the traditional concert band experience. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for people to go out into the world to perform traditional concert or symphonic material. We’re lucky in that we do have a really good community band, but that’s a small portion of these kids’ experience. So many kids even outside of the traditional band and choir experience are messing around with creating music and playing in their garage band or their rock band. They want to play and sing, and sing and play together, so why don’t we do that in our classrooms?

SBO: Do you try to attract those students into your traditional classes or create courses that will meet them at their own interest level?

PS: We’re trying to do a little bit of both. We’re trying to utilize some of that technology in the traditional band department, and we also offer a whole other class with electronic instruments. We also have a combined class with singers, as well, so it’s not this taboo thing trying to get the two of them together. For these kids that are doing the garage band thing, maybe this will help give them a little bit of exposure to a traditional music education and a bit of training so they have a clue what they’re doing when they go back to making their music at home.

SBO: So what are some of the newer tools that you’ve implemented into your teaching?

PS: In my concert band, we have computers in our practice rooms. We use SmartMusic, which helps me better assess my students. I will send three or four kids back into the practice room and they will take tests and do some sight reading exercises on their own. That tool has been amazing. Before we had that, it was really difficult for me to be able to listen to my students on an individual basis. Now, over the course of a week, I can listen to every single one of my students in all of my groups and give them feedback. It’s a lot easier for me to know exactly how each individual student is doing. I can sit at home with my iPad or my computer and listen to their exercises at my convenience. It’s great that I’m not stuck at school – I can assess my students from anywhere that has an internet connection.

We also have a projector attached to a computer in the front of my band room. Some of the other band rooms in my district don’t have something similar, and I don’t know how they do it. We use our projector every day. We have our announcements on it, our rehearsal plan, and so on. We also use the projector to show YouTube videos, and it’s hooked up to a sound system as well.

SBO: How do you typically use YouTube with your students?

PS: YouTube has a ton of performing groups at all different levels doing any song that you could want to listen to. Some of them are bad and some are good, but it’s all useful for teaching these kids. We can listen to the recording of a middle school band from Ohio or wherever, and then evaluate it with our students. “Was that good or bad? And why was it good or bad?” And when we find well played examples of music that we’re doing, we can ask ourselves, “How are we doing it different, and what do we want to try to glean from this performance?”

It can be a little scary accessing YouTube in the middle of the class on a whim – I try to set it up beforehand just to make sure that what I end up with is the same thing I’m looking for. With my middle school band, especially, I use the website www.keepvid.com, which allows me to stash a video on my hard drive so I don’t even need to go to YouTube during class or deal with any weird things that may pop up. Our choir teacher also uses YouTube all the time to show demonstrations.

We have our room set up to record, so at any given moment, I can walk over and hit record and then play back what our students are doing. That’s useful to show them what we really sound like. It scares, them, frequently: “Oh, I didn’t think I sounded that bad!” [laughs]

We use Keynote for presentations. I have a lot of lessons saved on that which we use for the pencil and paper work – theory or learning about composers.

I have an iPad that I keep all my stuff on, including my music. With the iPad, I use a program called Air Sketch to wirelessly connect it to the computer that is hooked up to the projector.  With that, I can write on the iPad and it shows up on the projector like a white board. I can circle things, write answers on worksheets, and so on. That’s really useful, especially when you have a larger class.

SBO: Do you think that there’s a fine line between using the technology to improve instruction and getting carried away with finding the newest gadgets?

PS: It’s always fun to play with those things, but the question you have to ask is: “How is this going to improve what we’ve already been doing for years?”

SBO: So how do you draw that line when you’re evaluating bringing in potential tools?

PS: Sometimes it’s trial and error. I’ll bring something into class, try it, and think, “Well, I’ll never use that again.” And other times I’ll bring something in that works as expected and it’s definitely an enhancement. For example, when I bring up a particular song on the projector using SmartMusic, I know that all of my kids are looking at the same thing. If we didn’t have that screen up there, we’d be hoping that the kids would be looking at the right thing, but I wouldn’t be able to point to it in front of the class and say, “That, right there.” Plus, it gives the kids the chance to see things they wouldn’t be able to see before.

Another part of what I’m thinking about is how we can do things differently from how we’ve done them before, or even how we can do things that we’ve never been able to do before. How easy is it to show the whole band the alto saxophone part? Here we can just pull up the score in front of the class and highlight or hide this or that. It’s quick and it’s easy, and it doesn’t take that much time.

SBO: Is there a kind of clash of philosophy between these new tools and old-fashioned methods?

PS: I don’t know that I see it as a clash. It’s always been a struggle for kids to understand the work they have to do, and this is just another way for us teachers to hit that point home.

Our band boosters recently purchased a bunch of electronic instruments – a couple electronic wind instruments, a MalletKAT, an electronic drum set – because the kids were saying, “If only we had this and that, we could do these other things.” But then as soon as we got them, the kids realized that it was going to take a bit of work to learn to play those well. With these tools, nothing really changes – they still have to work their butts off.

SBO: How do you handle costs of both initial purchase and then maintenance?

PS: I do a lot of research before we purchase anything, to make sure that whatever we buy is going to last. We ask a lot of questions about equipment. As a part of that, we try to buy things that have been proven, to a point. We just bought a digital soundboard to make it easier to make recordings. Well, we made sure that the company we purchased that from had a good track record behind it.

The other side of this is making sure that the school board and band boosters understand the reality of this technology: at some point it’s going to have to be replaced. When the band boosters bought three or four computers, we had that discussion about how, in a few years, we would have to go out and spend that money again once the computers need to be replaced or updated. It’s not a case where we can make a purchase and we’ll never have to spend that money again. We need to make sure that there’s more money in the budget for updates and repair.

SBO: Is this an additional expense that has been added to the budget or do you find funding for these tech tools by cutting back in other areas?

PS: It’s a combination of allocating some monies towards technology and raising funds specifically for technology. My school gives our band department a budget every year and tech is one of the line items in that budget. The larger purchases are often the result of a lot of hard work from band boosters.

SBO: Who is the real beneficiary of all of these technological innovations in the classroom?

PS: The benefit of the iPad has gone directly to me, as far as being more organized and efficient. However, my iPad doesn’t belong to the school; it’s mine. A lot of the other stuff goes right straight over to the students. It helps them comprehend a lot quicker and gives them different ways to express themselves. It gives them different methods of exploring their creativity.

SBO: What do you think band rooms are going to look like in five or ten years?

PS: That’s a good question because this stuff is changing so fast. When I walk into a lot of the band rooms in my district, there isn’t a whole lot that is different from the band rooms I was in growing up. Unfortunately, I think a lot of band rooms are going to stay the same. Part of it is that a lot of these tools are cost-prohibitive. You need a good group supporting you, including boosters and administration, and, of course, money is tight everywhere.

My hope is that maybe the traditional band class doesn’t look that different, but hopefully there will be other classes added that ties into the technology that kids are so comfortable with, that ties into some of the pop music that kids are doing outside of the traditional band program. So it’s not that we need to change what we’re doing, so much as add to what we’re offering our kids.

SBO: So it is about addition, not transformation, per se. 

PS: Right. We have to be relevant to what kids’ real lives are. One of the ways that my band room is changing has nothing to do with me. Increasingly, our students have devices in their hand and in their pockets that can do amazing things. Smart phones and iPods that have cameras and audio recorders built into them are powerful tools.

This shift has really happened in just this last year. There’s been a huge influx – probably half my high schoolers now have an iPod Touch or a smart phone, and that makes it usable. If half my kids have something that capable, I can have two or three kids working together with some of those devices.

SBO: Would you worry about the students who don’t have a smart phone feel like they’re being singled out or something along those lines?

PS: Exactly, that’s a concern. In our district, we just got a report from the state that we apparently have one of the higher rates of poverty in the state of Michigan. We knew we were bad off, but we didn’t think it was that bad! But if my school has that much poverty, and yet half my high schoolers have smart phones, we can certainly work something out so that the kids don’t have those devices don’t feel so bad. And hopefully they’re spread out enough – hopefully it’s not just percussion and brass with all the smart phones and none in the wind section!

SBO: What’s the bottom line with all of implementing technology into music classes and ensembles? 

PS: It’s all about doing things in the classroom that weren’t done when I was a kid – doing things in ways that make it better for my students to understand, that helps them understand quicker and easier, and will stick with them longer. I’m always trying to find ways to reach kids that are not in that traditional band program, to pull them in somehow. I have a long ways to go before I call myself successful at that, but it is always something I strive for.

A lot of schools are lucky to have 20 percent of their student body in the traditional band program, and that’s a lot of kids that are not involved. Those kids that are exploring music at home or on their own could be doing amazing things with some leadership from a trained musician, director, or music educator.

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