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The Power Needed to Learn an Instrument

Dr. Milt Allen • Commentary • September 12, 2012

I remember a junior high student I had back in Missouri. He showed up to class one day with bandages on his knees, elbows, hands, and even his forehead. The ones on his knees and elbows still had blood seeping through.

When I asked him what had happened, he reluctantly admitted, “I’ve been playing this video game. It’s really cool and I’ve gotten really good at it. It’s a skateboard game and, basically, it starts you as a beginner and then you get better and then you start to learn these really cool tricks. I played it a lot and had it down. It’s a very realistic game. So, I thought since I had played the game so much, I’d give it a whirl on an actual skateboard. Dude, it didn’t go so well.”

This may be a rather extreme example, but in many ways it encapsulates the challenges facing those who want to learn to play a musical instrument: what does it really mean to play one, what does it entail, and what’s the best way to learn how? And, in today’s educational environment, what role can technology play?

Computer-assisted music instruction has been around for a while in various forms, but the last 15 years or so have seen accelerated adoption for a variety of reasons. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 had an enormous impact on many areas of the school curriculum, but especially on arts education, and on music in particular. NCLB and the implementation of standards-based education reform required schools to set high standards and establish measurable goals to improve individual outcomes in education. Thus was born the assessment.

In music, we were overwhelmed by the sudden emphasis on this left-brained approach to our art form. In the blink of an eye we seemed to have collectively shifted away from empowering, connecting with, and inspiring our musicians to thinking more about job and program security via assessment of the skill set required to make music. It’s not that we’re emphasizing music less: we’re just trying to become better “dancers.” Music educators are some of the most resourceful, resilient, and creative people on the planet.  But I wonder if maybe we’re losing sight of why we made music our life in the first place. Of more serious concern, what might we be teaching our students that music is? And where does music technology fit in?

Remember Guitar Hero and Rock Band? The music rhythm gaming industry exploded on the cultural scene around 2005, but then just as dramatically imploded around 2010. During the explosion, while many playing the games felt like “musicians,” music educators weighed the positives and negatives of the genre. Many noted the possible benefits of playing the games, which involved controllers shaped like guitars, drums, and even a voice recognition component utilizing a microphone. These games exposed students of all ages to creating and performing music, possibly encouraging them to pursue “real” music study.

Those on the negative side expressed the obvious: it’s not really making music. Playing the games is simply reacting to what is seen on a screen. The player did need to keep a solid tempo, still, he or she didn’t need to be able to read music, have a great ear, understand call and response, or even really know how to play an instrument to have fun. And that’s just it: these were games. There was no process involved. The games, at their core, were based on response and readily recorded reactions. Sound familiar? The games were based on attainable objectives, after which progress was assessed. No gamer left untested.

Although these games have lost their major popularity, other types of technology continue to be used in music education today. How effective are they? Research on learning an instrument via computer-assisted music instruction is surprisingly hard to find. There are some great articles in the Journal of Research in Music Education, yet relatively little seems to have been done in the way of in-depth dissertation-quality work. Missing, in particular, is the direct correlation not only between using said technology and success in music study, but specifically between success using computer assistance in the study of an instrument and the musical skills required to perform on one. In shifting from a world of gaming and simple assessment to one that enables students to learn about music, create music, and perform music without boundary, one of the challenges to research has been the short-lived technological innovations themselves. As we know from our computers, televisions, and cell phones, technology changes with almost frustrating speed, making it difficult to track long-range success. Exciting, however, is the attention some of the bigger technology players are now paying. Apple Corporation’s iPad-assisted music technology is an exciting development and one that could finally provide more lasting impact. The improvement of the tool of technology not only helps the student, but provides the teacher with more resource. But this is key: resource for the teacher, not a replacement for the teacher.

Even before Guitar Hero, there were tools at our computer fingertips. From how-to music videos and streaming concerts to online lessons, online communities, and the ability to videoconference, technology has certainly enhanced what we are trying to do, as well as presenting that 40-year-old beginning saxophonist with options. It has connected us, too. Computer-based tools teaching theory, harmony, aural, rhythm and various diagnostic skills fill the market. Instrumentalists can play with recordings (remember when only Jamey Aebersold counted “1, 2, 3, 4”?) and receive instant feedback regarding pitch, rhythm, tempo and accuracy. But based on this feedback, how do these students define music? Although the feedback certainly addresses the elements of music, is it really making music?

This is much akin to the National Association for Music Education national standards and the challenge of teaching to the standards or teaching with the standards. Are the standards the destination, or are they the signposts along the way pointing toward a larger musical destination? Is the real value of computer-assisted music instruction effective music education, or is it a convenient means of providing the oft-required assessment?

I recently had a terrific conversation with an individual who, via his doctoral research, had spent an enormous amount of time researching computer-assisted music instruction, including a review of all available literature and the conducting of a field study directly related to the topic. I found his current responses regarding the use of music technology in teaching individuals or groups quite interesting. Here, in part, is how he responded when I asked him about his own program since his research:

“We no longer use [a prominent music technology program] at all… I think we can be more effective in front of people… There’s no computer program in the world that can make a kid love band. It’s the person in front… Technology, to me, is never the solution. It can be part of the solution, but in the end, it doesn’t fix everything. It’s a great tool if used correctly… but at best, it’s an aid. It really comes down to personal interaction.”

One of the challenges to maintaining the technology used in this director’s setting was the aforementioned challenge of teaching the technology and keeping it accessible and current.

Music students are in a world surrounded by and reliant upon technology, moving at breakneck speed. We’ve grown used to it. Many still believe that because it’s technology, it’s the best way to go. Better tools, however, don’t change music educators. They simply give us more options – a bigger toolbox. They certainly don’t make us more musical.

So now that we are beginning to see some longer lasting innovations available, what role does the teacher play?

I was talking with a university student the other day. I asked her to describe the differences between playing in an ensemble or working with a studio professor and using computer-based instruction. She noted that although the computer, tuners, recordings, and other various types of technology were fine and a tremendous help, they didn’t get at the heart of the reasons she plays clarinet. “It’s the connection,” she said. “There’s this feeling you get when you play an actual instrument that’s like nothing else. It resonates with your whole being. It’s a part of you. And when you make music with others, there’s this shared feeling – this understood vibe that happens that you can’t explain, but everyone gets. To have the conductor or professor right there to give immediate feedback, to inspire you, to shape what you just did, well, you can’t replace that. It’s making music, not just learning notes or rhythms or pitches. It’s putting them to use.” Wow.

I asked her about the idea of process, about what it takes to accomplish something over time. She remarked that being taught by a master teacher was really important for inspiration as well as to continually shape what she was trying to do, and that “you can’t get that on a computer, though that provides some great assistance.” Finally, we touched on the idea of the vulnerability required to play in an ensemble, of being unselfish while at the same time being reliant upon those around you. That, she said, was one of the best feelings in the world: to be able to share that moment with others, whether in the ensemble or the audience.

Music technology will continue to evolve. It has the ability to entice, to codify, to assess, to introduce, to reward, and to further the study of music. Technology is certainly helpful, and innovations – like we’re seeing for the iPad – will continue to enhance what we can offer our students. However, in the end, I believe the study of a musical instrument is a journey motivated by expression and connection, whether to our inner selves or to one another: it is about how music makes us feel. And the pursuit of instrumental excellence is best guided by those who have achieved it. Music technology is a needed and important part of the music education landscape, but we must remember one important thing: it is not the power button that reveals the hidden truths of music, but the power of one who has also felt the journey’s call and answered. And, by the way, thanks for answering that call. You make a difference.

Dr. Milton Allen is a popular conductor, clinician, speaker, author and tireless advocate on behalf of music education. He serves as an educational consultant for Music & Arts, the largest band and orchestra instrument retailer and lesson provider in the country, with more than 110 retail locations across 22 states. For 60 years, Music & Arts has served students, teachers and families through retail stores and school representatives, facilitating rental and lesson programs. 

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