Creative Alternatives for Non-Traditional Music Classes

Mike Lawson • Technology • May 14, 2008

More often than not, music educators are being asked to teach classes beyond the traditional band program, such as required music appreciation classes for non-music students. Success teaching students who are not in class of their own volition is a challenge for even the best of us, but with the right tools, it is possible. With music technology, these situations can be turned around and you can “rock” these students with real world instruction, creating and performing music electronically.

Consider creating music with a sequencer that doesn’t require music theory or music reading skills, but does stimulate musical ears by mixing and adding creative special effects. Or how about learning performance skills on a harmonica, where “chops” aren’t a critical factor? Or perhaps studying hip-hop or pop music from the contemporary music scene rather than “ancient” music history? There are tools and resources out there waiting for you.

Let me introduce two music educators who have found success with difficult teaching assignments by embracing music technology and innovative materials. Wiley Cruse, a middle school instrumental music educator in Lakewood, Colorado, and Zig Wajler of Nashville, Tennessee are taking action in teaching situations in which they were not formally trained. These two teachers are reaching out and inspiring students in creative ways beyond traditional instruction.

Ten Days Notice and A Cloud of Smoke
Imagine starting a new teaching position in the fall and you suddenly learn that you are also assigned to teach a music appreciation class with no budget or materials. Wiley Cruse experienced this ten days before the first day of school, and quickly developed a sophisticated, engaging one-semester general music class with harmonicas, which he taught in conjunction with the history of Black Music. He also incorporated composition with a sequencing program for students with no music performance background.

With ten days notice, Wiley Cruse designed his music technology appreciation curriculum focusing on using Teaching Music With Reason published by Propellerhead Software ( and an on-line class, “The History of Black Music” published by Steven Chetcuti (

I recently asked Wiley how he structured a course that so successfully rocked his students.

John Kuzmich: What was it like to teach this class? 
Wiley Cruse: At first I felt overwhelmed. I was starting the semester with a middle school class that I had never taught before, no teaching materials, and no curriculum that I knew of. I experienced a wave of frustration. Once I calmed myself down, I recalled my successes teaching general music in elementary school and high school. I decided that with a little ingenuity, I could put together a well-rounded middle school program that would be fun. I also have to give credit to my school’s administration and others who worked with me to make this class successful for my students. All of us working together made this a fun and worthwhile teaching/learning experience.

JK: How did the students feel about your class? 
WC: Right out of the gate, I asked my students what they thought a music appreciation class would be about. They had no clue what the title meant or what to expect in the class. After explaining the definition of “music appreciation,” the students said that they thought this would be the most boring class ever. But I planned on doing interactive projects using the best technology and updated music concepts for non-musical students I could find.

At our back-to-school night, I watched how focused and excited the parents became. When I explained my new curriculum and showed examples of what the students would be learning, I had parents who wanted to take the class. It was then I knew I had an exciting project on my hands. I’ll never forget one of my students saying to me, “This can’t be education, it’s going to be too much fun!”

Without being confined to conventional rules, my students felt free to experiment. One of the few rules I had them follow was form, (Intro, A, B, A, Outro). The rest I left to their imaginations. The results were contemporary, amazing, and fun.

I’m often amazed at how focused my students became, even without deadlines for their work. Once I let go of my ego and just let the music happen, I started having fun and so did my students. This class really played into my greater teaching strengths of adaptability, relater, positivism, and activator.

JK: What was it like working with Steven Chetcuti’s materials and Teaching Music with Reason?
WC: In a word, easy! Both programs are so easy to understand and implement. They both came with such excellent setup and teaching materials, I was up and running the same day they arrived.

Using the harmonica to teach performance skills is actually a very freeing experience, and they were only $4.00 each. Students experimented and figured out what worked for them and their partner. I had parents calling me, telling me how wonderful it was that their child has found a new form of expression and was having fun with their music studies.

JK: How much did the computer lab add to the course?
WC: We are living in the 21st century, teaching a new breed of computer-savvy students. The computer lab was a Godsend. The scheduling worked out so our class fell during the lab’s free period, which really enhanced the class for all of my students. The lab and software materials shortened my students’ learning curve in studying music. The computer lab has Macs running the most current Mac OS of Tiger. I also used my own Apple MacBook Pro with iTunes and GarageBand.

JK: What equipment did you use for this course?
WC: Each student had a harmonica, a notebook of reproducible printouts, a computer with an Apple iTunes account with podcasting capabilities for musical examples from Mr. Chetcuti and Apple’s GarageBand for recording abilities. I also used the video games “Dance, Dance Revolution” and “Guitar Hero II” to teach students how to interact with rhythm. I used a Sony Playstation 2 to run this software. I’m investigating the new video game “Rock Band” to further enhance my music technology class.

Success with At-Risk Students
Mr. Zig Wajler is a free-lance artist who has traveled extensively to help music educators create teaching scenarios for students who have no music prerequisites. In his innovative music technology classes, students use sequencers to create their own compositions.

Zig created and conducts “Literacy, Music, & Technology” workshops to help students from all walks of life find self-expression and individuality in music. He has developed a series of lessons that focus on real-world application. His “Mixcraft for the Classroom” lessons integrate Mixcraft software into the classroom as a technology-learning tool for student-driven activities. Some of the student-based projects include: original songs in a variety of styles; instrumental; play; jingle; podcasts; scripts; TV commercials; beat-box poetry; and classroom themes. And by creating an atmosphere for experiential learning, the students become more active participants in the classroom setting. Another key benefit of integrating technology, music, and engaging lessons is that doing so increases student motivation by presenting them with tasks they can accomplish. It also brings about increased student/teacher interaction and cooperation.

By integrating technology and music, Zig noticed a change of student attitude, increased trust, respect, and a nervous energy to want to learn. His greatest reward is seeing students’ faces and their reactions during the creative process. Zig has heard numerous anecdotes about how his workshops have had a positive impact on individual students. One story about a student named John stands out. In Zig’s own words:

This was John’s third year attending my series of classes hosted by an organization that serves at-risk youth. I became aware of John’s background and his unstable home life and welcomed his commitment to attend the workshop. He loved Rap and Hip-Hop music and could easily interpret and recite many of his favorite rhymes. It was amazing to me because John was a special needs learner and had great difficulty with spelling, writing, and speaking. However, this middle school student easily made a connection with the task at hand using original words, music and technology that gave meaning and purpose to his own life.

John partnered with another student who also loved music. Calvin had a gift of speaking (flowing) and improvising with an identifiable and commanding voice. John noticed Calvin’s talents and asked if they could work together. He also asked Calvin to write and record a featured “rap” section for the song. As I listened to John’s lyrics, I noticed he was quick to follow directions and chose to use a form of personal and reflective writing. He wrote about what he knew and called his song “The Living Nightmare.” As I read through his rough draft, his words brought on an emotional torrent. The words were the honest truth and had a common powerful meaning with all the other students in this particular class.

Unfortunately John’s health and family circumstances became a major issue later that week. His writing partner noticed something was wrong and encouraged John to not give up. As the class listened to John’s music, more students began to rally around John and asked to be part of his project. There was something musical and lyrical that struck a chord with several of the students and they wanted to be part of John’s song. At this point something special happened. The students exemplified an elevated level of excellence filled with urgency, desire, and commitment.

When John realized what was happening, he took on the role of a producer and began taking ownership of his project. His lyrics came alive with a sense of conviction and purpose. More students asked to be part of his song and kept encouraging John not to give up because they believed in his song and rhymes. There were now students of all races and ages asking to be part of something special. Two students even asked permission to play their saxophones on the intro of John’s song and proceeded to immediately practice their idea on their instruments.

During the process of recording the voices, John took great pride in hearing and seeing his song come alive. He looked at Calvin and his fellow students as though they were doing the greatest thing in the world at that moment in time. Then one of the students noticed that John did not want to record his own voice. The room became silent and John became nervous and wanted to give up again. In their own unselfish way the other students inspired him to just try and record his own rap since he was the main writer. At that point John took a step forward and followed through by not giving up. He was very self-conscious about his reading ability, but he did his best. The other rappers and guests in his song were supportive and encouraging. John’s rap started with the line “The living nightmare, it catches you, it catches me, you can run but you can’t hide.” Everyone had a better understanding and respect for John and his life after hearing his song.

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