Distance Learning Best Practices to Support Your Online Songwriters

Mike Lawson • January 2021Modern Band • January 8, 2021

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Before schools were closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching songwriting in the classroom provided our students with instant feedback and support. When the necessary tools were present in the same room—instruments, recording gear, and, most importantly, teachers and students—teaching songwriting felt organic and natural.

This year has made the classroom and its special alchemy a distant memory. But despite the challenges that online education presents, we continue to believe that a songwriting class or even a songwriting unit has much value for students. Here are some of the tools and techniques we’ve picked up during this time to help make this work for our classes.

Submission and Compositional Tools

There are many practical online resources that can assist you in teaching your students to successfully write songs online. First, there’s the matter of how to submit the work. In the past, students would turn in physical materials including song charts and lyric sheets, but now submission is done via Google Doc, .PDF editor, or your district’s Learning Management System (LMS). These digital tools provide students with easy methods to submit these materials and edit them if need be. Once it’s clear to students how to turn in their work, they’ll need tools for composing their masterpieces. Among other treasures, Little Kids Rock’s Jam Zone site has a “Build Your Own Song Chart” page that you’ll find to be invaluable. Using this tool, chords can be manipulated and designed with different strumming patterns, chord diagrams, scales for soloing, and music theory elements that can all be input into an easy-to-use Powerpoint. Our district’s LMS provides a venue for easily presenting these and other documents to the online student.

Facilitating Collaborative Songwriting on Zoom

One huge loss for students engaged in distance learning is the lack of social interaction. By using Zoom breakout rooms in our songwriting classes, we can mitigate some of that loss. Since our district allows students to be in unsupervised breakout rooms, facilitating collaboration between our students is a cornerstone of our songwriting classes. Teachers can use a .csv file to create permanent, assigned breakout rooms in Zoom—something of a hassle, but one that pays off in social-emotional learning benefits to students. Once breakout rooms are assigned and formed, we simply bounce from group to group to answer questions.

Soundtrap, the Ultimate Online Compositional Platform

With its hundreds of rhythm, guitar, piano, and sound effect loops, the Soundtrap application, an online Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) featuring a special educational version for use in school music classes, can seem daunting. And with so much pre-recorded content available at the click of a cursor, it might also seem on its surface to be the wrong choice for a serious composition class. However, we have found Soundtrap to be an invaluable tool available to the online songwriting teacher.

One reason for SoundTrap’s effectiveness is the ease with which the sounds in the application’s vast library of pre-recorded loops can be edited. Not only can you filter loops by major or minor scale, and not only are there loops with a variety of progressions in a variety of keys, but any individual single-chord loop can easily be transposed to a different chord. One assignment we used for guitar players this fall semester was to create a song that incorporated the I, IV, V, and VI chords. Though some advanced students could deduce the correct chords using their theoretical knowledge, players who used loops had to start with a given key, select a guitar strum loop in that key, look at a .pdf supplied in the LMS to discover the IV, V, and VI chords in that key, and finally transpose that loop to the assigned chords. Then the students had to count out the number of measures that each loop of each chord received.

Another reason that Soundtrap has been a valuable online tool is the ease with which students can create their own loops. But first, students must get their music into the computer. A Google survey given at the beginning of the year revealed that many of our students had access to MIDI controllers, audio interfaces, USB microphones, or other equipment needed to input musical information into software, but those without such tools still found ways to record their own loops. In addition to using their computer keyboard to peck out notes or drum sounds (one means of musical input native to Soundtrap to which nearly all students have access), students also developed a method of recording tracks on their smartphones and then importing them into the Soundtrap studio. All students recorded their own vocals, often just utilizing the microphones built into their laptops. From there, it was easy for students to form their audio recordings into loops in Soundtrap for use in their original compositions.

Uploading and Presenting Compositions

Once students’ song(s) have been completed, it is time to share. There are numerous options for this. Students can: present their song via Youtube, upload as either an .mp3 or .mp4 video to the LMS, leave the song in SoundTrap, or post to an audio hosting site like SoundCloud. Any of these options allow the instructor to share with the class via screen-shared Zoom call. This also affords the opportunity for the creators to get some love from their classmates in Zoom’s chat function! Students who worked in groups can also send each other their videos, which can be edited to look like they were in the same room, forming a “virtual band.” Some programs available for this task include iMovie (Mac) or Openshot (PC), which are both very intuitive and make for a professional presentation.

This article was edited by Braeden Henderson.


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