Michael Fein’s Teaching Music Improvisation with Technology

Mike Lawson • • June 19, 2017

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The world of music education is altering rapidly, which should come as no surprise to anyone, as our art is always changing, but it does seem that recently the number of new initiatives appear to be coming faster than we can keep up.

To begin with, we have a new series of National Standards for Music (nationalartsstandards.org) that stress equal importance on creating, responding, and connecting, as well as performing. Many performance-heavy programs are required to re-evaluate their curricula and teaching methods to include all four standards appropriately, while still maintaining the integrity and high standards of current performance options in the school.

Integration of technology into the curriculum is also a new advance in music teaching. Music Technology is no longer a discrete subject; rather, the inclusion of technology into all music education is essential so that we allow our students to learn to use technology efficiently and appropriately. Every day there seems to be more students carrying their smartphones and tablets to school, meaning that increasing numbers of musicians in our classes have instant access to learning if we choose to direct them towards the resources that exist.

Because of the immediacy of the Internet, the geography of our musical world seems to be shrinking. Students are hearing and enjoying many more disparate styles of music from all over the globe, and these new sounds are engaging them and influencing them as they work out their musical identities. Students want to be able to experience this music, not only through listening but through performing and learning about it as well. Within the United States, we are seeing increasing (and justifiably so) interest in the heritage of jazz, blues, soul, rock and roll, gospel, bluegrass, mariachi, and numerous other genres as part of the patchwork of American musical history.

Because of these advances and changes in music education, we are all pondering the same questions?

• How do I get my students to compose more music, listen to more music, and connect it to the performance curriculum?

• How do I integrate more technology into my program and take advantage of my students’ access to smartphones and tablets?

• How do I add more pop music into my program, beyond just adding “Eye of the Tiger” to the pep band folders?

Michael Fein is an outstanding music educator who has worked out the answers to these questions over his career, making him a very successful teacher of today’s modern curriculum. Fein teaches Jazz Ensemble and Music Technology classes at Haverford High School, and he is also an adjunct professor of Music Technology at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA. His integration of technology into instrumental education and his leadership in these fields earned him the coveted TIME Teacher of the Year Award in 2007.

Fein has written a book for Oxford University Press, entitled Teaching Music Improvisation With Technology. Its publication in 2017 proves perfect timing for all teachers looking to modernize their instrumental programs by encouraging students to create original music, adding technology, and infusing jazz and rock styles into their teaching. The book is available on order from any regular bookseller such as bn.com or amazon.com, or directly from Oxford’s website, (global.oup.com), or you will doubtless find it when you visit the Oxford booth at your next Music Educators’ Association conference.

The book is organized into seven easily digestible chapters, introducing you to different applications of technology while you learn about different proven methods in teaching students to improvise. Each chapter allows you to dip in quickly, to find an inspiring idea, and each includes a technology resource specifically for mobile devices. Each activity suggested is immediately usable, even teachers who may not have to have access to a music technology lab, or cannot devote large portions of their budget to buying technology. Each chapter concludes with a summary, laid out as bullet points, quickly converted into objectives for lesson planning and classroom posting. Most lessons appear quickly integrated into the instrumental program just by using the devices that the students are already bringing into class with them. Instead of fighting the never-ending (and never winning) “put your phone away during class” battle, music teachers can now encourage their students to use the technology in their hands to enhance their learning and musical skills.

In chapter one, “Introduction to the Mechanics of Improvisation,” Michael Fein explores a precise definition of improvisation in three areas – Composing in the moment with restrictions, limited by three main factors: technical ability, ear development, and music theory knowledge, something that everyone can do. From these clear and revelatory statements, Fein goes on to explore current resources and methods that have worked very successfully in his and others’ classrooms. Fein gives solid knowledge of what skills and vocabulary we need to give the students as they embark on their improvisational journey, and introduces the reader to practice resources that students can utilize, including printed music and web-based music sites. For mobile device ideas, Fein gives a good accounting of SmartMusic for iOS with excellent instructions on how to navigate that interface.

Chapter two introduces us to “Auto Accompaniment Software: Band-in-a-Box and iReal Pro.” In this chapter, Fein goes over how to create an accompaniment simply from a lead sheet, and how to have the students use scales and motifs to improvise along to the auto-generated accompaniment. Band-in-a-Box has been a regular favorite of jazz and rock teachers for many years, but Fein also introduces us to a very similar utility available on smartphones and tablet devices, iReal Pro, and goes over the different methods of creating and editing music on the touchscreen devices.

Chapter three is about “Notation Software: Noteflight and ForScore” and here Fein deliberately chooses to introduce us to applications which are much less expensive than the usual juggernauts of notation software such as Sibelius and Finale (which he discusses in the opening chapter). By choosing to focus on Noteflight and ForScore, Fein enables the reader to make musical examples that can easily be created by and for students, even within the more limited feature set of the less expensive software. This allows teachers and learners to take advantage of a traditional note-reading approach without spending an enormous amount of money. Of course, once young musicians are skilled at using notation software for their musical explorations, they will later be able to move up to Sibelius or Finale to transcribe and write in more detail.

Chapter four is devoted to “Music Production Software: Audacity, GarageBand, and GarageBand for iOS.” Here, Fein shows us essential skills in using easily available production software to record, edit, transpose, and slow down music to enhance practice sessions. Since Audacity is free, and GarageBand comes pre-installed on any Apple Mac, Fein’s choices of resources again enable any teacher or student to learn from the activities. For iOS devices, Fein gives a tutorial on using the iPhone and iPad version of GarageBand, which is currently a $5 app store purchase, so well within most acceptable budgets.

Chapter five is about “Web Resources for Listening: YouTube and Spotify.” Being able to listen to music as part of the study is an essential tool, and we live in an age where it is almost unforgivable not to take advantage of the free resources available to us. Fein shows us how to use these resources efficiently, to create playlists, to search effectively for good model recordings, and how to share found resources with others in the class or studio.

In chapter six, “Web Resources for Posting: SoundCloud, Podomatic, Google Drive and Youtube,” Fein shows how to export performances from the computer or portable device, and share recordings safely on several free sites, both for personal use and for classroom benefit. He also shows us how to promote student and school material so that others can witness and benefit from the learning.

Chapter seven introduces a vital part of modern music education, ”Web Design to Organize Online Material Using Weebly” and gets us over the hump of creating a simple website for posting and sharing class material. Digital portfolios are an invaluable way of showing work and growth for today’s music student, and Fein helps the reader navigate this sometimes intimidating world of online creation, by designing and building a simple website using the free account feature of Weebly.

Teaching Music Improvisation With Technology packs a lot of exciting and useful information into less than 200 pages, with plenty of graphics and diagrams to help. It is easy to read, without any dummying down of the musical skills required to be truly successful as a teacher of improvisation. Michael Fein has used his methods successfully to build strong programs at Haverford High School and The University of the Arts, and he has generously allowed us to share them by writing this book. Fein recommends that teachers work through the skills themselves first before applying the methods and ideas in the classroom, and this is certainly an excellent idea. Not only will any music teacher find him or herself comfortable addressing the new demands of music education, he or she will also find herself expanding her own musical and technological skills, and having fun doing it.

Professional development in music education is essential for all of us, and we owe it to all our students to continue to hone and develop our craft. As music teachers, we all know far too well how often we’re asked to learn new things that don’t apply to our situation, or how often new ideas become useless without proper and continued support. I would recommend that reading Michael Fein’s new book, learning the skills, and then applying them in the classroom would be an excellent choice for all music teachers as they continue to look for ways to be better teachers and help their students become more informed and finer musicians.


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