Reimagining Tech in the Modern Band Classroom

Kris Gilbert • November 2021 • November 12, 2021

When you imagine what a modern band classroom looks like, you picture a music-making space where students have a hands-on musical experience. In recent years, all educators have been encouraged to implement and utilize technology in their classrooms. This can create quite a challenge for performance-based classrooms where the focus is using traditional instruments. However, most recently, the pandemic forced technology into every classroom, including modern band, chorus, orchestra, and concert band. While the process of implementation created a source of frustration for many educators, others found it to be a source of positivity and creativity. The process of how educators navigated this uncharted territory influenced what is continued to be used and what is not. By rethinking how technology is implemented, you can find ways to incorporate it into the modern band classroom without feeling like you are replacing an authentic experience. Different uses include but are not limited to instruction, feedback, composition and performance. I strongly feel that through manageable implementation, technology can be used to enhance the modern band experience.

Technology as an Instructional Tool
One way that technology can be useful in the modern band classroom is through the creation and use of “playalongs.” By using “bouncing ball” type instructional videos, students can work through a song while the teacher wanders the room, assisting students who need extra guidance. This is particularly helpful when learning a new skill or chord. In addition, these “playalongs” can be used in a rotating ‘station’ format where students can be simultaneously working on different songs, skills, theory, or history. Another route for instructional delivery could be via the app and program Flipgrid, where the teacher records a short video instructing how to perform a certain chord or skill and students can practice independently. This instructional style works great as a self-paced mode of learning in which students can move as fast or slow as they need to. 

Technology as a Feedback Tool
Another great way to utilize technology in the modern band classroom is to use it to provide feedback. By using Flipgrid, students can create a video of themselves performing a skill, chord progression, or song and teachers can provide feedback through either text or video. As an added bonus, these videos can be kept private so that students don’t have to worry about what other students say about their work. This is incredibly valuable for the more introverted students in the class. On the other side of the spectrum, teachers can open up the videos and require students to leave positive comments on each other’s videos.

Technology as a Composition Tool
Beyond immediate instrumental skills, you can also address songwriting and composition through the use of technology. While the obvious choices involve the use of online digital audio workstations like Soundtrap, BandLab or Soundation, you can work outside of that box. One activity you can do is a drag-and-drop composition activity in Google Jamboard. You would provide a collection of chords students already know along with the measures and necessary elements, and give them small parameters such as “start and end on the same chord.” Next, they drag and drop chords where they please. The students then test and tweak their compositions as they strum through their work. The final performance can take several forms: an individual performance (recorded or live), or a class performance of each other’s compositions. Extensions on this activity could include the creation of lyrics and the addition of more instruments. A similar activity is a tic tac toe composition where students fill in the squares with chords they know, testing every row, column and diagonal. Once they choose four rows/columns/diagonals that they like, they insert those progressions into a fill-in-the-blank document that is set to verse-chorus form. The size of the tic tac toe board is completely dependent on the level or ambition of your students! Like the last activity, extensions on this one activity can also include lyrics or the addition of more instruments.

Technology as a Performance Enhancement Tool
Regardless of a student’s perceived musical ability, all students can create music and contribute to a performance using technology. This doesn’t suggest that it needs to happen all the time, as there is a time and place for it all. You may have a student join your class later in the year who hasn’t been part of the learning process so far with a concert scheduled for that week. A quick way to include such a student would be to have them utilize a virtual instrument in GarageBand or a similar application. Therefore, you could make their participation as involved as you need to without too much prep or practice time. Additionally, an obvious use for technology is through accommodation, but I would recommend that you exhaust other possibilities first. Remember—restringing, retuning, rigs, bands and other adaptive equipment are always priorities as we want to get the students playing as authentically as possible. Beyond these possibilities, you could also venture into the world of virtual ensembles where participants perform together using iPads. A great example of this is the University of South Florida faculty virtual ensemble, “Touch.”

Regardless of how much or how little technology we use in our classrooms, it is important to remember to not use it for the sake of using it. Students can flourish and feel included when using technology in the classroom or even on the stage. Students who may not be willing to participate in the more traditional sense, can engage and embrace different ways of making music while still feeling like they are “part of the band.” By giving students different opportunities to express themselves in different ways, you can open up creative pathways for them to explore making music in meaningful ways.

Kris Gilbert teaches guitar/modern band and music songwriting & production at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York.

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