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Survival Tip Five – Surviving The Warm Up: Technology to Enhance the Fun in Fundamentals! 

John Mlynczak, M.M., M.Ed. • Commentary • July 24, 2015

Figure 1: Sample Classroom Audio GearOur previous three-part recording series on recording band rehearsals provided a solid foundation for recording in class and in concert. As you become more familiar and comfortable with using digital audio workstation (DAW) software to record, there are many beneficial uses in daily rehearsal warm ups that help add fun to fundamentals. Numerous studies show that integrating technology increases student engagement, and the ability to prepare content in advance and recall previous lessons will save time in rehearsal. In this article we will explore five examples of using technology to help teach musical fundamentals. 

These examples all assume a basic set up of recording microphones, and audio interface, studio monitors, and digital audio workstation software, all shown in Figure 1. These examples also require a projected computer screen for classroom viewing.

1. View the Metronome 

When teaching steady rhythm it is important for students to understand how to line up with a metronome. This includes both aligning with the click but also having steady time between each click. Recording and listening back is essential in order to have students hear how well they lined up with a metronome, but I always prefer to add the visual element to help reinforce this concept.  In most DAWs, including Studio One used in this example, there is a “render click” feature that creates a track with a visible metronome, as seen in Figure 2. Have the students record along with the metronome click in your DAW and quickly analyze their rhythmic accuracy by identifying how the notes line up, or do not line up, with the beats and in between the beats. 

2. Subdivide with a Groove 

Figure 2: View the ClickThe sound of a metronome is not always the most appealing, especially when working with subdivisions. I find that most students do not look forward to this process. However, using included drum loops for a metronome adds a level of fun and in many cases provides better context for subdivision of the beat. I keep a song template ready to go in my Studio One DAW with various fun beats and rhythm loops, very similar to Figure 3. I often have students play exercises along with these loops, which allows me to move around the classroom and check posture, hand position, listing to individual players, etc ctera  I always enjoy my students coming in asking enthusiastically if we were “going to play along with beats today,” because they never beg me to play along with a metronome!

3. Waveforms For Articulation

Figure 3: Drum Loops RockOne of the most difficult things for me is trying to teach articulation using descriptive words. I particular love made up words like “twa” or “tha” that we use to describe an incorrect sound. The most effective method I have found is to use recorded Waveforms as a visual tool. The ideal note should look a consistent block, and we should avoid football-shaped notes as much as possible, as shown by the examples in Figure 4. Students may not hear the difference at first, but having them listen while watching the cursor scroll over the note shape helps direct their listening.  I like to follow up with legato/staccato scales to help identify the differences. 

4. Waveforms for Dynamics

Figure 4: ArticulationAlong with the articulations, the recorded Waveforms are great to show dynamics, since the height of a Waveform is directly proportional to volume.  We frequently talk about exaggerating dynamics, because a musician’s perception of dynamic change siting in the ensemble does not always translate into an audience. In order to help students understand this concept, the recorded playback and waveforms can demonstrate both aurally and visually what the actually dynamic difference is when in front of the ensemble. I like to show the rate of crescendo and decrescendo and have students see and hear how consistent they are. Many times the majority of a crescendo happens very late and the majority of a decrescendo happens very early, which is easily reflected in the waveforms. We can use this to help students understand how to properly control the rate of their dynamics. The other useful visual tool is looking at an entire piece and judging the volume of each section. Many times we see a forte written in four places but understand that these could be different levels of forte to help shape the music. The overall visual image, as seen in Figure 5, helps students compare dynamic levels of each section. 

5. Intonation With Drones

Teaching intonation and ear training requires careful listening. It is difficult for a student to hear their pitch while also playing. In order to make the process more effective, try recording your students playing pitch matching and intonation exercises.  

Figure 5: Dynamics

The first step is to create a tuning track with a drone. You can easily use a virtual instrument sound, or try recording your principle players holding out a tuning pitch as long as they can. In your DAW software, simply loop that pitch to create an endless drone that uses the exact instrument sound and does not rely on one player to hold out a tuning pitch for every other player in the section. You can also email this tuning pitch to your students so they can practice at home! See Figure 6 for an example of a MIDI drone and a live recorded tuning pitch.

Figure 6: Drones6.   When students play with a tuner their focus is on a visual meter and getting the pitch to be steady and in tune. The tuner is of course a great tool, but the real benefit is watching the meter after the fact to listen and analyze pitch. By recording an excerpt or tuning exercise first, you can then use a simple tuner plug in to see the pitch of the recorded playback, as seen in Figure 7.  I recommend recording all of your students tuning, then use those recordings throughout the week as listening exercises.  The students will not know which player is playing, so you can use both good and bad intonation examples and whole-class listening exercises without singling out students. 

Figure 7: The Tuner7.    As you become more comfortable using a DAW you will find many more ways to efficiently use the software to teach fundamentals. More importantly, your students will learn these tools as well. Consider creating a “producer of the day” program where students can work the software for the warm up. Not only does this create an effective, fun, and engaging rehearsal, but also if an administrator views this process you can simply tell them you are integrating technology while differentiating instruction using student-led questioning and discussion techniques that align with both state and national standards!

For more information on practicing and rehearsing with this technology, visit: musiced.presonus.com/stepup


John Mlynczak is president-elect of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, director of education for PreSonus Audio, and a frequent clinician on music and technology at conferences and school districts across the country.

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