Teaching Tech: Teaching Music “Outside The Box”

Mike Lawson • • May 12, 2016

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If you’re anything like me, you probably find phrases like “outside the box” a little tired and overused, perhaps even a little annoying. Allow me to start off by clarifying what I mean by “outside the box” within the context of this article.

I’m focusing specifically on using technology to expand your reach as a music educator outside the four walls of your music classroom or school, or what I’m calling a “box.” Hopefully there may be some new teaching concepts that you find interesting in this article, but the intention is to illustrate several ways to affordably and appropriately expand your music program through the use of free and low-cost technology – without the need for serious investment in hardware.

By adopting some of these technology-driven strategies into your program, I believe that you can simultaneously strengthen your music program and advocate for the importance of music education in your school community.

Over the past 30 years there has been a slow but steady integration of technology within K-12 music programs across the country and around the world. This integration looks different in every music program – even within the same school building. In some programs, technology integration means that the teacher uses a school-created website to post information about the program, complete with some web links and graphics.

Perhaps that same music teacher has a basic sound system they use for concerts and a notation software program they use to create arrangements for their students when necessary – and that’s about it in terms of technology integration. In many elementary music classrooms, technology integration means an interactive whiteboard and some software and websites that help to create meaningful interactions with composition, songs, and concepts. In other programs, teachers maintain an active social media presence and tweet out information about upcoming rehearsals and performances while posting pictures, audio and video files of performances to well-maintained music program websites.

To create this content, the music department may have purchased high-definition audio recorders and video cameras, and a small digital recording studio to capture and document these performances. Some music programs incorporate things like a basic keyboard lab to teach piano skills, or advanced music technology labs complete with computers, software, keyboards, guitars and various peripherals, to teach music theory, composition, and production.

Many schools would like to have that equipment but simply can’t afford it, or the teachers are woefully undertrained in how to effectively make use of it with their students. While all of these integration scenarios have their inherent advantages and disadvantages, there is one thing they all have in common: an overreliance on expensive hardware and software.

Hardware and software require constant maintenance and upgrades, and because of that (along with a lack of funding and effective professional development opportunities) it is easy to understand why many music teachers have a lovehate relationship with technology. It’s time to think “outside of the box.”

The easiest way to get your music program out of the box and into your students’ daily lives outside of school is through the cloud. Though I have spent the last four years talking about cloud computing and online tools, “cloud” still seems to be a mysterious word in music education; I’m not sure why.

All cloud computing means is that instead of the old-fashioned method of creating and accessing files through the hard drive on your computer, you can now upload those files to an online hard drive. Think YouTube, SoundCloud, Dropbox, and Google. All of these platforms allow users to upload, consume and share media – everything from audio to video, images and documents – and access that media on any device that is connected to the Internet.

In that same four-year period, I’ve seen many software companies create their own cloud strategies – each with varying degrees of success. Now, rather than purchasing software in a box and installing it on your personal or school computer, the actual software instead lives online and you access it and utilize it online, instead of locally on your machine.

Just like YouTube, Dropbox and Facebook, programs like Auralia, Musition, Noteflight Learn, Charms, MusicTheory.net, SmartMusic, Soundation, and the MusicFirst Online Classroom allow users to design, create, consume, manage and share their music teaching materials and interactions with their students online. These incredible tools greatly expand the possibilities for music educators to extend their instructional reach and ultimately, improve their programs by doing so.

When you think about the essential factors in creating, improving and maintaining an excellent school music program, they include:

• Strong advocacy for the program in the community, school leadership, and faculty

• A well-thought-out, sequential curriculum with high standards that includes a strong elementary program providing a solid foundation

• Opportunities for all students to succeed

• Assessment data that shows quantifiable student growth throughout their time in your music program

I believe firmly that online technologies can assist in all of these endeavors.

Whether we like it or not, the Internet has radically shifted the way we communicate with each other, the way we consume media, the way we learn, and the way we teach. Our students seem to have a phone in their hands 24/7 – texting, using Snapchat, and posting selfies to Instagram. Often, their parents are no different.

If we want to make music an integral part of a child’s education, we need to be heard above the “digital noise.” We need to be relevant. Even the best band, orchestra and choir directors in the country compete for attention with these devices; it’s the new normal.

I believe that we should do everything we can to ensure that when a student looks at their phone, they see music-related software, assignments, and performances produced by our programs – delivering our instruction onto the tiny screens that so consume their daily lives.


To make our music program efforts conspicuously available for the wider school community, creating a professional-looking website and a relevant social media presence is a good way to get started.

Free website creation tools like Weebly.com and Wix.com make it extremely easy to create a website for your music program – and they look great. Posting upcoming events, schedules, practice records, tutorial videos, etc., is a dragand- drop process. Creating and maintaining a program-branded social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is also free and communicates directly with students (though many would argue that Facebook is a forum more for parents than students).

Andrew Zweibel, a band director at South Dade High School in Miami, Fla., maintains an active Instagram account for his band program and the students love it (instagram.com/southdadeband/). He posts pictures of concert performances, candid moments, and lots of marching band action shots.

“It’s a great recruitment tool, as the middle school kids see the pictures of the band kids performing and having fun and want to join,” said Zweibel.

Other ideas for incorporating social media for advocacy purposes include:

• Posting videos of student performances, including solos, and small and large ensembles on a music program- branded YouTube Channel

• Creating a music program SoundCloud channel for students to post their original compositions

• Creating opportunities for collaborative music making with senior citizens in the community using platforms such as Noteflight Learn

Getting your music program onto these platforms is free and quite easy to do, and with administrative support, a fantastic way to get news about your program to the wider school community – just make sure that you separate your professional social media profile from your personal one. It’s probably not a good idea to have your students know everything about your personal life.


One of the most critical factors in building a strong music program is the development of meaningful, sequential, and comprehensive curriculum authored by the teacher experts within the district. No two music curricula look alike. Some are simply curriculum maps filled with musical concepts that need to be taught at each grade level, while others are a collection of carefully scripted lesson plans. Most are tied to state or national standards with suggested benchmarks for each grade level.

No matter the approach, technology offers many solutions on this front, including stand-alone curriculum, platforms for curriculum delivery, as well as tools and resources that help to supplement an existing curriculum. We’ve come a long way from the traditional music textbooks used in the past. The use of technology within a music curriculum depends entirely on the curriculum authors, and ultimately, the teachers who deliver it.

Standalone Curricula

There are a few technology solutions out there that can be used either as a standalone music curriculum, or as supplemental material for an existing one. These include band and orchestra method book-oriented solutions like Hal Leonard’s Essential Elements Interactive (essentialelementsinteractive.com (which is basically an online interactive version of their best selling band method), and Alfred’s Sound Innovations (alfred.com/SoundInnovations), a customizable band and orchestra method drawing upon Alfred’s repertoire library.

Both methods are essentially add-ons to the existing print books, but allow students to access the instructional materials digitally.

Other standalone curricula include Quaver’s Marvelous World of Music for K-8 general music, and Online Learning Exchange Interactive Music powered by Silver Burdett. All of these standalone curriculum choices are fantastic, and relatively expensive – though Essential Elements Interactive is free for now with the purchase of the print book.

Curriculum Delivery Platforms

The MusicFirst Online Classroom is an innovative online learning environment that provides a platform for curriculum delivery, paired with a suite of software tools and a vast content library.

Designed and built by music educators, this safe, secure and customizable platform allows teachers to assign tasks and assessments using software programs like Sight Reading Factory, PracticeFirst, Noteflight Learn, Focus on Sound, Auralia, Musition, Music Delta, and Soundation4Education. There is no other platform that offers as many tools and resources, but it isn’t free. MusicFirst uses an annual subscription model and the costs range from $3 to as much as $17 per user per year. In addition, each of the software tools can be purchased separately. They offer free 30-day trials at musicfirst.com/request-demo.

Another curriculum delivery platform that is very popular with schools is Google Classroom. Districts have to become Google districts to offer their classroom platform, but once they do, teachers and their students have access to some impressive curriculum delivery tools including all of the Google products (Gmail, Google Docs, YouTube, and Google Drive). It is possible to incorporate online software tools like the ones offered by MusicFirst within Google Classroom simply by linking to those tools. Students can complete compositions using Noteflight Learn and turn in their work as a web link for their teachers to assess. Other curriculum delivery platforms include products like Canvas, Moodle, Schoology, and even Edmodo. Most have costs associated with them.

Employing a curriculum delivery platform like the ones mentioned above affords music educators the opportunity to track and record student progress as well as archive useful teaching materials for future use. More importantly, it allows students to access music instructional materials and opportunities outside of the music classroom. There aren’t very many music teachers I know who say, “I have more than enough time with my students each week. I don’t need more time with them.” These online learning platforms afford teachers that extra time – and there really isn’t a way to quantify what that time is worth.

Opportunities for All Students

While some find the notion of reaching the “other 80%” a contentious topic (meaning the roughly 80% of high school music students who are not enrolled in a music program – many of whom play instruments like guitar and piano), I believe that technology is the perfect way to get that often un derserved and talented population of music students more involved in our music programs.

Creativity in music education is the golden opportunity for technology. Online software programs like Noteflight Learn and Flat offer students who are interested in notating their music a free tool to explore their creative side.

Incredible programs like Music- COMP (music-comp.org) in Vermont pair professional composers with student composers throughout the year, culminating in a live concert where original works composed by students are performed by professional musicians. The paid version of Noteflight Learn (which is what they use at Music-COMP) allows access to extra features and maintains student privacy.

Online music production software titles such as Soundation4Education and Soundtrap allow students to create music using loops, audio recordings, MIDI instruments, effects, and more – all within the browser. These tools allow students to start a composition during class time and then go home to continue working on it.

The power of browsers, specifically Chrome, has grown exponentially over the past few years, and these tools now work seamlessly online. There are numerous collaboration opportunities with both tools and students around the world who are using them every day to create their own music.

Other interesting software choices for music creation include O-Generator – a highly engaging, non-linear approach to composition that includes a sequential composition curriculum; Inside Music – a beautifully written curriculum by the folks at Music-COMP that includes three units of sequential, notation-based lesson plans; and for young students, Groovy Music and Morton Subotnick’s Music Academy – both of which provide an engaging, fun way to compose and learn about music.

In my opinion, teaching composition is one of the most neglected aspects of music education most likely due to the fact that not only is composition difficult to teach and assess, but also because access to technology tools that afford students the opportunity to compose have been expensive, difficult to use, and not available to students outside of the classroom.

With these new cloud-based solutions, students today have a unique opportunity to compose whatever and whenever they want using low-cost and free music creation tools. There is no longer a reason to not include composition in a comprehensive K-12 music program. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the focus on creativity in the new National Core Arts Standards.


Whether we like or not, assessment has become a huge part of our job and as our programs are coming under scrutiny, we need technology solutions to document, track, record and assess our music students. Luckily, technology does this really well and for the most part – very affordably.

SmartMusic (smartmusic.com) has been around a long time and has been the market leader in assessing instrumental and vocal music students. Lately, there are some new competitors, including Music Prodigy (musicprodigy.com) and PracticeFirst (musicfirst.com/practicefirst). Each of these solutions has their own distinct advantages and disadvantages. As a music educator, you need to research all three and see which is the best fit for your program.

Up to now, the delineations are pretty clear – SmartMusic has a ton of content and works really well, but it is relatively expensive to implement (though many teachers have worked around this). They have recently announced flat pricing that certainly makes it more affordable and this fall, SmartMusic will release a web version using a platform they recently acquired called Weezic. Similarly, Music Prodigy also announced flat pricing – though theirs is a bit higher. While they do not have as much content as SmartMusic, it is certainly a platform to consider.

Finally, PracticeFirst is the assessment solution offered though MusicFirst. It is completely web-based, cross-platform compatible, and very affordable (it uses per user pricing), but it does not have the same content as SmartMusic, though they do have a Premium Content library with wellknown method books and publications. I definitely recommend giving it a try – the lack of content may indeed be OK for your program considering the price.

Regardless of which solution you choose, all three programs allow students to record and assess their performances. Unlike SmartMusic and Music Prodigy however, PracticeFirst also includes the most comprehensive set of assessment tools, including Sight Reading Factory and a built-in audio recorder and test generator available exclusively through the MusicFirst Online Classroom.

Outside The Box

It is time to consider how cloudbased tools and resources can help you expand your music program to address the critical factors in establishing an outstanding music program in your school/district.

Technology can help you tremendously, and there is no longer the black cloud that lingers over how you are going to pay for it. Subscription-based services – which almost every one of the solutions in this article employs – are the future of technology in music education.

Expanding your reach outside of the four walls of your classroom and school are crucial in maintaining relevancy in a youth culture with an ever-increasing appetite for all things digital. The strategies suggested in this article are not meant to make you rethink how you teach – as a reader of this publication I am quite certain you are good at what you do. Rather, the strategies listed are meant to suggest a way to expand your program into the 21st century to ensure that your program remains an integral part of your school and community.

I always welcome questions and feedback. If you’d like to get in touch with me, feel free to email me at jim@musicfirst.com.



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