Tech Is Helping Keep Music Programs Alive

Mike Lawson • Perspective • September 2, 2020

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This month’s issue touches on several things that I hope will be helpful to our readers navigating the madness of reopening school music classes this year. First, I asked our associate editor Victoria Wasylak to interview an old friend of mine, Dr. Jim Frankel, who has been a pioneer in integrating technology into music instruction for well over two decades now.

We first met through our mutual participation in TI:ME, Technology in Music Education, in the 1990s when I was a music and audio technology book publisher, and Jim was spearheading an innovative initiative by KORG called Soundtree, which packaged turn-key installations and instructional resources for utilizing the leading tech of its era, the MIDI-keyboard lab.

Over the past several years, Jim and his dedicated team’s brilliant execution of the cloud-based service MusicFirst have created stunning innovations in delivering music education of all types with class management resources, multiple online integrated apps, and partnerships with leading music publishers that has led to literally millions of students having access to both voice and instrumental instruction, even before the pandemic hit. And when it did hit, they jumped in offering services for free for a period while schools were hitting the panic button on what to do last spring, and with the return to school, have become the gold standard resource for music teachers of all grade levels and disciplines. They’ve even offered partnerships with others like TI:ME and NAfME to roll out online professional development training, and have a partnership with another organization we feature this month, the Richmond Symphony School of Music.

When I interviewed Walter Bitner for the Richmond Symphony story, and he said he was rolling this out on the MusicFirst platform, I believe my response was, “Of course you are.” The Richmond Symphony School of Music initiative is another project that took a drastic turn because of the COVID-19 crisis, and making lemonade from lemons, expanded the original vision beyond their initial plans. While some symphony orchestras have furloughed their musicians and staff, and are facing possibly permanent closures, the Richmond Symphony is thriving and pressing on. I hope you find this story as inspiring as I do.

In the virtual world of teaching music, there is no higher goal that the ability to play in real time with your students remotely, and I was able to have a fascinating conversation with one company that has been working to make this a reality for some time, but had simmered down the last couple of years since it launched, only to be rediscovered as hundreds of thousands of musicians and educators were searching for a way to play together again. This interview with David Wilson, founder of JamKazam, explains what can and can’t be done right now, how to get the best results, costs for schools to use the service, and how many students can realistically participate in an online video performance that can even be live-streamed out so that performance credits can be earned, and equally important, the students have an audience to perform to again. I have tested the service myself and found the experience fascinating and rewarding once the tech stuff was settled and the music started playing.

I’m still eager to hear from more of you on how your return is going so far. Please feel free to send me an email and let me know. If you request that we do not, we won’t publish names/schools, et cetera, in your letters, but we do want to hear directly from the front lines in this battle to keep music education relevant, practical, and safe in this strange time we are living in today.

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