Turn Any Computer Lab into a Music Lab

Originally published in the Connecticut Music Educators publication CMEA News April, 2010

For the last hundred years or so, K–12 music education in the United States has focused on reaching students with performance-based applied learning in band, orchestra and chorus classes, and in classroom general music. Applied learning in non-performance “general music” classes has been accomplished in the use recorders, ocarinas, harmonicas, Celtic harps, and guitars. When I taught in New York City, I used kazoos! Performance-based ensembles reach fewer than 20 percent of a school’s population (Figure 1) and traditional general music classes, frankly, just don’t cut it anymore. Students today, from elementary through high school, have access to sophisticated music equipment at home on their computers, video consoles, and even in their pockets on their mobile phones. To reach and engage more students, we need to embrace technology.

NB: The figures and images were omitted for this blog post.  If you would like the complete article, please feel free to download it here and share with colleagues. If you are posting on the Internet, please direct to this site.

pdf version of this article

Figure 1 he figures were omitted for this blog post

Source: http://musiccreativity.org/

When I started teaching music technology nine years ago, the technology was expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to learn. Digital audio workstations were a collection of computers, synthesizers, audio interfaces, and mixing boards arranged in a tangled web of wires and cables. Networking was a nightmare and I spent more time in a lesson troubleshooting problems, crashes, and lost files than I did working with students on music. Fortunately, times have changed. Today, computers are fast and efficient, software is free or inexpensive, connectivity is simple, and the possibilities for students are only limited by the imagination.

Fortunately, I now have a lab that is dedicated to the teaching music composition and music technology, outfitted with computers, music keyboards, and music software. Not every school is as fortunate. However, every school can easily and inexpensively accommodate a music technology lab if they already have computers.

A Word to the Technologically Faint of Heart

Teach music. The technology will follow. This has become my personal mantra and message to teachers and administrators who are hesitant about taking the plunge into technology. Today’s music software for creativity is so simple and easy to use. A music teacher, even the most technologically challenged, can learn in just a few hours the most sophisticated functions in the software suggested in this article “soup to nuts.”

The Computers

Find the computers. If you can, get your own computers. I heard of a district that wrote a grant for their music technology class by categorizing it as a vocational subject (which it is but that’s a topic for another article!). It doesn’t matter if you have Windows or Apple computers, desktops or laptops, any computer will do. If you can’t purchase computers for your own classroom, does your school Library or Media Center have a computer lab? Is there a lab used by Read the rest of this entry »


Hearing Loss, EQ and The Mix

NPR posted an interesting article and audio clip entitled, “The Loudness Wars: Why Music Sounds Worse”   http://bit.ly/7hFhGK

It got me thinking. When working with young audio engineers (20’s and early 30’s) in live sound situations, I can always tell the guys/girls who work in the clubs.  There always seems to be a ring in the system around 2+ K.  The 20 something engineers almost always set up a mic and computer right away and take out the ring and other problems using the software. The 30 something people tend to set up and use their experience and ears first then go to the software. When they use software to EQ the system, we surely get rid of the ring but until they use the software, ring, ring, ring.  They can’t even hear it.

I don’t usually listen to contemporary pop music from the “radio” more than I have to. I do listen to hours of my student’s music every day. There it is. HUGE high hats and cymbals in the mix. I mean, these instruments are like 30 inches in diameter if you aurally envision and compare them to the size of the other drums save the bass drum. Maybe it was the headphones or the speakers. Nope, always there. At first I thought it was my 1970’s trained ears and personal preference to a heavy handed 2 & 4 in the snare drum. I started listening to music my student’s listen to. There it is! Hi hats, shakers and other high percussion that pop. Don’t think I just guitar amps that go to 11. I’m a percussionist. I should be loving this. Nope. No way around it. I listened to music from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and there it is. More and more highs creeping in the mix especially this past decade.

Think about this: Volume affects hearing. The first to go are the highs. Is this why cymbals and hi hats are so loud/hot in today’s mixes? Are the producers and engineers putting out contemporary pop music, basically, going deaf and is this affecting the quality of the EQ? Is it creating a new aural norm for today’s mixes?

Follow this discussion here or on the new MusicEdTech’s Facebook page.


Tips for Publishing or Distributing Student Music Digitally

I received a tweet from EdtechBC (http://elgg.openschool.bc.ca) about a blog post entitled 21st Century Educators Don’t Say, “Hand It In.” They say, “Publish It!” http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/2009/11/21st-century-educators-dont-say-hand-it.html

Basically, it is a list of, as the subtitle says, “6 Ways Innovative Educators Can Move from “Hand It In” to “Publish it” Teaching. Included are tips for Writing, Reading, Math, ELL/TOSEL, Cooking (I don’t know about your schools but the cooking classes are THE most requested classes in my school!) & History/Social Studies. I was reminded of a portion of a presentation I did for the NYS School Music Association and Connecticut Music Educators Association conferences on “Digital Media In & Out of the Classroom”. In the presentation, I discussed how student music could be distributed, or in this context, published, digitally. So, to extend the blog above, here are some tips for publishing in the music classroom. I’d love to see the list continued by others in other subjects.

Making CDs or videos of school concerts or performances is not impossible to do, just a drag. Legally, you need permission to distribute or sell recordings of copyrighted material that you record or video at a school performance. Entire sessions can be had and entire books have been written on the process of getting permissions for use and resale of performed copyrighted music on a CD (mechanical license). Suffice it to say that legally, recording and distribution of school concerts in any format, video or audio, requires permissions and fees. For more information:

Guidelines for Educational Use of Music


The United States Copyright Law – A Guide for Music Educators


A great resource for EVERY school library is the newly published book by James Frankel, The Teacher’s Guide to Music, Media and Copyright Law published by Hal Leonard. This book is not just for the music teacher but addresses concerns for all teachers and school districts looking to avoid the legal battles with owners of copyrights.

For more information or to purchase a copy, go to the link in my Blog Roll (right sidebar) for James Frankel. (Not now! AFTER you finish reading this blog!)

I do, however, recommend publishing original student music. If you are going to produce a CD of student music and simply hand it out or let students give them to family & friends (a great stocking stuffer I might add), you really won’t need student or parent permission. If, however, any kind of money were going to trade hands, I would recommend you obtain a few permissions, just in case.

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Presenter at NYSSMA/MENC

I am just back from NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) Summer In-Service Conference in Albany, NY.  NYSSMA is considered one of the best MENC Chapters so I was honored to have been asked to present.  My presentation was bright and early Monday at 9AM and I managed to get a some what awake crowd of about 25 people.  Since this is the smaller of the two conferences NYSSMA does each year, I was happy to have the numbers.  My 1 hour and 15 min presentation was entitled, “Digital Media In & Out of the Classroom”.  My presentation covered two areas:

1 ) Keeping it safe and legal outside the classroom with regard to CD or video sales and posting student work on the Internet 2) How digital media can be used in the classroom to demonstrate an idea or concept or be used as materials for student projects

I used examples of student podcasts and compositions and also gave examples of how popular media, video, YouTube and contemporary songs can be used in the classroom.  Each participant left with a nice packet of information discussed in the presentation and several lesson plans that were discussed.  They seemed enthusiastic and appreciative of the presentation.

All in all, I had a good time and meet a few really nice people. Given I am a New Yorker at heart (I was raised in Brooklyn and have Permanent NYS Certification), it was nice meeting several people from Long Island with an accent I could easily recognize!

TI:ME Essay: Notation Software

As I said in my previous post, Electronic Instruments & MIDI, these essays are part of TI:ME Level 1 Certification and answer specific questions posed for certification.

This essay goes a little further as it address the concept of music literacy.  Before purists vote to lynch me, let me say that I think teaching students to read traditional music notation is important.  However, I don’t think it’s of primary importance and that becomes clearer in this article.  Reading music notation is crucial for recreating music but is not urgent, given today’s tools, to create music.  I think we spend far to much time emphasizing music notation as THE tool for music literacy.

Notation Software

Notation software is sophisticated graphics manipulation program made specifically for the needs of musicians.  The top notation software is Finale and Sibelius.  Fans of each could tell you why they prefer one product to the other that might include ease of use and learning curves.  With products this sophisticated, choosing becomes a matter of personal taste and personal needs.

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TI:ME Essay: Electronic Instruments and MIDI

The Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) offers courses, workshops and conferences on technology and use to music educators and students of music and education.  TI:ME offers two levels of certification much like Suzuki, Orff or Kodaly offer certification to earned levels of knowledge and expertise.  For those working in the field already, TI:ME offers alternate certification for their Level 1 certification.  This and the following two articles are papers I wrote for that alternate certification.

First, a little clarification. Back in the day (as my students like to say), music software was divided into three separate and distinct categories. Software to manipulate MIDI, audio and notation were separate purchases. Today, the lines are blurred.  Sibelius & Finale, traditionally notation programs, offers some good MIDI and even audio.  Logic, traditionally a MIDI program, offers excellent audio and good notation.  Now that digidesign and Sibelius are owned by the same parent company, Avid, traditionally an audio program has some good notation and will only get better.  Although these programs can be considered “triple threats”, it’s still important to choose software based on your primary needs.  Although I can get some good notation out of Logic Studio, I wouldn’t publish music with it.  The same can be said for a notation program, it’s not my first choice for composing or teaching music through composition. I know that may be heresy to some but more on that in another article

Electronic Instruments and MIDI

Today’s electronic music instruments come in all shapes and sizes.  Keyboards, drums, guitars, winds, strings and even instruments you can play on your cell phone!  Around 1983, electronic instrument manufacturers got together and created a standard for transmitting musical information.  MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) was born and a new world of music was created.  MIDI is simply a standard digital format for devices to communicate to each other.  Think of it as the language of electronic music.  When you hit a note on a MIDI keyboard, a series of parameters is captured, translated to a digital format (a collection of 1 and 0). MIDI parameters include pitch (the actual note you want to play), velocity (how hard did you hit that note will effect the sound or tone quality), volume (loud and soft and everything in between) pan (what you hear in the right or left ear) and other parameters that can be entered and manipulated by the user. Remember, MIDI information is just the digital information.  It has no sounds. You’ll need something to interpret the MIDI information and reproduce the sounds.  That’s the sound module or what might be called the tone bank, a computing device that reinterprets the digital information and reproduces it as sound.  All sound modules contain the basic industry standard for General MIDI that includes a collection of 128 preset sounds divided into 16 channels (translate that into groups of sounds like Keyboards, Guitars, Bass, Strings, Reeds, Sound Effects, Drums and others) and certain functional parameters including the ability to interpret velocity, support polyphony (simultaneous multiple voices). What separates one manufacturer’s keyboard from the next and what distinguish entry level of keyboards from more expensive keyboards are the proprietary sounds in the sound module and the user’s ability to manipulate these sounds on the instrument.

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