Luck is not chance, it’s toil. Fortune’s expensive smile is earned. ~ Emily Dickinson

Mr. Ahrens teaches band & choir at Bear River High School in Grass Valley, CA.


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Tech Innovations in Music Education

The topic chosen for discussion recently on the Twitter hashtag #MusEdChat was: “What innovations in Music Education have occurred over the last 10 years? What impact has it had on teachers/students?”  There have been PLENTY of innovations recently. I thought I would write a reflection on the topic in a forum that allows more complete ideas.

Tech is It
It was a fairly clear consensus that the primary innovations of the past decade have been in technology:

@richardmccready Oct 04, 5:02pm via TweetDeck To me, the biggest change in the last 10 years is the advent of music technology in so many programs.

I began teaching in 1999, so I’ve seen much of this coming on. I used Finale and Encore notation software in college. I transitioned to Sibelius in my first teaching position. I recall a small handful of middle school students asking to use it to compose simple melodies or transpose duet parts, etc.  It was not part of my curriculum for them at the time. I had access to encyclopedia-style CD-ROMs with information about composers and instruments that students could use to research – one at a time. This was about the extent that it was integrated into my program. We were using the technology of the piston valve and the bassoon seat strap, but these were hardly revolutionary. Even at that point, having a computer for the director to use was a big step up from what I recall of high school in the ’80′s.

Access to Recordings

@brandtschneider Oct 04, 5:03pm via I think youtube is the biggest game changer

@MrAhrens Oct 04, 5:07pm via Ss having easy access to quality recordings is huge! #youtube #itunes #mp3

@brandtschneider Oct 04, 5:09pm via technology has changed access to music. teacher does not hold the key to the discography anymore.

When I was in high school (1986-1990), I had access to whatever classical or jazz recordings my parents owned and the (very) few that I purchased myself. This was certainly not a balanced sampling. We didn’t have a very comprehensive music store nearby as far as jazz or classical selections. While it was sufficient to get me excited about music, there were so many composers, artists, sub-genres that I was just not aware of at this point in my development. In school, we would listen to recordings of music we were playing but even this was not that common. I would watch Great Performances on PBS or similar programs and occasionally have the opportunity to see ensembles performing live.

In college, there were a few advancements in my accessibility to music. First, I was in Los Angeles – at a university with a very large music school. There were live performances all around me. Second, the Tower Records Classical Annex. I really miss them now that they’re gone. That giant classical room was amazing. Whether in Northridge or on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, I spent many late-night hours pouring over those bins containing the largest, most diverse collection of classical recordings I had ever seen. While I couldn’t always afford to buy much – Tower Records inspired me to find some money to spend. Third, my horn teacher would make me mix tapes of great recordings.  While this wasn’t the most high tech alternative, I was very appreciative and listened to those tapes over and over again. I still have them.

But now. The ease of access to great recordings is extraordinary. Who would have thought in the days of cassette Walkmen that we would have a much smaller device that held, categorized, and easily accessed thousands of songs? YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, GrooveShark, LastFM, Pandora, and many more give today’s music students (I count myself) no excuse at all not to be listening and exploring the greats and even the not-so-greats.

Practice Tools

@richardmccready Oct 04, 5:14pm via TweetDeck How about SmartMusic?- Great innovation which changes the game plan

I’ve known about SmartMusic since about 2003 when a colleague of mine shared what he was using it for with his choir. At the time it was limited in the literature available and I didn’t really see how it would be very useful beyond the novelty. A few years later, the Western International Band Clinic began requiring all honor band auditions to be created and submitted via SmartMusic. I downloaded a trial version to make the audition recordings. It had definitely improved, but I still wasn’t sold. However this year, after joining the MusicPLN and reading up on all of the uses, I finally purchased the full program and began using it within my ensemble classes. One of the key limitations to individual practice is that you do not have access to the full ensemble. With SmartMusic, you can practice with the next best thing. And it works! My 12 year old daughter loves to practice her clarinet when she can use SmartMusic. Ok, she loves to practice anyway, but she really digs the program.

@MrAhrens Oct 04, 5:22pm via Access to digital recording audio/video equipment allows students/directors to record everything for review.

@teaching_music Oct 04, 5:38pm via TweetChat Recording/playback in rehearsal has been a big advancement. Allows for on the spot critique by students

@aferomckinney Oct 04, 5:43pm via TweetDeck I was using video and audio recording in lessons more than 10 years ago . . . but the web-sharing is certainly new.

We’ve had access to recording equipment for rehearsal for decades, but the digital revolution has made it incredibly simple to use all the time and really presents no reason not to. It is my intention to record every rehearsal session with my Symphonic Band this year. I will likely not keep everything, but it can be used for instant feedback, archival of outstanding work, or recording benchmarks. Our perception while performing is often skewed since we are in the middle of everything. A recording is an often brutal reminder of what still needs work.


@MrAhrens Oct 04, 5:17pm via Noteflight/MuseScore, etc. – I remember transposing out parts by hand in HS. Much easier & more professional now.

Yes, professional notation software such as Sibelius and Finale truly make our lives as musicians, composers, & teachers better and simpler. I’m glad that I took a notation course in college to learn all of the proper methods of hand-writing sheet music. It is unlikely that I will put this to too much use. I use Sibelius to make arrangements, transpositions, exercises, and occasionally an original composition. It is a great time-saver and the printed parts just look SO much better and more professional than hand-written. Finale has been around over ten years, and I recall using Encore back in the mid-90′s. They have had some wonderful innovative improvements in this time. The big step forward in education recently is with freeware notation software such as Noteflight and MuseScore. These programs deliver comparable ease of use to financially strapped music programs and individual students who may not have the big money to put up for the others. I’m now able to incorporate more composition in my ensemble classes in a way that engages my students and has them working on independent projects on the side. Composition is still about the music – about sharing the song within – but these programs make it more accessible to every student.

@richardmccready Oct 04, 5:17pm via TweetDeck Composition is more encouraged and welcomed in US schools than it was 10 years ago, though not nearly enough yet.

Communication Advances

@pisanojm Oct 04, 5:54pm via TweetChat Music Education is moving forward in new ways via communication because of the new conduits of communication as tools.

When I was in high school, my band director would pass out letters to our parents that we were to take home. That even happened, sometimes. He did have a paper newsletter that was (physically – can you believe it?) mailed once a month as well.

In 1999, my big push with the parents was to communicate using email. I communicated with parents almost exclusively via email. There was a bit of a problem however as I soon realized that not all parents had email, or checked it regularly. Well, it was a start. I am confident that many of those band parents of my first few years teaching created their first email accounts ever at my prompting. They did this because I told them it was important for their son or daughter and for the band. I knew it was a better tool. Sometimes we need to drag others along as we push forward with innovations. Many do not like change.

In 2004 when I moved to California, I moved all of the band paperwork online to our website. This was another improvement in communication that took a little bit of “encouragement” from me to them. Now it is understood that everything can be found on the website. The band has a Facebook group that will remind subscribers of performance dates, call times, and other useful info. Most recently all of my band students and parents have become familiar with Twitter. Well, they have become familiar with the idea of Twitter. I’m still pulling to get many of them on board. It is perhaps the most powerful tool yet in communicating quickly and efficiently. Important messages always go out on Twitter before anywhere else.

Don’t Forget the Music!

@MrAhrens Oct 04, 6:00pm via Yes, and key is using tech to strengthen fundamentalsRT @MinorMusic: Tech has its place…but so do fundamentals…

I’m grateful for the advent of the innovation known as the rotary valve, because it has made the chromatic horn possible and my job much easier. But it is still up to the musician to create music. Technology never takes the place of that human element that only comes from us. Music is a conveyance of emotion through sound. No amount of mp3 downloads, practice tools, digital recorders, or music software will compensate for a performance that is fundamentally weak and/or lacking in emotion (ok, let’s not even discuss pop music).

@shawdave Oct 04, 6:02pm via tech is good, tech is cool, but absent a lot of tech, one should still be able to make a band/choir/orch sound pretty

A music teacher still teaches the same lessons today as 100 years ago. However through recent innovations now available to us we can do so more effectively and efficiently. We are inspired to create by many things. Hopefully these new tools will excite some students to seek after what inspires them.


For more information on #MusEdChat, please visit my introduction page here.

[image: "IMG_1129.JPG" by Flickr user: jon gos.  Used under Creative Commons License]