As a Band Director, there never seems to be enough time to carry out any number of brilliant ideas (or pedagogical necessities) that I need to do with my ensembles. One of the many things that I’ve had trouble keeping up with is individual playing assessments. It is difficult to justify the time during an ensemble rehearsal of listening to each student, one by one. I have tried a number of different solutions: I’ve attempted to listen to a few each day. I’ve had those students not testing listen to the ones who were and do anonymous peer critiques. I’ve asked students to come back on their own time to test. I’ve attempted working with SmartMusic assignments. None of these has had much success or consistency.
This year I’m trying something different. I love the SmartMusic assignments, but not all of my students have the software at home (or an internet-ready computer for that matter). And I only have one student computer in the band room. Getting every student adequate time with the software was proving difficult. (And of course I highly recommend my students practice with SmartMusic daily as it is an invaluable tool). But it got me thinking of other ways for students to record their own playing and forward it to me for a grade. Nearly each of them has a cell phone, and certainly each has access to a phone at home. I created a Google Voice account with a local telephone number specifically for the purpose of students calling in to record themselves. Each time they do, I get an email notification as well as the actual recorded audio file being available from the Google Voice website inbox. I can grade them from my laptop, iPad, or cell phone.
I searched around the web for other similar services to Google’s, just in case there was a better one out there. I found Phonebooth.com. This is a similar sort of thing, although it is geared more for small business solutions. You can get a single user account for free. The down-side is that you only get 200 incoming minutes of voicemail per month. This may or not work for you, depending on your number of students and frequency of testing.
The Down Side
Both Google Voice and Phonebooth are VOIP services that are meant for voice, not instrumental recording. And, of course, your students would be using their cell phone microphone to record. These two things make for some fairly distorted sounding recordings. I did a number of tests of each site and found that instrumental playback was more clear (a little) on Phonebooth. I tried moving the phone far away from my horn and my wife (@TubaChic) suggested wrapping the phone in a towel or other cloth. Both of these techniques resulted in a cleaner recording.
The Bottom Line
Due to the minutes limitations of Phonebooth, I’m sticking with Google Voice. While the recordings are not great quality, they are usable. And I feel that the utility of this system and opportunity for conducting quick ensemble-wide individual assessments far outweighs the limitations of a bad mic. If anything, this should have my students practicing more because they know that there will be personal accountability. And it will give me a better understanding of where everyone in my band is at musically, allowing me to teach more effectively.
Please comment below if you’ve done this sort of thing in the past, are going to give it a try, or if you have other suggestions for doing individual assessments. Let me know how it’s worked for you or what you hope to gain by a similar tool. Thanks!