Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Music Education is NEEDED!

I am not ready for Back-to-school, but it's clear from this picture, music education is needed!

(I am cringing at the sound that would come from a clarinet assembled that way.)

Audacity, Chromatik and SmartMusic

This week, we are exploring three different new technologies, including Audacity, Chromatik and SmartMusic.

Our first assignment was to look into Audacity and then edit a sound file using the software. It is a free download and open source, and can be used to import, export, edit, and create new sound files. It can be used for recording without an additional charge, and is often used for podcasts and creation of music, without any limitations on use commercially or privately. The small amount of time I spent using it showed me that it was very user friendly and I was able to quickly and intuitively edit the file we were given. I am looking forward to using it more on our next project.

Another service we were directed towards is Chromatik, which I had been using with my students for a while, since it was still in beta development. Chromatik is a fun tool for players to use, because it gives access to great amounts of free sheet music to play (not print) along with accompaniment tracks, straight from their web browser. It follows the track, saving you from turning pages, and you get to play along with the Youtube or Vevo videos of the originals, for the most part. The song catalog is extensive, and I have not yet had the time to scroll through every artist they have music for--the list is very long! The current free version allows 3 free plays per day, though it was unlimited during the beta testing. Pro accounts, at $3.99/week or $9.99/month, allow unlimited play and it removes the ads present in the free account. My ad blocker kept me from seeing these ads, but I did have to wait 10 seconds for each song play. Chromatik also includes a "stage" feature, where you can upload clips of your performance and send them to others. I suggested this would be a good one for kids to use to send to far away family members who don't often get to hear them play. The iOs version also has metronome and tuner tools to help enhance students' performances.

When I used this service with my students, many found it a lot of fun to play with, and it could help jump start their practice time. For students who bored easily, or were looking for new challenges, or who simply were interested in a new type of music, this was a great tool for them to spur new adventures in the practice room. However, when the tool moved out of beta and became something they had to pay for, most of the kids lost interest. I was eager to hear about the new features available in Chromatik for educators, as described in our weekly lecture video, but unfortunately found out they were discontinued due to cost and lack of use. Since I'd used the service and been signed up for a while, I searched my emails but I didn't have any information from them about the educator service, and I hadn't found it when using it with my students, so I wasn't aware any of those features had even existed, even for a short time. I was really disappointed, because I was hoping to find a reason to put in an investment. I did find an error while using it today--the "Belle" song from Beauty and the Beast was written in the key of C, but the video was playing in C#. This did not happen with "Blackbird" by the Beatles, so I do not think this was an intonation issue between my electric keyboard or my tuner and the video recording. This would be very frustrating for a young student who is still developing their sense of pitch, and few would know how to transpose up a half step on the spot. I emailed the developers, and received an automated response immediately that a ticket had been started, so I anticipate hearing more soon (and will try to remember to update this post with information when I receive it.)

The next tool we looked into is SmartMusic. SmartMusic is a music learning software that includes so many options. It really seems like an answer to a music teacher's prayer! The software can hear and evaluate students' performances on the spot, so can be used at home for practice, improvement, record keeping and evaluation. It includes tens of thousands of large ensemble pieces, solo and ensemble pieces, and method books, and works on many operating systems. The comments on the site are very positive, from both the teachers and the families using the software. At the moment, it is not available on Chromebook, but the developers project it should be ready in time for the 2016-17 school year.

This is a tool my predecessor had purchased, however in talking to the students, I found he had not used it much and since I was starting a new program, I did not renew the subscription due to the fact that I knew nothing about it and had no time to look into it. I was very busy with so much, there wasn't time to spare! Now that I've been in my school for three years, this seems like a program that could be extremely helpful both in teaching and in evaluation and I'm very interested in looking into it. If the new Chromebook web-based version rolls out in time, it may be worth meeting with my principal to implement this year, or next, since every student in our school now has a Chromebook they can take home with them each day for school work. The testimonials are very convincing, and the tools available are really unbelievable--it's like my kids can have a mini-Mrs. Brownson at their house with them, helping them out at any time!  Since our district is beginning a three year music curriculum designing project, this could really help to bridge the gaps we currently have between levels and buildings. It also has a jazz library and jazz offerings, which would help me greatly due to my very limited rehearsal time for my jazz band. At the moment, we rehearse once every 6 school days for 40 minutes, with monthly 2-hour rehearsals after school at my discretion. It is tough to teach jazz in that amount of time, and have them retain knowledge from week to week. This program could make a considerable difference for that ensemble!

I am really excited by SmartMusic, though I am a little worried about the cost. I think my principal would support the teacher subscription, but asking all the parents to pay an additional $40/year, on top of the other assorted costs, may be a problem. It will be worth looking into, and perhaps sourcing a fundraiser for these additional costs as a possibility.

I would love to see the features of Chromatik included in SmartMusic, so the students would also have access to some additional, "free-time" tunes, such as the pop hits Chromatik includes. SmartMusic is a highly developed educational system, while Chromatik is more of a system designed for fun and amusement, but there is a place for both in the practice room.

I am excited by all the new options, and looking forward to more exploration!

Monday, July 25, 2016

New Possibilities for Performance in Music Teaching

Music teachers have an interesting challenge, when asked to include technology in a classroom teaching something that has been done one way for hundreds of years. However, technology can help to make what we do more effective and more efficient, and can help us be there for students when we are not physically with them, at home when they are working on their assigned music for practice. With pressure increasing on teachers to perform better in every facet, we no longer live in a world where we can just send a kid into a room to "go practice" without really teaching them how to do it, and offering ways to help them make sure they are doing it right. With increasing pressure on students to achieve in everything they do, and to do more and more activities, their workload and the expectations upon them can create a lot of stress. Parents can't be expected to be experts at everything, so technological advances can make a big difference as both an evaluative tool and as a liaison between parents, teachers and students.

Bauer refers to Glenn & Fitzgerald's 2002 article when he tells us researchers have found that students overall enjoy practicing with accompaniment (Bauer, 2014, p.82.) I have found in my own teaching that kids enjoy playing along with, which was referred to later in Bauer's book. I was lucky to hear of it early, when it was in the beta stage and kids had full access to it. Many would come back and report hours of time playing along with it and having a great time. When it went out of beta and became a partly paid service, many lost interest. I was eager to dig into the features mentioned in our lecture for educators, including evaluative tools, sharing music, etc. Unfortunately, that has been discontinued due to cost and lack of use.

My predecessor in my school had purchased SmartMusic for the school, but since I was unfamiliar with it and overwhelmed with starting a new job, I discontinued it until I could look a bit more into it. The possibilities in this look pretty amazing, but they also look like a pretty big rewrite of the curriculum, and the cost is certainly a factor with a $200+ school cost and $40/student cost to either the school or the parents. When speaking with students, they reported that their prior teacher had not used it with them much, so there really was no precedent for me to latch on to. Since our school district has kids coming from many different elementary schools using different method books, and the 6th grade teacher uses yet another which was published in the 60's, it would be difficult to integrate use of SmartMusic right now. However, we are beginning a curriculum rewrite this year, so it may be something to put on the table as an important tool for integration of curriculum (and the retirement of half the elementary staff may mean we can get both teachers in the same book soon!)

As one of my colleagues mentioned, one thing that baffled me about this chapter was the extensive description of a music teacher who integrates a great deal of technology into his daily teaching. The sheer quantity described seems a bit unrealistic to me (Bauer, p. 76-78).  I worry that at times we use technology just for its own sake, and sometimes that can divorce us from the lived experience of making music. When used as a tool to enhance what we already do, technology can be a game changer, but we need to make sure the kids are focused on making music, not on the tools we are using. I also am concerned with the amount of time required for me as a teacher outside the school day on evaluation, lesson set up, etc. This can become a big issue, especially with all the other jobs we as music teachers have. As my principal has said, "I have no idea how you do everything you do." Sometimes, I don't, either!

Bauer, W. I. (2014). Music learning today: Digital Pedagogy for creating, performing, and responding to music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glenn, S. G. & Fitzgerald, M. A. (2002, Fall). Technology and student attitudes, motivation and self-efficacy: A qualitative study. NACWPI Journal, 4-15.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

How to make your music teacher like the music your 7th grade flutists like...

Soundation: Mom's Dance Party

This week, we began working with the internet mixing studio  Soundation. This was my first time using anything like this, and it was interesting, fun, and frustrating, all at the same time!

At the beginning, I was a total novice and was a little overwhelmed by all the possibilities, spending a lot of time listening to each sample and comparing different tracks. I watched all the videos, which helped me to get started, and made a few false starts before finally coming up with ideas and a direction that I liked. As a classical clarinetist, I have always felt unprepared when it comes to electronic music and even the use of amps in my jazz band, so this was not a place I felt comfortable. I still feel that despite watching all the videos, I don't fully understand the FX, equalizer, delay, etc. and all the buttons and knobs, but with more practice and a bit more research, I could learn a lot more about them. I wonder also if having access to a better speaker system would make some of the tools easier to differentiate.

I began my composition without a clear idea in mind, except that I have really been enjoying spending warm summer nights with drinks on our deck with friends, and somehow wanted to reflect this. What I've put together is a bit more dance party like, so I gave it that title and can imagine driving around taking my daughters around town to their various activities and jamming out to this type of music.
My eldest daughter was excited when I told her I could download it and we could listen to it in the car.

Musically, I wanted to mix the types of music I really enjoy listening to, including New Wave, Funk, and World genres. I got a great compliment from my husband when he said parts reminded him of Depeche Mode and Morrissey, and I hoped the funky guitar licks gave a hint of Prince as well. I wanted my piece to start with light orchestration, setting up the beat before introducing the various instruments and sounds. I added a MIDI flute melodic clip that I wrote, and it was tough to get it to fit with the rhythm I had laid down, so this took a little finagling. I originally had tried to add a vocal track, but the free account won’t allow you to save this, so I had to abandon it, and ultimately used the material for the flute track. When working on it, though, I saw how difficult it is to keep your rhythm consistent without being able to hear it. I used my smart phone’s metronome on a very quiet volume in my ear to help me stay on beat, because leaving the sound up on the other tracks caused my computer’s microphone to pick up double the sound and made it very messy. It was a real learning experience!

At the end, I struggled to find a way to end the piece without the ubiquitous (and to me, annoying) decrease of the volume knob. The final orchestral chords were clipped, repeated, and then altered so they faded to nothing after all the rhythmic activity was finished.  

In the creation of the flute track, I found the use of their system to be doable but a little frustrating for a trained reader of music. I wish there was an option to insert music as a notated track, and then move, stretch and shrink notes like the MIDI entry allowed you to. This would save people like me time in trying to figure it out, and may allow import and manipulation of files from elsewhere as well.
This is a great program for students to get started with sound production and mixing, and would be a wonderful way to give them creative options for composition. I am going to share this with our 6, 7 and 8th grade general music teachers, and may include it in my own plans for this year. Having a former student who works in the recording industry doing exactly this type of music production, it’s fascinating to see how his new tools allow him to create music. I am interested in possibly working on a project with my band students, if we can get an account that allows recording, so they could integrate the computer based music along with their own sound production. I really think they would enjoy this more than the pencil and paper composition they’ve done in the past, and would enjoy sharing their music with each other and even with their parents at a concert.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Improvisation and Technology

In his book, Music Learning Today, William Bauer discusses the importance of improvisation and learning how to do this for a well-rounded music education. Though I studied in high school with a well known jazz educator, I was always reticent to join the jazz band and delve into this world, preferring to spend my time honing my classical skills on the clarinet and developing my singing, dancing and acting in the theatre. Of course, as a teacher, I regret not taking advantage of the wonderful opportunities I had, but I have worked to remedy this by asking for help from local professionals, and really working hard on helping my students to have a great experience and learn a lot about improvisation. Many of the skills that Bauer mentions, and the methods he talks about, were taught to me by a retired colleague, and I have found them very effective for getting kids over the fear of improvisation. We work in every rehearsal on learning the skills and just jumping in and trying it, and even students who were very resistant at first become fairly comfortable with improv and lose their fear of doing it before too long. Some of my proudest moments have been when these kids ask if they can take a solo in front of the entire school at the yearly awards ceremony.

Bauer (2014) also suggests ways to incorporate technology in the teaching of improv and audiation needed for effective improvisation. "When an improvisation has a clear musical structure it becomes more meaningful for an audience, and young improvisers become familiar with musical structures through listening and performing." (Bauer, p. 57) As teachers, we have limited time and resources to teach the structure of music to our students, among the myriad other things we are seeking to impart. Perhaps technology can be a way to help make it possible.

In my school, a big part of their grade is their practice time at home. Many teachers don't use this as a graded thing, saying it just encourages kids to lie. I agree this does happen, but on the other hand, I always said I felt bad as a kid because, due to my talent, I always earned an A while less gifted kids got lower grades. Had I been graded on my output, I would have worked a lot harder and probably had even more success than I did. I realize some kids do lie, but most don't lie every week, and eventually they do put some time in practicing. Using technology to structure their practice sessions could be a good way to ensure that the time isn't wasted and they are able to enhance what they've learned in the classroom when they are at home.

Our district is known for excellent jazz, and the jazz bands at the high school have a great reputation so competition to get in is fierce. Students who are bit by the jazz bug in middle school are often looking for more ways to develop as improvisers and to understand the chords and changes and how to play a great solo, because they know that getting into the jazz program at the high school is not guaranteed. Some students have the financial resources to study privately with many of the great jazz professionals we have in town, but many do not, so providing them ways to learn without the expense is important.

Bauer suggests posting harmonic and rhythmic accompaniments the students can improvise to and record their own playing for evaluation. He offers Smart Music, Band in a Box and iRealB as programs that can be used for this (Bauer, p. 57) and there also may be ways to embed accompaniments on Google Classroom for kids to use for practice and self evaluation. A simple 12-bar blues is a great structure to start with, and kids could record themselves playing along and send it to the teacher through this platform to evaluate and begin a portfolio. This will allow some permanence to the improvisation, and will benefit the kids by allowing them to witness their own progress in a truly meaningful way.

I am excited by the new possibilities given through technology. The future is bright!


Bauer, W.I. (2014) Music learning today: Digital pedagogy for creating, performing, and responding to music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Image from W. I. Bauer's website:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Books about the Internet

I find it very interesting to read books on current technology, because when it seems like most of our tech is changing so rapidly, by the time a book is out it is almost obsolete. That being said, Bauer's book has a lot of information in it, combined with sound educational ideas, and I'm finding it to be a stimulating read. Though I wish he would have included more information on cloud-based and browser-based technologies, he has a lot of basic information on programs and ideas that I was not completely up to date with, and is enhancing my knowledge of some things I do not have much familiarity with, though I see them being used by my colleagues. As a teacher in a school that has moved to Chromebooks for the students, I am eager to find alternatives to the programs discussed, especially things like Garage Band that are used for creating looped compositions. The new notation software such as MuseScore and Noteflight are very helpful for my teaching, because they are available for free use, which is most school districts' favorite price! I am very interested in seeing how these technologies grow and change in the near future. One issue I am having is finding the time to distill all the information and find the best of the best. Now with so much easy access to the internet and various platforms, it seems there are great blogs, podcasts, and sites everywhere but my days are not getting any longer. I think the use of twitter for more educational networking will help me to find excellent resources, but I will still keep an eye out for a new way to distill information and find the information I want in the quickest, easiest format. As Bauer says, "critical examination of potential learning resources is necessary." (Bauer, p. 40) As demands keep growing in our schools, and contact time shrinks, we must make use of every minute and make sure our students are receiving the best we as educators can give them. It's a tall order. The goal becomes both efficiency and effectiveness both in accessing information for my own use, and in sharing it with my students. One suggestion Bauer makes is to use Learning Management Systems to consolidate information and resources for the students as well as using it as a portfolio to keep records, videos, recordings, and assignments for evaluation (Bauer, p. 42-3). This is a tool I am really interested in delving into, and hope to use one, Google Classroom, in my classes this year. As most middle school teachers are well aware, kids that age often struggle with their executive functioning skills. Keeping copies of scale sheets, fingering charts, warm ups, and assigned etudes online will prevent the "I lost my music" excuse! I am excited by all the possibilities, and looking forward to digging into these tools more--my students deserve it! Bauer, W.I. (2014). Music learning today: Digital pedagogy for creating, performing, and responding to music. New York: Oxford University Press.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Taking off with Noteflight

In my undergraduate years back in the early 90's, we worked extensively with Finale and Finale Allegro. I became quite adept at using the programs, on the old Macintosh desktop computers, but the cost was quite prohibitive when I moved out into the teaching world. Some places I taught would own programs, some would not, and I soon settled into a full time job teaching in parochial schools with literally a zero budget. Since my husband was a grad student and I was making considerably less than a public school teacher, money was tight, so we did not purchase this program. When music was needed, I often hand wrote parts for my kids or used Finale Notepad, which was free at the time. When I got the job teaching in State College, I was given a copy of Sibelius which had been purchased for my predecessor, but never really found the time to dig into it and learn it, since it was different and a bit more complicated than Finale. 

Another teacher in our district suggested I download and start using MuseScore, which I have found to be a helpful tool for quickly making needed parts, like I did this spring when we performed "Men of Ohio" by Henry Fillmore in the original 1929 parts. The 1st clarinet part is in the  range of the mid-altissimo, going up to a G3, which is beyond the range for most 8th graders, especially if playing in tune is important to you. I learned by trial and error to enter the parts and transpose sections down the octave, so my students could have a more successful experience. The new update makes MuseScore even easier to use, and I enjoyed working on my assignment for this class in it.

Another free notation program is available free online at This is a web browser based notation program, which allows you to quickly and easily create music, play it back, and share it with other users. As an avid Chromebook user at home, I often prefer using browser based programs due to the improved speed, partially due to a weird medical condition that I have (that few believe is real until they see it in action and can't explain it any other way)  that tends to slow down machines. Browser based programs are not affected by my strange magnetic blood. 

This program was easy to use, intuitive, and even less fussy than MuseScore. Though I haven't yet spent a lot of time with it, I enjoyed using Noteflight very much, and would definitely suggest it to my students for their composition projects. The new interface does a nice job of leaving everything handy without being cluttered, which makes it easy to move back and forth between different things needed for notation, such as note length, articulations, lyrics, chord symbols, etc. The playback feature allows you to easily hear if you have made mistakes or are missing something, and like other programs, it's easy to click and move measures, copy and paste, and add needed markings to the score.

Below is the score for the assignment we were given. I've added the voice part as a violin part since the voice option isn't actually available on the free version, so you'll hear a different timbre if you listen to the score being played.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Odd Couple: Middle School Band and Technology

Though not new to blogging, which I had in a way retired from a few years ago, I have never blogged my classroom experience before, except for a few anecdotes on my personal blog. This new blog is a requirement for a course I'm taking while pursuing my Masters in Music Education at Kent State University, and will be decidedly different than my other blogs.

My name is Ronica Skarphol Brownson, and I'm a middle school Band Director in State College, Pennsylvania, home of Penn State University. I teach 7th and 8th grade Band, Jazz Band, and Symphonic Band as well as small group lessons. I have been at my current school, Park Forest Middle School, for three years, and will start my fourth this fall. Prior to this, I taught in a small Catholic high school in town part time, and spent a few years at home with my young children. Before that, I taught full time in Madison, WI, in private schools through the companies Musical Youth, Inc. and Overture Band Programs, Inc. which I helped to found (4-8 Band), in East Grand Forks, MN (5-8 Band), in Grand Forks, ND (General Music), and in Hillsboro, ND (5-12 Band and 7-12 Choir.) In between, my husband and I spent a year living in Paris, France. I also love to direct musical theater orchestras, play in community bands, and have taught private clarinet lessons since college.

A Band leader's job has changed a lot in 100 years. 
This week in my Music Technology course has been interesting partly because the class is helping me to see what I already do, and where I can improve the experience for my students. As William Bauer (2014) states, "evidence suggests that most music educators are not making extensive use of technology, particularly for instructional purposes." (p. 9) Having a history teaching in schools where I had literally nothing for a budget, I have used some technology in teaching, but was limited in what I could do because of resources, like many teachers. However, there is now, and has been since my career began, a push to integrate technology in the classroom, which can be especially difficult for music teachers, especially teaching a performance-based class. Finding meaningful ways to include technology can be challenging. As Bauer (2014) says, "many educators, authors and researchers have investigated and written about ways to integrate technology into education... but a very large divide remains between theory and practice in K-16 music education." (p. 10) It isn't that I do not want to use technology, but the tools must be worth my and my students' time and effort if I am going to include them in my work.

Teaching Band is a subject matter that doesn't always lend itself well to using technology resources, because our class time is devoted to playing instruments much of the time. Unlike general music classes, we do not have a lot of assignments to turn in, most of our homework is practicing, listening, and attending concerts. Though I try to include some music composition, and make history and science part of my regular teaching experience in class, there are not a lot of paper assignments or computer-based learning that happens in the Band room, or out of it. Not only are we limited on resources, we are limited on time, with weekly contact minutes in large rehearsals decreasing, and expectations and accountability increasing.  For the most part, we are making music, not reading about it!

However, I am very eager to find new ways to do what I do in a more effective way using the tools we have available now. I have dabbled a little in use of practice technologies like (which has now become a paid service) and the students loved using it and trying out new things in real time.  I have used Spotify playlists to help introduce my students to new music, admittedly with limited success due, I believe, to the lack of accountability. While I teach some composition in my classes, I have not used music notation software with them, yet, since it is covered in their general music curriculum and the project we were doing was not extensive enough to warrant the time it would take to integrate the notation software. I also chose to keep it on paper for this particular assignment because the software will not allow students to make the rhythmic mistakes that I wanted to be able to catch in my teaching of 6/8 time. Teaching improvisation in Jazz Band is another area where we teach composition, but by its nature, this is not written down, which doesn't warrant the use of technology for the basic learning of improv, aside from occasional use of recorded tracks.

What I am really seeking is a service that is more integrated with feedback, where my students can keep a portfolio going of their work, including videos, and where I can use technology for evaluative purposes in a controlled setting. I am hoping to integrate Google Classroom for this purpose in the coming year. Our students all have Chromebooks to use, and are used to Google platforms in their other classes, so I am hopeful that this will be an effective tool for my classes. Since our department is also embarking on a large curriculum writing process, I am eager to find ways to make it easier for all the teachers in the district to align our expectations and evaluations. I am very hopeful and looking forward to learning more!

Bauer, W. I. (2014). Music learning today: Digital pedagogy for creating, performing and responding to music. New York: Oxford University Press.