Wednesday, July 27, 2016

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!


  1. Hi, Ronica! I agree with you that students need adequate and effective practice in order to retain the skills and knowledge that we teach them. In order to be successful with their skills, they must have plenty of repetition, revisiting, and review. I also understand that sometimes practice scheduling can be a challenge because of academic requirements and scheduling. This can be very stressful to music teachers who strive to help their students succeed.

    However, there is hope for this situation, so be encouraged. Your students will "get" what you teach them as long as you keep using the methods that you have shared with us. In addition to your pedagogical approaches that you already use, the technological tools that we are learning about such as Chromatik, Audacity, and SmartMusic will hopefully help your current practice situation.

    I teach elementary school music in an inner city school where most of my students are economically, socially, and economically disadvantaged. So, practice time for general music classes and performance ensembles (chorus)is a challenge for me because my district wants my school to focus on students' reading and math skills-our students did not do well on this past year's statewide assessment. So, many of my students get pulled during general music class time to get extra help in order to improve their reading and math skills. However, they are missing important music instructional time as well. On top of this inconvenience, I have to teach chorus after school and sometimes have students who can not come to rehearsals because of transportation issues. I hate to punish the kids and remove them from chorus, but at the same time, they need to be present at all rehearsals (if possible) so that they can get the instruction and practice that they need to improve. My chorus students only get to meet with me once a week for 1 hour and 15 minutes, so I need them at rehearsal so that we can get all the practice we can get. So, believe me, I understand your frustration.

    At the same token, we have to do what we have to do so that our students can succeed. So, if I am "pressed for time," I break my practice sessions into a few breaks in between. After these breaks, we revisit and review the information that was practiced before the breaks so that their brains have a better chance to process the information. This approach has been effective for me, so maybe it can help you. Good luck!

  2. I agree completely, and that's standard practice at my school. We have an odd schedule, with the majority of the kids getting 3 40-minute rehearsals every 6 days, but a smaller portion (about 15%) only being there for one of those rehearsals. Both groups get one lesson each week, too, but it is a pull-out system, so if they forget or can't come, they miss. I end up structuring my time with the "meat" of the lesson in the 2 rehearsals with only part of the kids, and then do a review during the "everybody" rehearsal, so they have a chance to get all the information, though it won't be repeated as much as it is for the kids who are there for all of them. Otherwise, they miss stuff, so it is important to do it this way. I'm hoping to find ways to help structure their at-home practice to help reinforce things. I live in a pretty well off community, and being a university town means I have a lot of kids with high expectations at home and lots of enrichment (read: not much time to spare!) The skills they need for music require actual time, so making it worth their while, while not being too dogmatic, is a tough line to walk. Thanks for your thoughts!