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.


  1. Hi Ronica,

    I just wanted to comment, as a teacher who is currently using Google Classroom, that it is amazing! It can also help streamline a lot of the work we do in our classes because everything is all in one place. You can connect it to a Google Calendar, as well as Google is amazing!


    1. That is wonderful! I'm hoping there is a way for students to upload video files so I can use it for assessment, and somehow use Google Calendar to remind them of when their lessons are, since ours are on a rotating schedule. Middle schoolers sometimes have a lot of trouble with remembering things like that, especially when they change times, but the other teachers need to see them just as much as we do. :) I'm really looking forward to digging in!