Monday, January 14, 2013

The Project-Based Middle School Music Class (Part 1)

Educational Leadership (ASCD) publiched an article called '7 Essentials for Project-Based Learning'. The 7 Essentials, abbreviated, are:

1-A Need to Know
2-A Driving Question
3-Student Voice and Student Choice
4-21st Century Skills
5-Inquiry and Innovation
6-Feedback and Revision
7-A Publicly Presented Product

I am lucky to teach in a music technology lab at our middle school complete with 22 MIDI stations with HP Computers, 17" Flat Screen Monitors and Yamaha PSR keyboards. I teach 3 middle school grade levels-6th,7th and 8th grade. 6th graders learn music fundamentals using Music Ace software with reinforcement via games, quizzes and direct application of musical skills learned. The 7th and 8th grade classes are entirely project-based classes.

I will focus on the 8th grade curriculum by connecting what students do there to the 7 Essentials above, hopefully providing a useful example of how music classes can become Project-oriented.

I am completely convinced that project-based learning (and service-learning) are 'the way to go' to ensure student connection, motivation and engagement with learning. I believe when students are 'content creators' and they are given the responsibility (the respect!) to solve problems and questions creatively, they jump at the chance. Conversely, even the most motivated of students will shut down given a lack of something productive to DO. Doing is the key. Humans are born wanting to 'do'.

I decided a few years ago to jettison the 8th grade curriculum entirely and to start from scratch. I wanted something relevant and engaging for students to experience in class. We also had the technology on our side. I started investigating loop-based music composition and realized this is a perfect fit for the 'i-pod' generation. Since we're PC-based and were limited financially, I chose Sony Acid Music Studio as the software that would drive the 8th grade curriculum. All students take music every year for 10 weeks. So, even at a few thousand dollars for a lab-pack the cost per student (cps) was actually quite low the first year (something like $10 per student). Now that we're in year 3 the actually cps is less than $3 per student. (These are numbers that speak to administrators and school boards. Whenever possible, present your new programs in terms of cost per student.)

On day one, students are introduced to different loops (.wav recordings of actual instruments). This piques their curiosity (especially the dance beats and electric guitar loops that sound familiar to them). From there students ultimately begin by 'playing' with loops- finding them, listening to them and creating tracks for them. In due time, I teach them about balance, blend, panning, form, verse, chorus, effective endings......

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Top 10 Reasons to use Loop-Based Music Software in Music Class

Why use loop-based composition software in a music class?
Here are 10 reasons:

  1. Students don't need prior knowledge of music fundamentals (though this knowledge certainly helps)
  2. It is empowering when students are working on "real" music in their own way.
  3. It is empowering because students can work on projects for "real world" purposes. (ie..creating music for school functions, websites; podcasting)
  4. It is empowering because students can export their work as Mp3 files and share them on the web or put them on their i-pods where their name comes up as "the artist"
  5. Music class becomes inextricably linked with technology which means two budgets feed the program.
  6. All Music Standards can be taught in some way using loop-based composition
  7. Students love it.
  8. The software is fairly inexpensive given the possibilities
  9. Independent work allows for one-on-one interaction between teacher and student. Perfect for differentiating learning.
  10. Public Relations: When students talk up their experiences with loop-based composition, they spread the word that something exciting is happening in music at school (beyond the band and choral programs.)
More about Garageband
More about Sony Acid. Using Sony Acid to teach Song Form

Thursday, September 20, 2012

AudioCubes Provide Intriguing Possibilities for Music/Sound Production

Have you seen or tried AudioCubes?  If not, you are in for a treat. I was recently contacted by Bert Schiettecatte, founder of Percussa BVBA who asked me to take a look.  Though my schedule was busy, I was intrigued by what I saw and heard.  As a Music Educator who teaches in a middle school music technology lab, I saw potential for these sound/music making devices immediately.  Here are Bert's responses to questions I asked about AudioCubes.  I encourage anyone working in music, music education and/or electronic music to check these out.

Do  you see Audiocubes being used in schools as part of music education programs? How so?
BS: Yes, sure. In fact, there are already several schools who are using
the AudioCubes, at several levels. In higher education, Full Sail
University, the University of New Mexico and Berklee college of music
are just some examples of schools who have been using AudioCubes since
the beginning. Student artists use AudioCubes for sound design,
composition, live performance .... but also for research and teaching
/ education.

In lower education, and specifically in STEM education, kids as young
as 10 years old are using the AudioCubes
, to experiment with sound and
music and learn about technology and science at the same time. Check

Why use Audiocubes over another music/sound production app?
What is compelling about your product?
BS: AudioCubes are unique in that they allow you to directly interact with
a piece of data or behaviour directly through a physical object
without pointing or clicking. The data or function is already there in
your working or living environment, because it is represented by a
physical object. This is apparent in these two software applications
which I developed the past year, called Improvisor and Evolvor: and

For live performers, AudioCubes are great because they make a
performance instantly visual, and gestural, and allow for audience
interaction. If you bring your live laptop setup and AudioCubes, you
don't need to bring a VJ necessarily. If it's a small performance, the
audience understands what you do through AudioCubes, and if it's a
large performance, you can put a camera on what you're doing with the
AudioCubes and you instantly have impressive visuals.

For sound designers, you can easily create and shape sounds simply
using your hands and fingers and one or two AudioCubes. You can learn
more about that at
for example. The cubes can be easily connected via MIDI to your
favourite effects or instruments, hardware or software. Each cube
senses distances in 4 directions, so you can easily control up to 8
parameters simultaneously, even if you have just 2 hands, using the

For composers, we've created a generative music application, which I
already mentioned: Improvisor. The app lets you play back different
loops of notes and velocity patterns, and each loop is connected to a
cube automatically. Putting cubes next to each other will apply
transformations to the loops (such as adding loops from 2 cubes) so
you get totally new music. You can then send the notes via MIDI where
you want.

This is just scratching the surface - there are so many ways to use
AudioCubes, and we try to show this each week on our blog at

Why would music students like this?
BS: Because new human computer interfaces allow new ways to interact with
computers, software and data, which gives rise to new sound and new
kinds of music, and makes the whole process feel less like "work" and
more like "play".

What's in line for the future?
BS: I'm working on more software which lets you use AudioCubes without
necessarily having to do MIDI or OSC mapping, and which generates
sound by itself. The most recent app I have been working on is a free
and open source FM synthesizer for audiocubes and Max4Live (the
development environment in Ableton Live, using Max/MSP by Cycling74).
We're also starting a mailing list which will be a great way for the
community to have more regular discussions about AudioCubes.

Very cool stuff!  I believe that Bert and Percussa are on to something-especially since the way one interacts with the cubes adds a dimension to the sound creation process.  

Prediction:  In the future, schools will not only have regular Concert and Marching Bands, they will have "iBands" that will include app-driven sound creation devices like AudioCubes, iPads and the like.  That's a cool future.

Friday, June 03, 2011

The 21st Century Music Program

I've written about it already: Music Education must shift (as most of what we do in Education must shift now). But I haven't given a prescription for the shift. I'll focus on music education first since it's where I've spent most of my career.

Once upon a time, as the world was changing and going digital, music was right out front as one of the game changers. Since people love music, they wanted music. As digital formats and broadband increased so did the possibility that music could be made available for next to free. A huge demand ensued. Enterprising individuals with some coding know-how made it possible for people to find music online. That's the beginning of the story and how P2P networking changed the world. The rest is known to us. Napster and other websites that allowed free sharing of music and other copyrighted material were targeted by the RIAA and the copyright wars began.

Now, new modes of distribution and consumption are in place, money is paid to the artists and the world is changed. Of course, the illegal stuff still happens and will continue to-until we radically redfine and de-criminalize file sharing. But it was larely a demand for MUSIC that inspired the whole digital-everything movement. And As Chris Anderson will tell you, once things are digitized, distribution costs are almost nill for a gizzillion copies of the same file (mp3, mp4, .mov, .avi etc..).

So where does secondary Music Education fit into this? Prominently, I think. Center Stage, if you will. Teens and music go hand in hand. They "do" music all the time. In these times, students are downloading, manipulating, re-mixing and listening to music daily. What happens when they come to music "class". What is happening in "General" Music Classrooms today? Do students ever hear "their" music? In a 21st Century Music
Program, they should. Do they use technology, loop-based composition software to make their OWN music? In a 21st Century Music Program, they should. Do they get to create and remix music the way they do in the real world? Do they get to download and keep their music as Mp3 files? In a 21st Century Music Program, they should. Is You Tube ever used in music class? i-Tunes? In a 21st Century Music Program, they should be.

It's an important shift because in a 21st century Music Program, there is potential for many more students to be part of the program--shifting it from the old Band/Chorus paradigm and justifying it solidly to School Boards. When you turn all students into Artists, it's difficult to cut a program. That's possible in a 21st Century Music Program.

Music Education Must Shift

In the last post, I suggested a new paradigm for music education in schools. This paradigm would become less-band/orchestra centric and would have as its base teaching non-band/orchestra/chorus students the tools for music creation, mixing and distribution. Traditional performing ensembles should always have a place in school music programs. Instrumental and Choral Programs are often the public face of music programs. They provide good PR but I think it's also time to embrace a much wider conception of what performing ensembles could be in addition to changing the nature and focus of the "General" Music Program.

Increasingly, students are coming to us with skills on (electric) guitar, keyboards and other instruments (mandolin has become popular recently because of it's use by some mainstream pop artists). Students who don't play instruments are coming to us with much greater exposure to music specifically because of pop culture influences (Rock Band, Guitar Hero, Glee, video games, etc..). A 6th Grade student recently asked if we could play the theme to Halo, a science-fiction video game. Why not? It's perfectly decent music. If we don't do it at school, students are busy learning it anyway , despite the school music program! This is NOT a position we in Music Education want to be in. Imagine students dropping music classes because they don't do music there (or at least music they know). Unfortunately this happens every day in music programs everywhere. I know a student who won the local 'American Idol' contest but dropped Chorus at school. She didn't see the relevance. There are, of course Music Directors who get it, the one's who understand that connection is more important than coverage. So, to further expand the paradigm shift I am suggesting, here's what I think *secondary music programs should include now:

  • A Music technology Classes (formerly called General Music) where students create, remix and share music (and, yeah, learn the basics, too)<---largest population of students. I suggest this for 100% of the school population if possible.
  • Guitar "Clubs"<---if don't play guitar, have your students teach you. They would love to teach you how to shred a solo.
  • Jazz/Rock-Pop Ensembles (any combination of instruments/voices)
  • (World) Percussion Ensembles (mallet instruments as well as djembes, bongos, congas)
  • Traditional Music Ensembles (Band/Chorus/Orchestras)
*Note that I am addressing secondary music programs, specifically. Elementary programs should, as most do, continue to incorporate movement, singing, Orff instrument playing, rhythm games and general "experimentation" with music.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Looking for Blues Resources?

7th grade students and I research the Blues each year. You Tube is part of that research. Many good resources (primary source material!) can be found there. This year we decided to make a list of You Tube users who have significant (and quality) blues resources in their playlists.
We imagine this list could serve as a short-cut for many teachers/students looking for more information about the Blues. Enjoy.

Here is a list 10 of those users.

  • jemf999
  • leoncalquin
  • swinginglance
  • tcblues
  • paracite187
  • truerhymer
  • ashleyspencermusic
  • 000nuetron000
  • osir1s
  • xakyxak

Monday, July 19, 2010

Music Education Professional Learning Network Launches

Watch Out, Here We Come! The Music Education Professional Learning Network launches today, July 19th, 2010.
The site is a "freely available public site specifically designed for Music Teachers, Educators interested in Music topics, and pre-service Music Teachers."

Users must register for an account, otherwise the site is free. The MPLN contains Forums, Groups and News/Info. links about aspects of Music Education. Pre-launch, the site had 68 members who Beta-tested the network. These members are among the top music education professionals with an online presence (music ed. teachers,
conductors, clinicians, presenters, bloggers, etc..). One of the greatest attributes of the site is that is it is social media rich meaning that there are multiple ways to share information outside the network on different platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo and MySpace. I believe this attribute will insure the site's success. Interestingly, it is also possible to connect IN to the network. For example, by using the hastag #mpln on Twitter, the update will post inside the MPLN network. Nifty!

The launch comes at a time when social networks are becoming increasingly accepted as valid places, forums for learning. There have been a few attempts at creating social networks for music educators but none have achieved a wide membership/following. MENC has had a Mentoring Forum for years (of which I was once a Mentor) but it never quite evolved from the limited 'thread'.

I am convinced that the time is ripe for the Music Education Professional Learning Network. I believe that it will be widely used by Music Education Professionals to connect, discuss, debate, elucidate, elaborate, learn, grow and educate. Is the world ready for Music Education to finally, finally be transformed?