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Preparing young musicians for 2018. Or not.

April 9, 2013

Lately, my guiding question has changed again.

Only six years ago, all an up and coming musician needed to know was how to play an instrument well and how to adapt quickly musically. That isn’t enough anymore. To survive and prosper in the artistic and entertainment worlds today, musicians need also know how to compose, record, edit, share and promote their creations. The times when record companies took care of everything (including cashing in your pay cheques until all the money they had lent you to record your album had been paid back, with interest of course) are over. With a bit of time, a MacBook, a few online tutorials, some software and a 300$ microphone you can record an album that can put a 1990’s 350$/hour studio to shame. The average cost of making an album just 10 years ago was about 50,000$. You can do the same for less than 3,000$ today! The rules of the game have changed, but so have the roles that a musician must learn to play.

How can I honestly consider myself a competent teacher if, by the content I’m teaching them, I’m preparing my students for a world that doesn’t exist anymore? I can’t. Ouch… Just when I was so proud…

Here’s the problem: if I take time out of my already overpacked government issued curriculum (aren’t they all?) to teach new skills, my students won’t progress enough to feel competent and they will opt out of their Music option. And even if they stay, those who will be considering applying to college in a music program will never be admitted; they would be too far behind technically on their instrument to compete with students from other schools. I can always tell them that they must practice at home but, let’s be honest, it will never happen. And there is no practical way for me to check. Or is there?

Enter technology (insert inspirational music here!).

Up to just a couple of years ago, this would have been an unsolvable problem. But with all the Tweets, blogs and books I have been reading, many possible solutions have come to mind. I have to teach these new skills; no question. I will not feel competent if I don’t. Which means that I have to take time out of my ‘playing’ routine in class. I can’t just add hours to the day. And even if I wanted to, which I don’t (remember, I’m a family man), over 90% of my students are bussed to and from school. There’s no way around it. This means that, if I want my students’ level of instrumental proficiency to either stay the same or, in an ideal world, even get better, I need to ‘flip’ some of the learning over to them, at home.

Now, I stated earlier that there is no practical way for me to check if they practice at home, which is still true. But would it be possible to transfer some of the actual learning to home? What if each student had a progressive book of short songs and exercises at home, that we would never use at school, and that each week or so a few of these exercises would be assigned? What if the student, through some kind of collaborative online document (Maybe a Google Doc spreadsheet managed by the Chrome script ‘Doctopus’? I need PD!), would check off his/her progress and, at the end of the week, would record himself/herself playing the last exercise and then send it to me for feedback or evaluation? If timed correctly, the lessons learned at home would prepare the students for the lessons learned in class. They would progress at a faster rate, thus freeing up time for me to teach them other skills!

So far, four concerns have come out of discussions with other teachers, but I think I have them all covered. I consider the first one to be a byproduct of how we were taught to teach: “How will you know if the student hasn’t only worked on the song or exercise they recorded and ignored the previous ones?” My answer to that is; “Does it really matter?” I mean, in a perfectly tidy world, every student would do everything we ask at exactly the right time and in the right order. But that will never happen, will it? We have to deal with it. This being said, it might be convenient and comforting for us, but our students would become our clones. If we want the next generation to be better than us, we can’t expect them to follow every one of our rules, all the time. Besides, if the kid can play the last exercise well, he/she has probably already assimilated to previous content. The exercises will be progressive.

The second concern is actually funny when you stop to think about it: “It wouldn’t be fair! The student can re-record the same piece 30 times, yet only send you the best version!” I don’t know about you but, if a student cares enough about his/her performance to re-record it 30 times… What’s not to like! It’s called ‘practicing’!

“What about cheating? Another student could help them or, even worse, record the exercise in their place!” Ah! Cheating… It’s going to happen. You shouldn’t deprive a majority of a learning experience just because a minority might jump through the cracks of a system. This being said, I plan on doing in-class evaluations once in a while as well, just to be safe. If a student has sent me a brilliant recording of exercise #94 and can’t play exercise #27 in class… Well, let’s just say that we’ll need to talk.

The fourth and last concern that has so far been brought to my attention is, in my humble opinion, very valid: “What about the kid who doesn’t have any means of either recording or accessing the Internet at home?” Once again, this will be a minority but, unlike the ‘cheaters’, an unwilling minority. The only practical solution I have found so far is to have a hard copy of everything available and to have these students play the exercises for me either at recess, at lunch or at the beginning of class, whichever they prefer. My school may have a ‘sign out’ technology cart in the near future; this would certainly help.

This is just a start. Well, not even… It’s a start to a start. But I need to start somewhere, right? More ideas will be posted shortly.Thanks for reading. Fell free to share!

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One Comment
  1. Very interesting details you have observed , thanks for putting up.
    “History is a cyclic poem written by Time upon the memories of man.” by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

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