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Flipping the Music classroom

May 12, 2013

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Those of you who have been following my ‘inner conversations’ are aware that I’ve been pondering about ways to free up some time in my high school Music classes to be able to incorporate a ‘using technology’ component. The more I read and think about it, the more I am convinced that I cannot truly be preparing my students for their future if I don’t address how musicians today (and most probably tomorrow) need to use technology to create, record, edit, share and promote their art. As I’ve written before, it is no longer enough to play your instrument well.

Computers have made recording studios way less essential. With a little time, patience and web-based tutorials, I can create an album of songs that can easily rival in sound quality the best recordings of the 1990‘s. And while today’s connectivity hasn’t made record companies and distributors obsolete, yet, they are in no way essential to a musician’s success. More and more musicians are actually founding their own, self controlled, record companies instead of relying on the ‘good intentions’ of others. The days when we needed them to record, print and actually ship our art to Music retailers so that people could buy the album are over. Forever. The music business is changing, and I, as a Music educator, must adapt if I really care for my students.

It’ about time

But how to find the time? Adding all these competencies to my already overbooked high school Music program requires that I either take others lessons out or do things quite differently. I’ve already cut down the number of performances to a minimum so that we can work on other things from time to time than preparing a concert. I teach the theory through the actual playing instead of doing it as a lecture. I focus on modern, living forms of Music instead of exposing them to every type that has graced human ears for the last 2 000 years, as I should be doing… There isn’t much left that I can in good conscience leave out! Of course, if I taught in a performing arts school, where only the most talented and hard working students get to finish the program, I could simply add it all to the curriculum and tell them to suck it up. But I teach in a wonderfully average high school in a wonderfully average community full of wonderfully average teenagers. If my requirements are too high, instead of having higher performing young musicians in my classroom, I will have either less young musicians in my classroom or no more musicians at all because the program will be closed down due to lack of interest… Which means that I will have successfully prevented kids from learning how to play, create and appreciate music. Not acceptable.

Thanks to numerous links provided by my Twitter acquaintances, I’ve been reading up a lot about this idea of ‘flipping’ the classroom. The natural fit seemed to me to be a Math class: you tell the kids to view the ‘How to…’ lecture online at home and then have them work at applying the concept in class, where you can guide them. But something at the back of my head has been nagging me, hinting that there must be more to it than that. More possibilities to explore…

I started thinking: “How could I apply this concept to my Music classes? What part of my classroom instruction could be done at home instead?”. If I break it down, a typical 51 minutes of class time (yes, 51 minutes…!) starts off with the kids getting their instrument and warming up a bit on their own while I take attendance before I have them run through a scale or two or part of a song that we know well to get them playing as a band.

With my Senior students, we will then work on a tune, learning a new technique or concept on the way, and I will probably take time to work on soloing (improvising in Jazz speak), using part of a solo one of my students just played as an example of what can work well and why.

With my Junior students, we will work through one of the well crafted Band Method books such as Accent on Achievement or Standard of Excellence. I find that they work really well for the first year or so, providing progressive excerpts of pieces where students can apply either new notes, symbols or concepts that we have just learned. And what makes their use almost unavoidable is that they make teaching 10 different instruments at a time actually possible! Teaching a kid to play bass and another one to play the saxophone while others are learning either how to blow into a trumpet, read a drum chart or let alone hold a trombone properly, all at the same time, would be close to impossible without these great resources.

Unfortunately, since most of the band needs to sound as if they know what they are doing before we move on to the next exercise, some students aren’t as challenged as they should be. They figured it out on the first or second try, but they need to replay the piece or exercise with the rest of the band another five or ten times so that most can catch up. And when we do move on to the next one, a few students would have benefited from another five or ten times. The band progresses at a regular pace, but they don’t. These are the kids we ask to come to tutorials at lunch so that they can catch up. They usually end up demotivated and drop out of Music class as soon as they are allowed to.

Possible solutions…

But what if I worked from two Band method books simultaneously? What if I used one in class as I already do, but that I assigned exercises from the other one to be done at home every week? They should progress at a faster pace, freeing up a bit of time to add my technology component! I know… You’re probably thinking what I was thinking: “How is this any different from asking kids to practice at home regularly? Some will do it, some will not, and there is not real way for me to check either way!”. You’re right; the actual work isn’t that different. But today’s technological tools enable me to add an interactive component to it.

In theory, I should be able to taylor specific goals to each student. The year starts off with me requiring that everyone works on the same exercise numbers at home. Once they have completed them, they record the last one and either send it to me or, even better, provide me with a link to the uploaded recording so that I can listen to it, evaluate it and possibly comment on it. I could then track every student’s progress and adapt next week’s requirements accordingly! Students who are struggling could practice the exercises at home as many times as they want before recording them without holding the rest of the band back. They could even record them multiple times and only send me the best one. For those who think that this wouldn’t be fair, I ask: “Isn’t that what we call practicing?” Stronger students could be given personal challenges so that they could progress at their own pace. In theory, it sounds great!

… Thanks to tech!

I have begun to reacquaint myself with spreadsheets lately. I had stopped using them for quite a while. With the exception of adding formulas to simplify the calculating of grades for report cards, I saw little use for them. And, let’s face it, spreadsheets are not even close to being aesthetically pleasing. They are downright ugly and uninspiring! But now, with the (and I use the word intentionally) awesome possibilities that Google Docs and Drive offer, added to scripts available for the Chrome navigator as extensions, the use of spreadsheets does not only seem relevant to me, but almost essential. I will be looking into using the Doctopus script to manage and share these practice exercises with my students. I’m really looking forward to experimenting with these! Also, I am thinking of using SoundCloud as a site to upload the recordings to. I haven’t explored it much yet, but what I’ve seen has definite potential. An the fact that their recordings will be posted online might also encourage some students to take it more seriously. Teaching about creating and maintaining a positive online presence will be relevant here.

As for my Senior students, most of our work is done together in class. But if my system works, I could also give my older students specific challenges tailored to their level. I could also provide ‘Jaimey Aebersold-like’ recordings that they could practice improvising on. The difficult part would be to have them listen to the tracks while recording their solos at the same time. I think it can be done using Apple’s GarageBand, but I’m guessing that Audacity, available for free, could probably do it also if the students listen to the tracks through earphones. I’ll need to look into that.

But I’ve also come up with a few concerns. What if this approach makes my stronger students stronger and my weaker students weaker? I don’t really see how I could be against any of my students becoming better at what they do, but I am concerned about the second group. But what can I realistically do more? I’ll provide materials, feedback, maybe even online tutorials by myself or, even better, by peers via Google Hangouts or a dedicated YouTube channel (another relevant use of technology transferable to other classes and situations, not to mention the workforce!). If a student just doesn’t want to learn, I can’t force feed him or her. I can’t just download the information into their brain. Yet. Learning how to play an instrument takes time, effort and practice. There’s no way to avoid it.

Another concern is the amount of time I might need to invest in preparing/adapting the material to each student as well as the amount of time it might take to listen to all the student recordings as well as comment on them. It is true that all these student produced materials will provide me with more that enough information on each student’s progress to make a proper assessment when comes evaluation and reporting time. But will I be submerged by the sheer number of minutes a week it might take me to listen to all of these recordings? Short answer: possibly. I’ll have to start in September and see. If I feel it’s too much, I can always require recordings only every second week. I’ll also need to find an efficient way to comment on them, either in writing or by recording and sending my comments orally.

This project has, I believe, great potential for making some time for me to add my technology component. But it also serves the purpose of modelling an effective and relevant use of technology at the same time!

This is going to require a lot of preparation and exploring. But I am really looking forward to it!

I’ll keep you posted! As usual, please feel free to comment and/or share ideas!

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