Asa Burk on Getting Started with SmartMusic

Asa Burk

I have been using SmartMusic in the classroom since the late 90’s. While SmartMusic has evolved and changed quite a bit over the past two decades one thing has remained constant – its ability to enhance and support what we do in the classroom. It has arguably become more and more capable over the years. SmartMusic’s options and possibilities are only limited by what your music education brain can dream up.

During this time I’ve had the opportunity to teach at six different campuses. While the implementation of SmartMusic at each stop along the way has been different and unique there are a few constants. So whether you have been at your current school for a while or you have just arrived, here are a few pointers to help you implement SmartMusic into your program.

Think like Nike – Just Do It

Once you decide to use SmartMusic, commit to it and follow through. This may require a little planning and foresight and it will mean that you will need to think about your curriculum design and begin to build infrastructure to support what you are doing. But one thing music educators are famous for is resourcefulness. We are a “get it done” breed.

Don’t worry if you stall out early on trying to come up with ideas to incorporate SmartMusic into your curriculum; you will be greatly surprised at how many applications will reveal themselves as you go through the year. I’m always thinking “how can we take what we did this year and refine and improve it for next year?”

Start slow and build

The easiest way to implement program-wide is to start from the bottom and work up. Using SmartMusic with beginners is easy, fun, and rewarding for them and you. Being new to the program they will simply think that this is the way we learn in this class and are pretty accepting of it.

As they move upward through the program there is no need to re-teach them how to use SmartMusic to learn – chances are, they will be teaching you and asking to play a really cool song that they found while practicing the other day. They are already digital-music-natives.

Introducing SmartMusic to older students is a bit different. They have probably already been learning music without a computer and may think; “Why do I need a computer to tell me what to do?” or “This thing is just going to get in my way!” As with any change, it always helps to show a certain amount of respect for the past. Start with one assignment per grading period or just use SmartMusic during one season of the year. Slowly but surely the benefits will reveal themselves and over time you will be able to incorporate it into your curriculum.

Be sure to allow plenty of time for older students to learn the program as they complete their assignment. Solo season is a great time to introduce SmartMusic to older students. It excels at encouraging students to bridge the gap between practicing a solo by themselves and playing with an accompanist. Just remember, students like making music and they like being successful at making music. Frustration comes when an unfamiliar process impedes their musical success.

Communicate, Educate, and Demonstrate

SmartMusic at your beginning-of-the-year parent meeting is a great way for parents to see and understand the program. Nothing is more effective in communicating that message. Most parents are unfamiliar with SmartMusic and don’t fully understand what it is much less how it can benefit their child’s music education. Administrators are the same way. A good principal will give their teachers every possible advantage to bring success in the classroom. Every year that I demonstrated (not just verbally explained) what SmartMusic was, and how we would be using it in our classroom, there was a significantly greater understanding on the part of parents and students. During those years it was much easier to reach the full potential of the program.

There are other blog entries that deal with setting up a good parent meeting demonstration as well as resources on the website that are quite useful. As you go through the year, take time in class to demonstrate how to use the program to complete an assignment. Explain and show the resources for feedback that can be used to improve a performance. As you are talking about how to practice at home, mention, show, and demonstrate using SmartMusic.

Better yet, have a student be your demonstration assistant. They get an opportunity for a mini private lesson from you and SmartMusic, the rest of the class gets to see a masterclass, and everyone learns how to use SmartMusic to improve their performance.

How will I be graded?

Everyone wants to know how the grades will be used. Keep in mind that when a student practices at home they rarely if ever convert their practice or performance to a number grade or percent. If you ask a student how they sounded you are likely to hear; “pretty good…not bad…I think I did ok…I don’t know…” or “I totally nailed it!”

In transitioning from generic kid-speak to a percentage grade it is really important to explain what they should be listening for and how important it is to be accurate with rhythm as well as pitch. Every kid knows if they get nine out of ten questions correct on their math test they will score 90%. I try to make the connection that if they play nine out of ten notes correct they will score 90%.

It is at this time you need to communicate and educate your students and parents on three very important concepts:

  1. Their initial grade is only a starting point – a point of reference to document and show how much they will improve,
  2. SmartMusic has many resources that can be used to improve to any level they want (slow the tempo down, turn on the solo line, take out the accompaniment, show the cursor, turn on the metronome, etc.), and
  3. It may take a little practice to sound better than “good enough” and with practice, you are certainly capable of sounding great. Each student’s final grade should be a healthy balance of computer work and director input. Too much of one or the other generally brings frustration.

Infrastructure – If you build it they will come

Decide early on how you want to use SmartMusic – as a presentation tool, as an assessment resource at school only, as a practice resource for home, or any combination that you can dream up. That idea will tell you what you need to plan for – rehearsal room computer, practice room computers, home subscriptions for students, etc. Finding computers, iPads, and projectors has become much easier over the years.

On more than one campus I’ve had to borrow a computer and projector from the library to get started. Talking to an administrator or the IT department can usually get you a computer or two but more importantly it will put you on their radar for the future. Once I was able to acquire eight older Macs when a computer lab was updated with a simple question to the IT guy – “so, what are you going to do with all of these old computers?”

Where there is a will there is a way and with a bit of creativity and resourcefulness, you can almost always find what you need through planning for next year’s budget, writing a grant, borrowing, or sharing. Each year, build on what you have and before too long you have what you need.

Parting thoughts

Remember that the joy is in the journey. You don’t need to be a SmartMusic expert immediately and you certainly don’t need an elaborate and expensive setup to get started. Rome wasn’t built in a day and having a humble beginning will allow you and your students to grow as you are ready.

Getting students, parents, and administrators used to learning with SmartMusic is just as important to having infrastructure in place. Having a state of the art setup won’t benefit your students if they are unfamiliar with how to use it or don’t see a benefit to using it.

At the end of the day, remember that you love music, you love teaching kids, and this is a great time to be a music educator. Happy music making!

Asa Burk 2Asa Burk is the Associate Director of Bands at Argyle High School in Argyle, Texas, and an active clinician and adjudicator. He has twice been named “Teacher of the Year,” at the Huffines Middle School in 2001, and at Cross Timbers Middle School in 2012. His bands have consistently received UIL Sweepstakes Awards and many Best in Class designations at local and national festivals, and were state finalists in the TMEA Honor Band selection process in 2004 and 2008. In 2011, his Cross Timbers MS Honors Band was a featured performer at the Midwest Clinic in Chicago. In 2014 the Argyle High School Band was the UIL 4A Marching Band State Champion.

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