Like more and more states around the country, my state is experiencing growth in music technology programs in our schools. A major challenge for many of these teachers is that they were not trained to teach music technology. My music education degree included classes in brass, woodwind, string, and vocal methods – and I had to pass a piano proficiency exam – but I had no classes in music technology. While some colleges are now offering some classes in music technology as electives, many post-secondary music education programs still do little to prepare graduates to teach music technology.
If you are going to be teaching a music technology class, the first question to be answered is, “What am I supposed to be teaching in my music technology class?” The NAfME national standards for music technology offers is a great place to find the answers. If your school system doesn’t currently have any curriculum standards for music technology, NAfME has several great resources that provide direction about how to adopt the national standards at the local and state level here and here. Given those resources, I will not go into creating and adopting standards. Instead, I will address the question of what you are going to be teaching in the music technology class.
Simply put you are going to be teaching three things: creating, performing and responding. For this article, I will focus on the standards under “creating.”
I know I risk upsetting some people with this statement, but we really don’t teach much about creating in our ensemble classes. Our ensemble classes focus on performing. Students learn to perform the rhythms, melodies, structures, and expression that we ask them to play on their instruments. We don’t generally ask them to create the rhythms, melodies, etc. One of the unique and really wonderful things about teaching music technology is that we are actually teaching them to create the music that will later be presented.
Creating is broken down into four sub-categories: imagine, select, evaluate and refine, and present.
The first standard is “imagine” which is described in the NAfME standards as “generating rhythmic, melodic and harmonic IDEAS using digital tools.” Lesson plans for this standard must include teaching students about the digital tools that they will use to generate their ideas. One of the first lessons that I teach my beginning level students is called Exploring the MIDI Keyboard. Here students learn about all of the different sounds that the keyboard is capable of making, from a basic grand piano to guitars, brass, strings, and synthesizers to drums and ethnic instruments. The students spend most of the class with headphones on listening to sounds and creating a list of their favorite sounds that they discovered.
Another lesson under “imagine” is Melodic Improvisation. In this lesson, I provide the students with a template file that contains a four measure bass loop using a I-V-vi-IV chord progression. I use a whiteboard marker to indicate the root notes for each chord on the keys of the MIDI keyboard. The students first practice playing the root notes with the chord changes as they listen to the bass loop. When they comfortable with hearing the chord changes and playing the corresponding root, I talk to them about placing notes in between the root notes to create a melody. We discuss contour, stepwise versus disjunct motion, etc. in creating a melody. Once they have created something that they like through their improvisation, they record their melody in the DAW.
The next standard in the Creating category is to “select melodic, rhythmic and harmonic ideas to develop into a larger work using digital tools.” Again you will be teaching students how to use digital tools to take their ideas and begin developing them into larger chunks of music. One of the first lessons under this standard that I use is the AABA Project. The focus of this lesson is for students to begin to learn the simple forms and structures of music and how to use digital tools to create them.
I provide a template with four tracks labeled drums, guitar, bass and keyboard/synthesizer. The students use loops to create a four measure drum, guitar, bass and keyboard track. Next, they learn how to use the copy and paste function of the DAW to copy their four measure phrase into the second and third A sections. They will then use contrasting loops to fill in the B section creating a sixteen measure AABA song. For those students who quickly grasp how to use the digital tool to create their AABA song, I may have them create other songs using different forms such as a round, rondo or ternary forms.
3. Evaluate and Refine
The third standard under Creating is “evaluate and refine”: “Drawing on feedback from teachers and peers, develop and implement strategies to improve and refine the technical and expressive aspects of draft compositions and improvisations.” For this standard, I will usually refer back to their earlier Melodic Improvisation assignment.
Using the DAW we take a close look at the rhythms and note lengths of the original. The students learn how to use the quantize feature of the DAW to correct rhythmic inaccuracies. We also discuss how we can use the digital tool to keep notes lengths consistent and how to create a legato or staccato articulation. Finally, they learn how to use automation to create crescendo and decrescendo to further enhance expression in their melodies. Finally, I will have them share their revised melodies with their neighbors to exchange feedback before making final revisions.
The final standard in the Creating category is “presenting or sharing.” This one is pretty self-explanatory, but can be the most difficult to get some students comfortable with. I’ve performed plenty of bad music at a fairly high level of performance, but at least I wasn’t the one who created it! Creating something and then presenting it to the world can be a scary proposition. You invest a part of yourself into something that you create and by presenting your creation to the public you are putting a part of yourself out there to be judged by others.
I begin by asking students early on to share their ideas with each other to get them comfortable with sharing ideas. I encourage students to listen to each other’s work and offer feedback and suggestions. Students have to be taught how to do this. I explain my process in assessing their assignments. An important concept that I stress is assessing music is not about personal preference. I don’t care how well a chef can prepare a piece of salmon. I don’t like how salmon tastes, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t assess the skill and artistry of the chef in how it was prepared.
Students are taught to use musical and digital terminology to make specific comments about whether, or not, the assignment meets the parameters of the assignment. For example, I may not like the genre or style of the loops chosen for the AABA assignment, but the assignment was about musical form. Was the composition constructed using the appropriate form? If it does, most anything else is irrelevant for the purpose of feedback and assessment. I always tell students that it is most important to me that they like their creations.
Hopefully, this article provided you with some ideas and resources to get started with the NAfME Music Standards for Music Technology. Getting comfortable with teaching music technology is a process, not an event. The first year that I spent in my music lab, I spent as much time figuring out how to get all of the equipment and software to work as I did actually teaching anything relating to a performance standard. Embrace the chaos!