SmartMusic: An Assistant in the Classroom

As I mentioned last week, SmartMusic had a big impact on my teaching, especially as I learned to use it more effectively. While I initially thought of SmartMusic as a practice tool for students, I’ve since come to think of it as an assistant in the classroom too!

When I learned that I could create SmartMusic files from Finale files, my mind raced. Over the years I’ve created countless exercises, scale requirements, etudes, district audition pieces, etc., in Finale for my students. Now, instead of simply printing them out, I can use the same files to create interactive SmartMusic files. Talk about getting more bang for your buck! Then it occurred to me that these same SmartMusic files could be very useful in the classroom.

As I prepared classes, I began to work out the specifics. By connecting a powered speaker to my computer, the whole class would be able to hear what was coming from SmartMusic. By hooking up an LCD projector, they would be able to see notation, when appropriate. Later, I added a SMART Board to this setup which added another dimension.

My preferred method for teaching tone and articulation is without music notation (sound before sight). I like the students to hear something and then try to repeat it without looking at notation, so they can focus on the physical feeling and concentrate on tone production. SmartMusic includes a series of Play-By-Ear exercises in the form of a call-and-response sequence. These gave me an idea to create rhythm patterns in a similar format. I use rhythm patterns to help students learn rhythmic vocabulary and to help develop articulation.

Using Finale, I created a master score using just the first five notes in our method book. Each note had its own separate staff line and the rhythms on each line were identical: rhythm 1, measure of rest, rhythm 2, measure of rest, etc. For this exercise, there were eight different rhythms made up of quarter and eighth note combinations. To make it fun, I added a drum beat using Finale’s Drum Groove plug-in – and a bass line. I set the file up so that it repeated several times.

Then, when exporting this as a SmartMusic file, I was presented with three choices: Assessment, Ensemble, and Solo. I chose Ensemble, as this allows me to easily switch between the different staves (and thus different notes). Since I was not concerned about notation, this was perfect for my goal, and would allow me to choose to use the click track, the bass line, the drumbeat, or any combination.

Once the file began playing back in SmartMusic, I could walk around the room and realistically listen to each student and make individual comments! At the same time, the entire class was on-task! Using the drumbeat is fun for the students and it is also a musical metronome that is supplying subdivisions and “movement” to the rhythms. I emphasized to the students the importance of feeling rhythm and the drumbeat helped with this.

As the students learned a new note, I selected the appropriate staff containing that note. I would also have students switch to different notes while the file was playing. As they became more familiar with the patterns and could play them well, I would adjust the tempo and challenge them, which they loved! By the time the students learned sixteenth notation, they had already played many familiar patterns they would learn and were technically ready to do this.

This type of exercise could be used at any level. For example, it could be used for more advanced concepts such as double and triple tonguing. Imagine hearing all your students individually within a few minutes and assessing their development. The ideas are limitless! These same patterns could then be made into assessable files when you want to assess reading ability. And then you could…have fun! 

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