Smiling Child in Classroom

One of the many facets of the new national music education standards emphasizes the importance of providing music creation opportunities in our classrooms.  At the same time making the jump from being a consumer of music to actually creating it can be a scary one even for experienced musicians.  This perceived barrier to becoming a composer continues to be made less of an issue thanks to innovative new technology tools and the equally innovative teachers who are finding new ways to encourage friendly, collaborative music creation environments.  We spoke to music teachers and technology vendors alike to find new ways to get kids composing in new collaborative ways in and out of the classroom.

Reading Music Is NOT A Prerequisite Any More

Many students outside of mainstream music ensemble programs shy away from getting involved in music classes due to the false belief that reading and performing music comes with it the prerequisite of being able to read and notate music.  Matt Warren, music teacher in the Webster Central School District in Webster, NY says that “technology removes a lot of the barriers that non-ensemble performing students can encounter.  They may not be able to notate music but if they have an idea in their brain they can use those tools to create something that sounds great even if they don’t know the theory behind it.  Some of the kids may come to the class never being interested in performing or knowing anything about reading music, but by the end of it they are publishing their own creations and putting them out there for everyone to see and hear.”  

There are several web based options available for teachers to use as music creation platforms.  While some are more single user oriented others provide integrated sharing and collaboration functions that teachers can use to get their kids working together.  Tools such as Soundtrap and Soundation provide this functionality in various ways.  Warren’s personal preference is Soundation.  Says Warren, “with Soundation they can share their work and get constructive feedback from their peers.  They listen to the music others in the class have created and make suggestions to each other.  One student will point out that maybe this section could benefit from another embellishment, maybe change from one instrument to something else, etc.  I think that being able to share your work, getting another pair of ears to listen to it, and then having the chance to act on those critiques without the fear of getting put down or made fun of is very powerful.”

Teaching Music Composition In a Collaborative Environment

Getting to this point in the year though requires a lot of careful, methodical progress in the classroom.  Marjorie LoPresti, Music Technology Teacher at East Brunswick High School in East Brunswick, NJ and the 2016 TI:ME Teacher of the Year starts the year with simple creative tasks where success is easy to achieve.  Her first project of the year uses GarageBand with students simply pulling in loops, rhythms, and harmonies from the built in libraries to get them comfortable with the process of creating compositions in this way.  Later, she moves on to creative projects using Soundation. She has the students create the foundation of their compositions through premade loops, but then goes on to have them create melody lines of their own. Many students embrace starting projects in class using Soundation, then working together online outside of class.

Once the students are comfortable with the software, she then throws in the collaborative components of the mix.  The first step is collaborative critique. In early weeks of the course, students give each other individual feedback in an informal way through listening on headphones. Complete pieces are not played aloud for the entire class.  By playing 15-30 seconds of each students’ work routinely through the classroom sound system helps build a culture of respect in which honest but musically robust feedback is the norm. Says LoPresti, “A first step in getting the kids to actually work collaboratively is to have them do something that Richard McCready calls a gallery walk. The students listen and respond to each classmate’s work in its entirety. Their detailed feedback includes students awarding stickers to one another. During these interactions, I can see how students relate to one another, as well as see their natural affinities in terms of style preference, process, and temperament.  That information helps me put them into groups of two and three for their first collaborative assignment.”

In that assignment, LoPresti uses Google Drive as a central repository for the student’s creations, sharing them out to their collaborative partners as needed.  “I have students do some sketchbooking activities by recording a bunch of melodies in different styles and keys using a MIDI keyboard with no background tracks.  In groups of two and three, they take those sketches and put them together into a new creation.  Each student becomes the main author of a composition while the others become contributors to it.”

Another favorite lesson of LoPresti’s is a musical collage project.  “Students first come up with a thematic idea of some kind.  One example would be a TV talk show intro. The guest is introduced with montage combination of music, speech, and sound effects representing work in television or film.  In another variation, students think of an object or idea that has strong visual or emotional symbolism. Students then craft a collage of music, speech and sound effects and other audio media to reflect their impressions of that theme.” In this collaborative model, as in several other projects in LoPresti’s courses, each student is given responsibility as creative director of one project. Other students collaborate by sharing ideas that connect to their classmates’ work. Students use a shared Google doc to post relevant audio found while searching audio libraries in the programs of the classroom computers and web resources.

Audio books to be shared with preschool and elementary school students are an effective collaborative project enjoyed by LoPresti’s music theory students. In the online Soundation application, students use a combination of loops, original music, sound effects, and voice recordings to create audio versions of favorites like Dr. Seuss books. Students each play a “role” in the story by voicing different characters, and work together to compose music and select sound effects that moves the story forward.  Says LoPresti, “Soundation gives students the freedom to record voice tracks at home, where there may be less background noise, and to enlist the help of family members when needed.”

Don’t think that the ideas stop there however.  LoPresti’s are are just a few of the many different lesson ideas that one can draw from.   Soundation is just one of many applications available as a part of the MusicFirst suite of music education software.  Andrea Moss, Content Manager for MusicFirst points out that “one of the backbones of the MusicFirst online classroom is the shared content library with fully fleshed out units, lessons, and assessments that can be used with the integrated software tools in the MusicFirst suite. There are literally hundreds of lessons to choose from.”

When it comes to doing projects of this nature there are a few technical hurdles to consider.  Both Warren and LoPresti use Google Classroom to communicate with and organize class assignments, but due to limitations in the way Soundation works in order for one student to work on another student’s song they must save and send the file to the teacher who then shares that file out to the others in the group.  When they finish making their additions the process is repeated to send it on to the next student in the group.  In contrast another online music creation product called Soundtrap is very similar to Soundation but goes one step farther by allowing students to share their creations directly with each other and sync those changes immediately with the press of a single button.  When synced the other student’s changes immediately become visible on the other student’s screen allowing for much faster and more effective collaboration.    

Soundtrap also provides some other interesting collaborative features that make it a strong alternative.  One of these is the ability to interactively collaborate with another user through a live video link during a work session.  Per Emmanuelson, co-founder and CEO of Sountrap points out that the video feature is so powerful that many teachers have begun to use it as an alternative to Skype and other video conferencing programs when teaching lessons due to the innovative way it handles multiple audio streams.  Where Skype will cut the sound from the instrument if someone is speaking on the mic, Soundtrap instead keeps both audio streams at full volume, making lessons or similar interactive sessions much more music friendly.

There are a few additional things to consider when having students create using online tools.  LoPresti warns that while a student can easily pick up and edit an assignment outside of class using a home PC, tablet, or other device, a potential area of concern is authenticity. Says LoPresti, "Online tools create a gap in which academic and musical integrity might be compromised, so you have to monitor things to be sure the music they are presenting represents their own work.”  There are rather simple ways to safeguard against this, however. Shazam is a helpful app for checking whether students are quoting a pre-existent song. She continues, “If a student shows up in class with something inconsistent with their other work, just ask the student to perform it in class or to explain the process. It will be obvious whether the music is their creation.”

Soundtrap and Soundation are just two of many different online music tools that can be used both in and out of the classroom.  Combine this with the various sharing capabilities mentioned and you can build many different interactive and collaborative music experiences for your students.  Try them out and take the first step toward turning your students from mere consumers of music into true composers of it.

Stronger Together

The beauty of web based, online music collaboration tools such as Soundation and Soundtrap is that they are readily available for students to use in and out of the classroom.  While the teacher may show them how to use the software during class in most cases both Warren and LoPresti agree that students seem to enjoy working outside of school on their creations while still being able to get constructive feedback from their peers and others in their home or community.  Warren in particular says that “these tools can provide greater access to both peer and teacher feedback and easily allow the sharing of one’s work either for pleasure or for a purpose.  A student’s work when done in this manner helps serve to showcase how the three musical processes of creating, performing, and responding to music can  make our music programs as a whole “stronger together.”

This article originally appeared in NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine.  It is reposted here with under agreement with NAfME by the original author.  


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