Turn Any Computer Lab into a Music Lab

Barbara Freedmanlessons, Music Technology Basics2 Comments

Originally published in the Connecticut Music Educators publication CMEA News April, 2010

For the last hundred years or so, K–12 music education in the United States has focused on reaching students with performance-based applied learning in band, orchestra and chorus classes, and in classroom general music. Applied learning in non-performance “general music” classes has been accomplished in the use recorders, ocarinas, harmonicas, Celtic harps, and guitars. When I taught in New York City, I used kazoos! Performance-based ensembles reach fewer than 20 percent of a school’s population (Figure 1) and traditional general music classes, frankly, just don’t cut it anymore. Students today, from elementary through high school, have access to sophisticated music equipment at home on their computers, video consoles, and even in their pockets on their mobile phones. To reach and engage more students, we need to embrace technology.

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Figure 1 he figures were omitted for this blog post

Source: http://musiccreativity.org/

When I started teaching music technology nine years ago, the technology was expensive, cumbersome, and difficult to learn. Digital audio workstations were a collection of computers, synthesizers, audio interfaces, and mixing boards arranged in a tangled web of wires and cables. Networking was a nightmare and I spent more time in a lesson troubleshooting problems, crashes, and lost files than I did working with students on music. Fortunately, times have changed. Today, computers are fast and efficient, software is free or inexpensive, connectivity is simple, and the possibilities for students are only limited by the imagination.

Fortunately, I now have a lab that is dedicated to the teaching music composition and music technology, outfitted with computers, music keyboards, and music software. Not every school is as fortunate. However, every school can easily and inexpensively accommodate a music technology lab if they already have computers.

A Word to the Technologically Faint of Heart

Teach music. The technology will follow. This has become my personal mantra and message to teachers and administrators who are hesitant about taking the plunge into technology. Today’s music software for creativity is so simple and easy to use. A music teacher, even the most technologically challenged, can learn in just a few hours the most sophisticated functions in the software suggested in this article “soup to nuts.”

The Computers

Find the computers. If you can, get your own computers. I heard of a district that wrote a grant for their music technology class by categorizing it as a vocational subject (which it is but that’s a topic for another article!). It doesn’t matter if you have Windows or Apple computers, desktops or laptops, any computer will do. If you can’t purchase computers for your own classroom, does your school Library or Media Center have a computer lab? Is there a lab used by another class in the building? Maybe there are laptops on carts? You don’t even need one computer per student, although it’s preferable especially for high school.

The Software

GarageBand (Figure 2) is the entry-level music software from Apple. It is part of Apple’s iLife package, which is free and already loaded onto the hard drive when you purchase an Apple computer. Future upgrades are inexpensive and are available at discounts to schools as site licenses. You can upgrade all the iLife software in your entire building at one low price! InGarageBand, not only can students create music, print music in notation, edit audio, add music to video, create podcasts or vodcasts, but also, in the latest edition, includes free piano and guitar lessons!

Figure 2

Source: http://www.apple.com/ilife/garageband/

Window PCs don’t come packaged with music software, but you have several choices from third party vendors. My personal choice, which is the most comparable to Apple’s GarageBand and just as easy to use, is Acoustica’s Mixcraft (Figure 3). The latest edition, Mixcraft 5, comes with more sounds and editing capabilities than in previous versions and has the ability to print music notation and create music for video. Individual copies of Mixcraft 5 cost about $75.00. Educational discounts and site licenses are available.

Figure 3

Source: http://www.acoustica.com/mixcraft/

Musical Input

Both GarageBand and Mixcraft software programs allow you to enter music by drawing it in using the mouse (step entry) or playing it in (real time entry) by using the computer QWERTY keyboard (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The Musical Typing Screen in Apple’s GarageBand

This computer display will do if you have to use it but there are more creative devices available that are fun and friendly for young students and those with disabilities. There are too many input devices available to list in this article. Some simulate drums or drum pads and you can even use a Guitar Hero USB guitar or Wii remote. For those of you or your students who are more advanced and adventurous, go to http://www.eamir.org/

For the most part, I want my students to play music on some device that simulates an instrument. A piano keyboard has many advantages and is my personal preference. Four- to five-octave keyboards with full-size or near-full-size keys are recommended if you have your own classroom. If you are using laptops or using a lab that is shared by other classes, you’ll need keyboards that are portable, durable, and quick and easy to set up. Just recently, Korg came out with a small two-octave keyboard called the nanoKey. It is a great two-octave keyboard that is lightweight and small. It is the length of a laptop and no wider than the computer’s keyboard. Don’t let plastic construction fool you. Korg has been making keyboards for many years and this baby is durable! The best part is that it is inexpensive and easy to use. You can purchase one for less than fifty dollars and all you have to do is plug it into the computer using the included USB cable and it is ready to go with either on Windows or Apple using GarageBand or Mixcraft. Get several of these, throw them and the USB cables into an attaché-style case and lock them up in a closet, ready to take out and hand out to students as they arrive in class. For my review of the Korg nanoKey, go to: http://musicedtech.wordpress.com/?s=nanokey

Figure 5: Korg’s nanoKey

Source: http://www.soundtree.com/

The Extras

The only extras required are headphones. Some teachers tell students they need to supply their own headphones. Usually, students use the headphones they already use to listen to music. Often school libraries or Media Centers will have headphones that they distribute to students when needed. I supply headphones to my students. You can purchase headphones in a range of prices from $5.00, $40.00, to $100.00 or more. After years of testing and trying headphones, I have found that an investment in a solid, quality headphone pays off in the long run. I use Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones. They are not inexpensive headphones. They can be purchased for about $90.00 each. What I have found is that they are good-sounding headphones, comfortable to wear, easily adjustable for all head sizes, and extremely durable. In the past, I purchased headphones for around $40.00 a pair and would replace about ten of them every year. I have been using the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones for three years and have never had to replace a broken pair, with six to eight students using them everyday for three years.

Figure 6: Sennheiser HD 280 Pro on a self-adhisive plastic hook

You might also want to consider having sanitizing wipes and disinfectant gel available so students can wipe down the computers, mice, and headphones, and clean their hands.

If you are going to be in the same lab every class with desktop computers, I do recommend a few things to make it easier to use the lab and keep everything neat and in good working condition. First and foremost, it’s a good idea to have plenty of three-inch nylon zip ties. They can be used to keep cables neat and help to prevent things like headphones, mice, and other small items from “walking away.” If you are going to keep the headphones out, you can put a little plastic hook on the stand to keep them out of sight when not in use. I would also zip tie them to a computer cable. Constantly plugging and unplugging headphones or splitters into a computer can wear on the computer’s audio jack. Since the little headphone jack in the computer is just made of plastic, it’s a good idea to plug a splitter into them so headphones can be plugged and unplugged into the splitter not the computer. Using a splitter also allows the teacher or a second student to plug into the same computer. If students need to share computers, splitters are essential. It’s best to leave them in the computer. Replacing the little headphone jack in the computer is more expensive and complex than it appears. An investment in a $4.00 splitter will save everyone money and heartache. You can hide the splitter in the back and make the input ends more accessible by using a little self-adhesive cable clip. The clip, hook, and zip ties can be purchased at any warehouse style hardware/home improvement store. The splitter can be purchased through your favorite music equipment retailer or local music store. (See samples below.)

Although teaching music using technology may be new to some schools and some teachers, it has been around for a very long time. My school has offered a music technology class as the general-music class continually since 1968. Using technology to teach music is fun and engaging for students. It can serve the more than 80 percent of students who do not participate in performing ensembles. It teaches Twenty-First Century and critical listening skills. It’s here. It’s here to stay, and schools around the country, elementary through university, use technology to teach music more than ever before. It has never been easier and more cost effective to teach music with technology.