Teaching with Technology: Making the Most of Current Curricula

Submitted by Paula McLaughlin, B. Mus., M. Ed. ARCT

How It All Began

I had been teaching private piano for over 15 years, with the credentials I needed in music and education, and felt quite satisfied that I was doing a “good job”. My students were making progress, passing exams, succeeding in performances, and returning year after year to lessons. However, I felt a growing sense of frustration with the traditional format of private lessons. There was never enough time to cover all the bases of repertoire, theory, technique, sight-reading, and ear training, not to mention time for creativity, composition, and history! I would have to put some things off at every lesson, and hope to achieve a balance for the students over a series of lessons. Eventually, I reached a turning point, when I had a long waiting list, no new openings, and a young family, so I didn’t want to be working late into the evenings.

I had a conversation about this with my brother, a very creative thinker, and he suggested a new format: he said, “when you visit the dentist, you don’t just see the dentist – you sit in the X-ray chair, then the hygienist’s chair, and then perhaps have a treatment from the dentist. Why can’t you teach piano like that?” Well! This really got me thinking, and looking over the space in my house and studio. After a whole summer of planning, preparation, and not a little trepidation, I proposed this new method to my students and parents, asking them to have faith in something completely different. Thankfully, they all came along for the ride, and I was now invested into an approach that radically changed my teaching – and for the better, as it turned out. That was 15 years ago now.

My studio today is comprised of three adjoining rooms, in which three students within an hour’s lesson spend the three components of their learning experience. They arrive as a small group and immediately split up to start at a different “station” and then rotate every 20 minutes. One room is for repertoire, where I work with one student on their pieces, interpretation, polishing, etc. A second room is for my teaching assistant, a high school student advanced in piano, who is supervising the practice of scales, technique, ear training and sight -reading. The program is set for each student individually, so he/she is working at his/her own pace. We follow the RCM guidelines for grade levels, so that all the requirements for exams are being met as well. Then, when a student is ready and willing to take an exam, we have a very clear indication of where they are. We also have an assessment every four weeks, to give feedback on progress, areas of success and challenges.

As many of my students return year after year, some eventually become advanced and are interested in teaching. Having this format for lessons allows me to give them an opportunity to use their skills and knowledge, as my technique assistants. They then become excellent role models for the younger students, and will often remark that the teaching of technique leads to their own improvement and understanding.

In a third room, and this is where the technology really happens, I have a station with a computer, as well as a hybrid piano/integrated Windows based computer with a touch-screen. On this piano, students are able to play a wide variety of games focusing on theory, composition and recording, music history, composer stories, sight -reading, and ear training. I can tailor the game or program to suit each student within a few seconds of switching games or levels. The objective is to make the experience meaningful, and making learning connections. These games are interactive, very appealing, and highly sophisticated, and take the place of theory with pencil and paper very effectively. Of course, the time flies for the students at this station, as they are fully engaged visually, aurally, and intellectually.

Thus, the hour’s lesson passes very swiftly, with no time to be bored or distracted! Students often comment, “Are we finished already?” With 20 minutes of full focus at each station, their attention is held, and their learning has been directed in three different ways. For myself, I am satisfied to have provided each student with everything that I know is important to music learning, at every weekly lesson. There is also a way of reaching all kinds of learners: visual, aural, and kinesthetic. In addition, every fourth week is a “performance class”, in which the students do not rotate around the stations, but rather stay together as a small group. This is our opportunity to work on performance etiquette, play some theory games, review concepts, and learn some new concepts together. It is a nice change of pace, and the students really enjoy the cooperative atmosphere of learning, and playing, together. This method is most suited to students in their first four or five years of piano, after which time the foundation has been laid, and they are ready for a private lesson and more time on repertoire.

Not insignificant is the fact that parents can leave their children at their lesson for a full hour, meaning that they can accomplish something else, rather than waiting for 30 minutes. The small group lessons are the same fees as a private ½ hour, which makes it a good value for parents, as well as an increase in my income by 1/3, as I have three students per hour rather than two. This allows me to pay my assistants and purchase new equipment and games as needed. In short, it is a win/win/win situation!

Advantages of Technology in Teaching Piano

Some of the advantages have been alluded to above, but I will expand on them, as there are many! I have found this method of teaching to be very efficient, in which I am able to focus on the musical development of students’ playing and interpretation. I know that their time with my assistant will take good care of the technical, aural and rhythmic understandings. And of course, these same factors are inherent in every piece of music they play, so I am well aware of their challenges and progress, in their repertoire.

In the computer station, I know that the students are progressing through the fundamentals of theory at their lessons, without needing to take home a workbook, to be corrected after the fact. With the interactive nature of the computer programs, if a student is struggling with any aspect of learning, the game allows enough repetitions and restarts in order to succeed before moving ahead. There are so many different games and programs available, that I can choose whatever is appropriate for any particular student’s need. If they are strong at reading, but need to develop listening skills, there are games for that. If the opposite is true, there are excellent games for sight- reading and note spelling. I can provide opportunities to create and compose at the lesson, where students can “save” their work in a computer file. With certain programs, even before students are ready to notate a musical idea, they can play and record, to have it aurally first. This particular area of composition can become a real obstacle, especially for young students who do not necessarily have the knowledge of traditional notation, but are full of wonderful, musical ideas! I have been awestruck by some of the recordings that have been made here in the studio, by allowing students the freedom and time to be creative, without a lot of hindrance. I often find that students begin lessons with a wonderful enthusiasm to “make music”, and because of time constraints, expectations from parents, and curriculum pressure from the teacher, this initial excitement wanes and/or disappears. Naturally, our role is to encourage creativity, but we also have the job of teaching the written language of music, as well as keyboard skills. So we tend to push this area into the shadows, in favour of other objectives. This was true of my own teaching, which was another reason why I sought to improve the lessons and allow actual lesson time for students to exercise their creativity.

Students now are so familiar with technology; it is a natural language to them. This makes it easy to introduce the skills associated with games and programs I have in the studio. The touch screen, similar to the “i-pad”, is second nature to most children, as is the interactive feature of the programs. They are quick and ready to learn any new skills, without fear of failure, which we have had to overcome in our own learning of technology. I will usually take some time in performance class to introduce a new game or program, and it is often true that students can show me a feature or two I wasn’t aware of. Rather than being the “expert”, I am a learner too, and this is a means of connecting with students, as we go down the technology path together.

I will name a few of the specific games and programs I am using, which I have chosen for their appeal, educational value, and ease of use for young learners and pre-readers. Music Ace 1 and 2 (Harmonic Vision) are favourites, with a series of lessons that go from brand-new beginner to writing all 24 major scales. There are many ear training and sight reading lessons within these large programs. As well, a keyboard is helpful but not required to use these programs. Groovy Music (Sibelius) is a two-part set, with Groovy Jungle and Groovy City as separate games, similar to Garageband. The visual appeal is very high, as students choose, drop and drag musical sound bites into the backdrop of either a deep jungle or a cityscape. The concepts of high/low, tempo, texture, timbre, instrumentation, and form are all used as students create a story line both vertically and horizontally. Music Conservatory (Voyetra) is a more sophisticated program for older learners, and features music history, stories of composers, theory, harmony and rhythm concepts and more. The Alfred’s series of Music Theory Games is well designed, and parallels the music concepts in the first three or four books. Students enjoy the visuals of frogs, bugs, and birds in achieving levels of learning note names, music terms, intervallic relationships, and rhythm patterns. Alfred’s Essentials of Music Theory is excellent for students who are ready for a more traditional form of theory and enjoy progressing through the lessons in notation, scales and key signatures, intervals, etc. The above can also be played without a keyboard. I am constantly on the lookout for new, innovative programs, and there are always new developments to keep it interesting!

Distance Learning is Now a Reality

Distance education is a new area I am now stepping into, through technology. I have a student in Bend, Oregon, who is not only learning by distance, but is home schooled, with a number of learning challenges. This has made for some very interesting and challenging lessons. Not his real name, Owen and I “meet” every week on Facetime, on the iPad, at a set time. I use the two-way camera to work with him in real time. I have found that it is very effective, and very similar to a face-to-face lesson. We look at the same page in the lesson book, I show him my hands on the keyboard, play the pieces for him to hear, and watch and listen to him just as if he were here beside me. We have worked together through an entire beginner’s lesson book over a few months, and have gone on to supplementary pieces as well. Owen has progressed to playing with two hands, which makes it necessary for me to play with both my hands, rather

than holding the ipad with one hand while playing. I have purchased an adjustable boom/stand, which allows me to clip the ipad in place and position it overhead, like a cooking show demonstration! Once I have helped Owen through a new piece, I will record the teacher’s accompaniment on my ipad, and send it to him via email or soundcloud. Then, his mom can film him playing along with my recording, as a duet, and send it back to me! I find that Owen is very attentive to the lessons, even with his learning challenges, as the technology makes it interesting for him. Maybe I seem like something of a video game at his end! The main thing is that it is working, and I have found success with a student far away. As we continue to progress, I can scan new music and send that along, then follow up at the video-lesson. Without technology, Owen and I could not work together in this way. The ramifications for this use of technology are far-reaching; one day, I can imagine myself teaching individuals or groups by the same means.

I also teach a number of guitar students, combining vocal training with chord playing and popular repertoire. The ipad has been a great advantage with these lessons as well. I can quickly refer to a Youtube clip, to introduce students to the new songs they want to play. Listening first is a very important start to guitar, so this provides the students with a rich instrumental version of the songs. There are several free “apps” that are extremely useful as well, such as a tuning app, chord shapes, and timbre adjustments for different playing styles. Not least are the many websites used to search for chords, tablature and lyrics. These are my “music library” for new pop songs, many of which may not yet be available in print. It makes the guitar lesson a fun exploration together with the student.

Challenges are an Expected Part of Technology

Over the 15 years of using technology in my studio, I have encountered challenges along the way, but none that have been daunting enough to stop me.

One challenge that most of us have faced at some time or another, is when a computer crashes, leaving us feeling like we’re out to sea without a life preserver! Usually I can reboot or restart when a program “freezes,” and carry on, or when necessary, having a good computer technician is a great asset! Students have all experienced these situations themselves, so they aren’t too thrown off. I have had to advise all my students about caring for the computers, proper use of the components, etc., and if all else fails, I can provide some written materials to use their time on. This is a rare, almost never occurring, situation. One of my best backup plans is a second piano, a digital piano with headphones. So if the computer lets me down, the students can come and practise on the digital piano, using the headphones, so no one is distracted, and lesson time is well spent.

A challenge I am facing with distance lessons is to provide appropriate materials during lesson time. It is a wonderful advantage to have a large music library at my fingertips, when I am seeking a new piece, a technical study, or other music. During the ipad lesson, I am limited somewhat to the materials in front of me, and cannot break the lesson to search for something else. This is not a big problem, however, and right after the lesson, I can do the searching, the scanning, and the sending, if I want to give Owen something new to do outside of his regular book.

The biggest challenge I face on a daily basis is that of being highly organized to keep these lessons running smoothly. Every teacher understands the importance of a big picture plan, and keeping materials organized and ready for use. I just have to think beyond the weekly needs, and set up a longer time line. This is for the technique station, where I want to have appropriate resources for my assistants, and for the students to be following a track for their individual progress. It seems that when they understand the track they are on, they are more willing to follow it and strive to accomplish each goal. I must also be constantly aware of the passage of time; even with a full hour for lessons, the time flies at each station. I want to ensure that all three students are given equal amounts of time for each of the three rooms. It would be easy to continue on with the student I have at the moment, but I have to allow them to experience each part of their lesson, beyond the repertoire time. I know that in a typical 30 minute lesson, only about 20 minutes could be devoted to repertoire, and the rest of the time would have to be used for “all the rest”. I find that if I keep my plans and materials organized and ahead of the students, this reduces stress, discouragement, and distraction. We all know what we’re doing, and where we’re going next, while allowing for unexpected surprises and discoveries!

Other Uses of Technology in Teaching

I am now a proud owner of a website: www.tonalitystudio.com (which I built myself – it wasn’t as hard as I thought!) and a Facebook account, to feature recordings, photos, and notices about my students and my studio. We are all aware of the social media that drive our society and popular culture, and it behooves us as teachers to stay current and know what’s happening out there in our students’ world. I still remember using cassette tapes to record students and lessons, so it has been a long road for me! But I am much happier to be in the flow of this current, than to be standing on the shore, watching the flow and afraid to “jump in”. I encourage all teachers to “take the plunge”, use the technology that is available and appropriate, and then find out how it enhances, challenges, and energizes our teaching practise!