Music technology for pedagoy

11 Jan in Education, music, music education, Music Technology

During my Undergraduate degree music ed majors were required each semester to take an instrument class. At first I thought the idea was great. I would choose an instrument that I had no previous experience with and learn the basics in that instrument, maybe pick up a new instrument along the way. In reality I didn't like the classes at all for a few reasons. First my school had the grand idea that you learn theses instruments with the intent to be "prepared" to teach these instruments to beginning students. I was vocal major and I knew that no matter how well I might learn any one of these instruments I would be doing a disservice to the student if I tried to teach them an instrument based upon 1 semester's dealings. In short, I was never going to teach any of these instruments especially since my focus was on voice. A second reason why I didn't like them was because they took up too much time. I believe they were worth 1 credit, but often had a practice time requirement in the ball park of 5 hours a week plus other homework. Most semesters I had no fewer than 16 and possibly up to 18 credit hours not to mention 13-15 hours a week in voice practice making time for a 1 credit instrument class wasn't a priority. But my final reason for not liking them was that I just wasn't that good. Don't get me wrong I was very accomplished at my own instrument (Tuba/Euphonium) and of course at voice, but for some reason learning these new instruments yielded little advancement. At the time I was too busy to figure out why.

After grad school a craze in gaming came up, Guitar Hero. I was on the list of people who thought very little of the entire rhythm based, "fake instrument" game craze. I figured if you aren't good enough to learn the real thing than step aside. When my wife and I finally got settled a good friend of ours, an accomplished guitarist, owned and loved the games. He had us over for a party and I fell in love with it and so did my wife. It would be two years later that we finally purchased the game ourselves (Rock Band). Aside from the fact we loved the game we also just wanted to get better, "practice" if you will. In all the times before I really only accomplished mastery of the medium level. This is alright given the few times I played it, but hard is when you really start moving around on the guitar. The first time we played I left the defaults on and started playing. I moved from medium to hard pretty fast, but when I first started hard I was maddened by how often and frequently I "failed." Fortunately Rock Band 2 has a "no fail" mode. This was when the "practice" really started to happen. My wife, a non-musician, and I quickly moved up a level and soon after that moved up one more level. Before a month was over we went from easy/medium to hard/expert. It was at this point I stopped to ponder. While Guitar Hero and Rock Band certainly aren't "real" instruments the mechanics are still the same just in a slightly dumbed down manner. In other words, you are still playing the idea of an instrument, it may not be a real guitar, but it is an instrument in its own way. Also there was a real and quantifiable improvement in little less than a month. I started to think back on all of my failed attempts to learn an instrument before. I realized why I had failed in just about every instrument class during undergrad. I needed the "no fail" mode. Teachers constantly told me to, "keep playing, don't slow down." Even if I messed up the idea was to keep moving forward with the music and eventually everything will come together.

This is precisely the way I learned the Tuba and Euphonium, but by the time I was an adult I forgot about the rough patches. I forgot about the sour notes, or being completely lost in band practice. Instead I was trying to learn the instrument like an adult. I demanded perfection. No sour notes were allowed so I would slow my rhythm down to dragging speeds so I could hit every note correctly. When even that didn't work I would get frustrated and quit. What does that have to do with Rock Band? Suddenly I had a game with little more reward than bragging rights on a fake instrument. But I was determined to learn it. The game had everything built in for me to succeed. I couldn't slow down the tempo so every sour note was recorded, but with no fail I couldn't get frustrated. The rest was with the game keeping track of how well I performed, my goal was to stay 90% or better. The first time I would play a song on hard I may only get 70% accuracy, but that drove me to do it again and again. Now my hands move with just the proper dexterity. It actually feels pretty good playing a song on expert level. If only I had learned this lesson back in undergrad.

Now, of course, Rock Band really isn't about music pedagogy. It really isn't for learning much of anything. It was designed just for fun and probably to make some money. But whether purposefully or not, whether knowingly or not they created the basics for what could be groundbreaking resources in music education/pedagogy. An area only recently being explored, and an area I'd very much like to get into. Take this latest example from You Rock Guitar. They basically take the same concept and add real strings to the instrument. The instrument actually can stand alone as a good pedagogical tool as you can see in the video below he uses it to learn scales, improv, and general chords. It is also a midi instrument which means that you can plug it right into Garage Band or any other music program that allows midi input.

I see this as one of the great advancements of the 21st century. Tim O'Reilly marks a recent trend in DIY (Do It Yourself) and has been moving his company, my employer, in that direction with the "Maker Movement." I am part of this movement. Not so much in making gadgets, but in piecing together my current career. Until recently I had no formal training in computers at all. It started with a magazine and a few years later here I am. A classmate of mine at Boston University is a completely self taught musician. People are starting to take the reins themselves and learn things outside the realm of formal education. Unfortunately, the music landscape is hit or miss. Until recently there wasn't much short of a few youtube videos. Now there are whole video sets you can purchase through iTunes. Video is great, but a huge advancement would be to take advantage of what technology allows. To build upon computer technology to accomplish real advancements in music education/pedagogy, much like You Rock Guitar does. My purpose statement is to make music fun and accessible while educating through technology. We seem to be at the beginning of change in this area. It is exciting to watch.