Thinking Outside the Music Box: Using Digital Tools to Teach Music and More

Arts and Humanities

Thinking Outside the Music Box: Using Digital Tools to Teach Music and More

By Amy Burns     Feb 18, 2017

Thinking Outside the Music Box: Using Digital Tools to Teach Music and More

Music unleashes creative powers in the classroom. Students learn to think beyond the parameters of passing an exam. They open up their brains to deeper critical thinking. And they learn that they can connect with one another through a single, common thread.

During my 20 years as a music teacher and band director at Far Hills Country Day School, a Pre-K through 8 independent school in Far Hills, New Jersey, I have had wonderful success integrating music across multiple curriculums, including history, math, science, writing, PE, art and world languages. Throughout these years, I have learned that integrating technology can be a great way to enhance music and cross-curricular activities because it is an amazing tool, especially when it comes to music creation and music composition for younger students.

Music Beyond Borders

With my third grade students, I integrate the study of America into our music class. This year, students were assigned states and asked to write an eight-measure melody corresponding to their assigned states. They added lyrics about that state to their melodies—creating their own state song—then we imported them into an online tool called Soundtrap, a cloud-based recording studio that lets students make music or audio recordings within an invited and secured group.

In our school, we use Chromebooks in grades three and up and iPads in grades PreK-2. Soundtrap works across multiple devices and operating systems, such as iOS, Android, Chromebook, Mac and Windows. I chose the app because I wanted the students to be able to work with one another on a variety of devices, which was challenging to do on other platforms I have tried, such as GarageBand.

Since adopting Soundtrap, my students have been able to collaborate on projects with their classmates, but also with students around the world. As a music teacher, I am always trying to connect my music class globally—a goal that can be more readily attainable through technology. My whole classroom is on Twitter, which is one way my students are learning beyond the walls of our school in New Jersey. By reaching outside the community, students gain an awareness of how big the world is, and that music is universal.

Digital Magic in the Cloud

Many music educators have commented to me that our students spend too much time staring at computer screens and that they do not need to do this in music class. I understand this concern, however, there is a difference between passive and active participation. Technology assists my music students in active musical creation. It also helps them tune into learning experiences that are meaningful, personal, and easy to access in their everyday lives. It is another musical tool that I can use to reach them.

Many of the second and third-graders I work with are very comfortable with touch screens and technology, and it’s natural for them to view and complete assignments in this format. Using our touch screen tools in class, I will show students a loop in Soundtrap and they can hear and identify the rhythm patterns and the instrumentation within the loops.

In the spring, when the third graders composed their melodies, I gave them different musical styles to create the accompaniment and they worked together in groups. It was thrilling to hear third-graders comment about the musical styles that would accompany their melodies. Would it be jazz, pop, rock, R&B or electronic dance music? They were making songs that they adored and taking ownership of them. It was remarkable to be a part of something that was so exciting for them.

Their conversations were fascinating. They were commenting on items like, “The drum beat is too much for our melody. Let’s go with a simpler drum beat.” They are clicking and dragging, listening, auditioning and analyzing numerous musical loops to create wonderful accompaniments to their melodies. They were also mixing the music to make sure that the melody is more prominent than the drum beat. This was very intuitive musicality for a class of seven-year-olds.

Engaging the ‘Other 80 Percent’

In high school, research shows that only 20 percent of students participate in band, orchestra and choral programs. But what about the other 80 percent? To spark interest in students who don’t have traditional music training or skills, educators can again look to technology.

This is where collaborative, easy-to-use tools like Soundtrap are again useful, as they provide openings for students to create music in ways that works for them. In the future, I plan to develop a class for eighth-graders that requires them to create a soundtrack to copyright-free movie clips. I have seen other schools offer this class and it is wildly popular.

In addition to introducing students to new music tools, my teaching philosophy involves introducing students to music at a very young age. Studies have shown from birth to age six is one of the most critical periods for a child’s musical growth—whether that be playing instruments, singing, composing or simply developing an appreciation of it. I am fortunate that I teach my students beginning at age three, in addition to a Mommy and Me music class where I work with kids as young as age one.

In my classroom, technology serves as a tool amongst many others that I use to teach music. I am an elementary music educator—my students sing, perform, play instruments, dance and compose. But I also use technology, and have seen it enhance their musical experiences.

Amy Burns (@awillis2) is a music teacher at Far Hills Country Day School in New Jersey.

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