Ed Tech Hits Right Note for Teaching Students About Music

With schools cutting back on musical education, online courses offer young students a viable option to learn how to play, sing or create music. But more must be done to give underprivileged students the same opportunity.

by / May 10, 2019

Music first became important to me when I was a middle school kid and discovered I liked to sing. Later, when I learned to play guitar, singing and playing became mainstays of my life. But aside from singing in school ensembles (where I was able to fake my way through reading music), I’ve never had any formal music training and am mostly self-taught. But now with YouTube and online music instruction sites, we musicians — professional, aspirational and of all ages — have access to a huge array of resources to up our game.

On their own, young people are definitely tapping into these sites to learn, create and share music. And it’s helping many of them find the musical inspiration they need. I’ve written here previously about some of the impacts digital tools are having on K-12 visual art instruction. Young artists are finding online resources to help them learn and share — and the same is true with young musicians. They’re mostly doing this outside of school.

Recognizing how schools’ traditional music programs are missing the needs of many students, some inspired teachers wanting to bridge that gap have embraced digital tools in their classrooms.

In a 2018 Education Week article, a Georgia elementary music teacher describes how his students use iPads to record, arrange and mix original songs using Apple’s GarageBand app, and how his kids are not just performers, they’re also creators.

I believe it’s this creation aspect that’s most empowering for young people. I understand the complaint that digital musical tools — synthesizers, music sampling and the like — allow players to take shortcuts and not really develop their chops on an instrument. However, these tools are also helping kids who might not otherwise find inroads to making music, allowing them to approach and appreciate music in different ways. That’s got to be a good thing.

For young people wanting to learn to play a musical instrument — or learn composition, production, songwriting or other music skills — from a teacher to whom they otherwise might not have access, online courses are filling a void.

From The Hechinger Report, I learned of a panel discussion held at the recent ASU GSV X Summit in San Diego. The session, "Striking the Right Note — The Democratization of Music Learning," brought together three individuals representing different players in the online music instruction world: Berklee College of Music, TakeLessons.com, and Appassio.

The panelists outlined the ways they’re each approaching the needs of their focus audiences. Their three methods are good examples of how the online music instruction world is shaping up for learners at various skill levels looking for either group or private instruction, and at a range of costs.

The Berklee College of Music, a prestigious Boston-based institution with a jazz and contemporary music focus, has gone into virtual courses in a big way with their Berklee Online program serving over 10,000 students. Berklee has a range of offerings, from free YouTube instructional videos and MOOCs (massive open online course) for fledgling students, to full bachelor and master degree programs for those with the skills, drive and funds.

Aimed primarily at beginners, TakeLessons.com offers both private music lessons with online instructors (and face-to-face lessons in some locales) as well as small real-time live group instruction. One-to-one online instruction fees vary based on the instructor and the length and number of sessions purchased. For $20 per month a student can participate in an instructor-led group class.

Appassio.com is a European-based company started by a classical pianist that pairs teachers with interested students for private online music and art instruction at rates set by the teachers.

With these and the many other online opportunities available to young people outside of school, the question becomes how schools can leverage these resources to help their students. Individual music lessons provide the best of personalized learning with teachers giving students instruction, feedback and encouragement. However, few schools have the resources to offer such one-on-one lessons for their students.

Middle- and upper-income families have been able to provide their kids with private music lessons, but families in lower socio-economic strata have not. Even if the lessons are free or inexpensive, these same families may not have adequate Internet access, devices or musical instruments needed for their kids to take online music classes.

It would therefore be interesting to see how schools could partner with a provider like TakeLessons.com, help kids get access to musical instruments, and offer up time during the school day or in afterschool sessions to get students tapped into music instruction of their own choosing.

School music classes remain a valuable asset to students. But some schools are either cutting back on these programs or stretching their teachers too thin to have any real impact. And in middle and high school, when music becomes an elective course, traditional music classes aren’t matching the interests of many students. So the opportunities presented by online instruction, especially if leveraged and supported by schools, have the potential to teach and inspire a new generation of young musicians.

Kipp Bentley Contributing Writer

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a classroom teacher, librarian and ed tech director and currently consults, writes and weaves in Santa Fe, N.M.

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