Monday, February 7, 2011

Warning: The following post could change your musical life...

Back to happy thoughts for this week's bloggerama. Based on some of the comments from a few weeks ago, I started thinking about all the technologies I used when teaching private percussion lessons on a regular basis. Two examples are especially helpful, and I use them all the time - both in my own practicing, and when teaching.

First of all, if you record yourself practicing and then listen to the recording, you're practically "double dipping" in your practice time. It's the best possible way for you to improve on your own... everyone is their own worst critic, and we can hear our own flaws much easier when we're not worried about playing the darn thing. In preparation for auditions, I always record EVERYTHING, and then listen to it later. Hugely helpful, and puts the "improvement factor" on steroids. Extend this to teaching, and the same thing happens. Students hear the mistakes they're making (or the "stuff" that I keep harping on as their teacher) and realize what needs to be done to fix it. I also sometimes ask them to record their practicing so I can help them develop appropriate practice habits and help them use their practice time efficiently. It's always incredible how many students practice like crazy, but accomplish nothing because they don't know HOW to practice. Getting students to listen to their playing (when they're not busy actually playing the piece/etude/excerpt/etc) is key to their continued development. It gets them analyzing and critiquing their own performance, and it also starts them on the way to self-improvement without the constant need for a teacher. With my more advanced students, we play orchestral excerpts and then compare their recordings to mine, or their recordings to those from a professional orchestra, or mine to a professional orchestra. It's amazing what the students are able to hear, and then incorporate into their own playing. When one of my students has an audition on the horizon, I'll put together a "mock audition" for them and record it, so that they can listen back on their own time. Also, when dealing with a large ensemble rehearsal situation, I often record the rehearsal so I can listen back later, analyze what I didn't hear on the podium, and take steps to fix it up at the next rehearsal. To accomplish all these recording tasks, I use a (oh... free advertising) Zoom H2 series recorder. The thing is awesome... you can record anything in beautiful quality sound. It has two sets of xy microphones, allowing you to record in stereo... fantastic. You can also listen to yourself through the device as it has a playback feature, and supports SD cards up to 8GB in size. If you're a musician, or a teacher, buy one. Seriously.

The second thing I use, much in the same way as the Zoom recorder, is a Flip video recorder. It's small, easy to use, and you can easily watch the videos on the machine. Furthermore, it's very simple to hook it up to your computer, and watch the videos on a bigger screen, email them to students, etc. Same principle here as with the audio recorder, but it allows the students to SEE their hands, and then correct the problems they see. I've also used it when teaching students crash cymbals, as they can SEE how they're crashing, and correct any technical deficiencies. The Flip recorder connects directly to your computer, no cord needed, allowing you to quickly and efficiently watch the videos/save them for future lessons, etc. It should also be noted that Zoom just came out with a camera similar to the Flip recorder, that uses the same microphone set up as found in the H2 audio recorder. Might be worth checking out.

I love it when technology not only improves my own practicing and rehearsal efficiency, but also helps my students to improve as well. Seems to me this is the whole point of technology - it works, it's useful, and it allows us to do things never before possible. It's user friendly, not at all clumsy or cumbersome, and really does fulfill a purpose that would otherwise remain unrealistic.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I wonder how much bandwidth this post will take...

Usage based billing. These three words (or two, depending on whether or not you choose to hyphenate anything) should strike fear into the hearts of everyone who reads them. Imagine a world where internet companies are allowed to mess with your wallet the same way cell phone companies often do. Ladies and gentlemen... we have entered the realm of usage based billing. For those of you who haven't heard the news, as of early March internet providers are allowed to lower their limits for internet usage, and charge for excess usage much the same way that cell phone providers treat "minutes" and data plans. Again, for anyone with a cell phone, we all know how difficult "usage limits" can be on these devices. The only thing more irritating than "going over" your limit and having to pay, is having to keep minute-by-minute (or megabyte by megabyte as the case may be) track of your activities.

Sometimes I just want to watch one of my favourite TV shows online. Or check out a YouTube clip. Or research for a paper. Honestly, when doing any of these things, the last thing I need is to worry about how much "data" I'm using. Considering the amount of technology we're asked to use on a daily basis (in our courses, in our research, in our day-to-day lives, etc), it would be nearly impossible to impose self-restrictions on internet usage. The majority of things I do online simply have to get done (homework, teaching activities, etc). Of course, the internet companies must realize this (unless they're completely oblivious, which I sincerely doubt is the case) and as such figure that there's money to be made, and they're going to take advantage of the opportunity.

There are a few very serious implications stemming from this change on the horizon. First, how much data does a video take? How much data will I use to complete tasks as usual? Where do I find this information? Is it even POSSIBLE to find this information? Second, how is this funding alteration going to change how we're expected to teach? How will this widen the socio-economic gap between the kids who "have" and the kids who don't? Some families can't even afford computers (which have arguably become a standard piece of equipment for education today), so how are they supposed to deal with this additional potential cost? Further along these lines, this proposed change will forever alter the expectation for homework. Is it appropriate for teachers to expect students to use their family internet allowance (or their personal internet allowance) to complete mandatory school work? How will this impact the thoroughness of the assignment? Will students and families be reimbursed for this additional mandated cost? Will ALL students still have access to the resources and materials they need (videos, large files, etc) in order to complete their work? How will this change the way schools spend their money? Will teachers still be able to use the internet to teach their lessons? How will this impact the "smart board" revolution?

In my last blog entry, I spoke about how I use YouTube in my private drum lessons. I LOVE YouTube for teaching... it's a fantastic resource. However, depending on the video, it can "cost" a lot of data usage. Would my students lose the opportunity to see these videos as their lessons if my internet was limited? Considering the fact that I've got anywhere between 10 and 15 students at any given time, you bet. I doubt I would be able to give those students this kind of multimedia experience if I had to budget my data needs for research, course work, personal use, etc. Similarly, I'm not sure it would be appropriate for me to instruct my students to use their own personal internet for tasks that I assign, either in the classroom or as "practice" for my private students. The internet, as will many different technologies, has the potential to be an absolutely limitless resource... unless of course someone decides to limit it for personal financial gain.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Picture this: I'm sitting in a chair (somewhat comfortable, with black cushy stuff on my butt... but that's not really the point. Or is it? THE CHAIR IS TECHNOLOGY!!! But I digress...). From my quasi-comfortable perch on this chair, I'm watching a young student (13ish years old) being reduced to tears because he's having trouble with his bass drum foot. Yes, I'm teaching this lil' youngster drums, and for whatever reason he finds the pedal on the bass drum to be an insurmountable obstacle. So there I sit, with my padded butt, trying to decide how to best calm this little guy down. I figure we should do some foot exercises to build up his skills... so I grabbed a snare drum exercise book, my double kick bass drum pedal, and a can of Pepsi for good measure. We did snare drum exercises with our feet (I say "we", but really it was all him) until we had rebuilt some confidence. The student then asked me a curious question: "do professionals do this stuff too"?

Here's where the technology bit comes in. There was a time (not long ago) when I would say "yes" and that would be it. The student would have to take me at my word, with no proof whatsoever. In this case however, it was Dr. iPod to the rescue. I connected to the wireless connection in my house, pulled up YouTube, searched a gent named "Grant Collins" (who happens to be one of the most fantastic foot-artists behind the drums that I know of) and there he was on the screen, doing EXACTLY what we were doing. The video is of Collins performing a rudimental snare solo written by Wilcoxon (complete with rolls, drags, ornamentation, etc) ON HIS FEET! My student was blown away. Seeing as we had an extra 5 minutes left in our lesson, I pulled up another one of my favourite drummers. Akira Jimbo is an absolutely phenomenal musician who not only plays drum kit, but also has electronic triggers placed around his kit programmed to play different sounds. He programs these triggers to play different notes from the melodies of famous tunes (Mission Impossible and the James Bond theme are the two he performed on this particular video) and plays the whole darn thing - drums and all. Long story short, it's incredible. My student went home super inspired and excited. I can't wait to see what he comes back with next week (part of his "practice" was to find a drum video he thought was cool, and show me).

YouTube is a fantastic resource. You can pull up a visual example of virtually anything, at any time. Not only can you find professionals "doing their thing", but you can also find students who have posted videos of their own performances. This means that my students have access to both professional, and more "age appropriate" role models for their development. Often when I use a YouTube video of an amateur musician in my lessons, my student gets all fired up and committed to playing whatever it is better than the student they just saw. Healthy competition is fun to watch - and with serious performers it usually yields good results. Projectors in the band room provide teachers with an opportunity to get the best role models, from anywhere, doing virtually anything (playing instruments, orchestral performance, conductors, etc), at anytime, for free. People used to pay big bucks to get a group of professionals to perform in the school - now you can get them in your classroom on demand without spending a dime, provided we ignore the cost of the technology itself. Virtually everything we need for teaching is at our fingertips... we just need to know where to look.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

This is not a test...

Well, not to jump on the "remember that test?" train, but does anyone remember that test from last week? Yikes. For the uninitiated followers of our lovely blog experience, we received a test last week that really drove the following point home: tests can be seriously pointless. Actually, to take that one step further, a test is always an imperfect instrument. That is to say, there will ALWAYS be problems with any given test. If not for one student, then definitely for another. Even the wording on written assessments can be tricky. Last week on 92 CITI FM, they had a contest in the morning for Moose tickets. The DJ said that 72.something percent of the time, men controlled the TV remote, and asked if "it was higher or lower". Sorry DJ, I must have misheard you. Is WHAT higher or lower? The actual number? The number you just said? Depending on how you understand the question, the answer could be completely different. As it turns out, this phraseology caused so much confusion that the DJ ended up just giving the tickets away to the caller, rather than carry on.

This brings up the whole idea of "student driven learning". For example, the idea of "student learning projects" is an excellent one in terms of encouraging students to construct their own knowledge, and make meaning about something important and relevant to them. This idea also works well for assessment, as the student has the choice to demonstrate their learning in several ways, and as such is not restricted to an "cookie cutter" testing approach. The more I thought about this point over the last few days, the more I realized that technology can be an excellent tool for providing differentiation, accommodation, modification, adaptation, etc. Computers can read passages aloud, can allow people who are visually impaired a larger keyboard with which to type, and students who had difficulty speaking/handwriting to communicate their ideas just as effectively as their classmates.

If there's one thing we've had drilled into our heads, it's that "one-size-fits-all" is an excellent concept for hats and toques... not so much for teaching kids. A test like the one we experienced provides little or no room for differentiation, accommodation, modification, adaptation, or anything else that students might need in order to appropriately and reasonably display their learning, and operate at their full potential.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Technical challenges in the classroom... they're everywhere. If we didn't know that before our last class, we know now. Granted, it was a lot of fun watching such terrible, terrible presentations. Unfortunately, the reality is that students sometimes misuse technology in the course of their academic career. I have three personal "pet peeves" when it comes to technology use in the classroom:
  • technology that does nothing to add to the presentation/task at hand
  • students that fail to test their technology before they need it
  • students that choose to go for "flash" over a quality project
If the best method of delivery is a simple pen and paper, then that's what the student should use. It's annoying watching students type out their notes, and then format them to look and "feel" like they've been handwritten. Or when they use "handwritten" fonts. If you want it to be handwritten, then hand write it. It's like using a synthesizer instead of the actual acoustic instrument. If you've got the instrument available, and you play the instrument, and it's easier AND sounds better to play the actual instrument, why wouldn't you?

Absolutely nothing is more irritating than watching someone fiddle with technology, fail miserably, and then proceed to duff the remainder of their presentation or project. If your entire presentation depends on a working piece of technology, my suggestion would be to ensure that the technology is working properly. Would you attempt to write an exam with a pen that was out of ink? Doubtful. Would you go into a performance with a broken instrument? Also doubtful.

Finally, technology comes with many inherent benefits. Unfortunately, some students choose to exploit these benefits for all they're worth... even to the detriment of the assignment. I don't usually assign marks based on how many fonts I can see on the page, or how cool the "word art" is on the title page. I also don't usually give a grade based on the number and frequency of sound effects, slide transitions, flying letters, or flashing backgrounds. Quality over quantity, and brevity is the essence of wit. I am always more interested in what the student KNOWS and UNDERSTANDS, rather than what the student can DO with technology.

Technology can be a powerful tool in the classroom, and like every other tool available to our students, is best used to exemplify depth of thought and quality of expression. Technology is not designed to be a "smoke screen" to hide inferior work, nor is it a good idea to use technology at the expense of efficiency. Technology has great potential to assist students in making meaning and constructing knowledge, and should always be used with this in mind.