Learning Music Technology through technology; now and into the future…

Lockdown has rapidly reframed the way we are teaching and interacting with pupils. In this helpful blog for fellow teachers, AS Music Teacher and current Listen Imagine Compose masters student Nick Hughes outlines some practical tips for using music technology to manage remote learning, as well as suggestions for free software to get you started.

The sudden arrival of remote learning during the COVID-19 lockdown has been the very definition of the word ‘challenging’. For music teachers who teach music in, with, and through music, we have our own uniquely distinct challenges. My initial concern upon the school closures being announced was, unsurprisingly given the Ofsted focus, for the curriculum. We couldn’t teach what we normally would have, because how could we ‘teach’ them anyway? Thoughts then turned to building upon what had already been taught (retrieval), so as to cement musical ideas using some of the aesthetics that had already been taught. Using online sequencers, such as Soundation, has been really helpful for KS3 musicians, along with body percussion tasks and some great ideas from Icancompose.com (thanks, Rachel!).

For GCSE and A-level groups we have been using visualisers, white paper, scores and sharpies to record videos to aid direct instruction (teaching). Some examples are:

  • Score analysis
  • Phasing during recording
  • Pre and post-fade auxiliaries
  • Recording Electric-guitar and mixing

We have also recorded videos using screen-share and have talked through subjects such as:

  • Model answers to questions
  • Talking through music whilst it plays on Spotify (other streaming services are available, and pay artists more)
  • Screen-sharing Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) sessions, etc…

No, it’s not perfect, but at least the students can receive some teaching and learn new things.

We have also been sharing different online videos and articles to supplement and support this work. The more a person can hear the same thing explained differently, the better. Checking for understanding through carefully worded multiple-choice question quizzes is proving a quick and useful aid in these times without classroom questioning. The want to mark every piece of work that is ‘handed in’ by class-loads of children every day has become overwhelming. Whole class feedback helps alleviate this marking deluge by videoing, screen-sharing and modelling, so you don’t have to mark every piece of work that lands in your inbox every day.

Students using DAW software at home, whether through cloud-based, free downloads or mobile-based apps such as ‘Garageband’, has been invaluable during lockdown and has led me to reflect on how I’m presenting work to students in the current climate, and also in the future in the classroom. Teaching the aesthetics of the software and teaching music, which one comes first? Learning how to use software is important, as many music teachers unfamiliar with using DAWs will confirm, I’m sure. Trying to introduce a new ‘musical’ idea into the mix at the same time can be problematic, however, particularly with a large class. Preceding this requires some form of taught musical element; whether that’s keyboard skills with single notes, or chords I and V. Using this previously learnt musical ‘knowledge’ ensures that students can learn the aesthetic/Graphical User Interface (GUI) of the software.

Examples could be:

  • Playing in chords (that they already know) on a MIDI keyboard and learning how to record in, trim regions, copy and paste, quantise etc.
  • How to ‘click in’ a drum beat (that they already know how to notate) and transferring that staff notation on to a sequencer grid ‘notation’.

The DAW is no different to any musical instrument; you need to know how to make different sounds from it before you can be musical with it. A musical instrument is a tool to make music with and a DAW is no different. In the school where I teach we make explicit use of recreating existing pieces of music using software. This can include:

  • Inputting anonymous melodies into notation software to ‘discover’ what melodies they are.
  • Recreating basic pop song intros using either notation as a starting point, or simply, aurally, in a DAW.

We are teaching the students to learn how to ‘play’ the software by giving them existing ‘repertoire’. One could draw a parallel with graded instrumental music exams; students learn to follow the ‘map’ of the musical notation to learn technique and, ultimately, to express themselves musically on that instrument. Indeed, RSL Awards have created a Production syllabus in the same vein as instrumental, graded exams.

Learning to use a DAW is no different to learning another musical instrument – it requires lots of practice. As classroom teachers we can scaffold this practice so that each technique builds upon the next in a suitably flexible, elasticated and reactive curriculum.

The lockdown has forced some students to access free DAW software and engage in creativity at home where previously they perhaps would not have. The flexibility afforded by learning at home might actually lend itself to more creative output with this access. On reflection, and purely from an overall teaching perspective, the lockdown has brought home the value of verbal feedback and formative assessment in a classroom, and the difficulty of relaying and interpreting written feedback. As a profession, we cannot keep putting written feedback on a pedestal above everyday, formative, verbal communication between teacher and student. My hope is that the ‘new normal’ for education will prompt us to react to many of the realisations learnt during these troubled times.

Free and online Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs)

Software to download:

Cakewalk by Bandlab (Windows only)
This DAW was formerly known as Sonar and is a fully-functioning DAW. Through the ‘Bandlab assistant’ there are access to thousands of samples and loops. It has a full suite of plug-ins to EQ, compress and apply effects to your work. You will need to create an account to download the software, but otherwise it is completely free!

Garageband by Apple (iOS and Apple only)
Not to be overlooked for its ability to create professional mixes (even professionals use it!), the familiar stalwart of iphones and ipads is also available in a desktop mode. If a student has an iphone, and 49.25% of people do, then this is the perfect fit. With its intuitive design and plethora of tutorials on YouTube, this could be the app of choice for most. It is readily available on the Appstore.

Pro-Tools First (Mac and Windows)
The ‘industry standard’ for recording is available in a reduced manner for free. It is limited to just 16 audio tracks and 16 instrumental (MIDI) tracks but it comes with 20 effects and a bank of samples and loops.

PreSonus Studio One (Mac and Windows)
Similar to Pro-Tools First, Studio One is a reduced version limited to only 10 effects but it allows unlimited tracks to leave creativity no bounds. PreSonus have created 20 video tutorials on how to get started with this software, so there’s always help available if you get stuck.

It is worth noting that the following DAWs also have extended trial periods at the moment too: Reaper, Cubase, Logic Pro and Ableton Live.

Cloud-based DAWs:

You don’t need to download gigabytes of software to use this because the DAW is hosted on a webpage. The app is also available for iOS and Android. It has a 12 track limit but you can record in your own sounds and it also has an extensive library of loops and samples which is always being updated. A great and simple way to get creative. Users will need to create a Bandlab account.

Similar to Bandlab, you will need to create an account with Soundation. It is not optimised for use on mobile devices so is best used on Chrome on a laptop or desktop machine. It has a big library of loops, samples and some rudimentary synthesisers and MIDI tracks to click your own notes into.

Chrome Music Lab / Chrome Music Lab Song Maker
This isn’t a DAW but has been a great tool for us at KS3 during lockdown. Students don’t need to create an account and they can access this from any device that has an internet browser. We have been using the ‘Songmaker’ function by sending them a template that we make of a famous melody. They are then asked to complete the melody by ear. Once completed, they then send the link of what they have done to their teacher for feedback. Simple and effective.

Abletons’ Learning Music / Learning Synths
This is a superb website by Ableton that teaches children about the basics of rhythm, melody, chords, scales and structure. It’s heavily based around popular music but it is an excellent ‘playground’ for students to really get lost in. It is highly interactive with links to built-in sequencers, pattern players and links to famous songs via YouTube embeds. This is one of my favourite tasks to set for cover lessons when I’m absent. There is also a synthesis site too which is also fabulous.