ADE Institute 2016

In July I was very fortunate to attend and present at the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute in Berlin.  This was a gathering of just under 400 teachers from around the world who actively push the boundaries to develop innovative teaching techniques.

This is my second Institute and like the first, it was one of the most inspirational weeks of my teaching career.  I’m very grateful for St Andrew’s College who paid for my airfares to attend this week of professional development.

The ADE Institute runs from a Sunday evening through to Thursday night.  This year it was just for ADE alumni, no new people were accepted to the programme.  In 2017 there will be regional Institutes for Europe/Africa, Asia/Pacific and the Americas which new people can apply to be part of (keep an eye on ade.apple.com early in 2017 for applications).

The structure of the Institute can be summed up in this (rather blurry) image:

ADE 2016 summary

ADE Central

One of the best parts at the conference centre/hotel was the ADE Central.  This was a large lounge where you had time to work on your projects, collaborate, play with STEM toys like Bloxels, Spheros and VR.  Most importantly, it was a great place to meet other teachers over a drink and discover common interests.

Apple Sessions

This year there were some fascinating presentations from Apple staff.  Once again, John Danty (Head of Logic & Garageband) was another highlight with his demonstration of the new features in Garageband on the iPad.

It was also great to see Final Cut Pro get more exposure as many educators I know regularly use it and think it’s a fantastic video editing application for high school teachers.

And of course, these sessions are where a lot of the scene is set for our projects, where info about Apple updates and educational initiatives are shared and where all our conference admin takes place.

Workshops

This year ADE was structured so that we had much less time having full Apple Sessions in the ballroom.  Instead, there were multiple workshops on a variety of topics.  I attended workshops on Advanced Editing with Final Cut Pro, Advanced Keynote and how to deliver fantastic presentations.

The last session was particularly valuable.  Not just for the workshops that I run with teachers, but some very good strategies and techniques were shared for presenting to high schoolers as well.

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Expert Labs

Apple were very generous by flying out many of their team leaders for various software development teams.  They are very talented, smart and accessible and the smaller (in some cases one-on-one) sessions they ran were perfect for teachers trying to find answers to problems they’ve had, or for getting more information on what was shown in Workshops and Apple Sessions.

I had a great time catching up with John Danty who hosted me (along with Matt Baier) at Cupertino last year.  It was inspirational to see that John, as busy as he is, has just released an album.  If he has time to be creative, then I certainly can’t use school as an excuse not to invest time into practising my instrument!

ADE Showcases

For many, including me, this is the highlight of ADE.  This is where teachers have three minutes to present something to the conference about innovative teaching techniques they’ve been using with their students.  Ten teachers per session are selected.  There is a pretty rigorous application and development process before you’re allowed to get up at an ADE Institute and present, but I was fortunate enough to present about my department and how I’ve changed the culture of St Andrew’s College music to enable growth.

Preparing for this presentation made me do a lot of inquiry around whats made my department successful, and it has been really great for giving me a framework for further innovation in the department for 2017.

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Project Teams

This is where the long term benefits of ADE come from.  It’s where you get into a small team of educators from around at the world and you work on a major project together.

This year I’m working on developing a website with tools for junior high school teachers who are wanting to deliver cross-curricular programmes.

Spotlight Sessions

Another new initiative at ADE 2016.  This is where teachers have a chance to run workshops on various pieces of software, teaching techniques or anything which they think will benefit the community.

I ran a workshop on showing how the three Apple music apps, Music Memos, GarageBand and Logic Pro work together as part of the musical composition process.  I blogged on this before and you can read a summary here.

Berlin Off-Site

One of the coolest things we did was essentially have the day in the middle of Berlin to explore.  Apple dropped us off at the Brandenburg Gate with a Museum Pass, sightseeing bus passes, metro cards, lunch vouchers, maps and guide books, and essentially told us to explore for a few hours.  We just had to make sure we took lots of photos to share to our collaborative Photo Streams.

We then met back up at the Apple Store for an amazing presentation by the makers of the Eye-Em app and a well known Berlin Photographer.

So what?

From the photos, you can see I had a really nice time.  I got a good tan and it was great to get away from a NZ winter for a couple of weeks.  But what difference has this made to my teaching?

Well, the real benefit is not in any resources I develop as part of the project team, or the information I learned about how to use Final Cut Pro more efficiently for editing school music videos, or even the chance to present to 400 of the worlds top educators.

The real benefit for me is in the relationships I’ve developed and friends I’ve made with people who are at the top of their game in their schools and communities from all over the world.  Every single person I met is an innovator.  They all love to see kids grow and meet their potential.  Every person I met doesn’t only see teaching as a worthwhile vocation, they live education.  Like me, they spend their weekends, evenings and holiday time thinking about their classes, developing resources, looking for opportunities to up-skill, looking for ways to better serve their students.  Teaching is their vocation, but it’s also their calling and their hobby.

And to be surrounded by people like that is heaven.  It’s inspiring.  It means I come back to St Andrew’s College and my networks of NZ Music Teachers with new ideas but also with a renewed passion to see music education in New Zealand produce the finest young musicians, composers and educators in the world.

Creating Music with Apple Apps

As I write this I’m winging my way to Europe to attend the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute.  One of the workshops I’ll present while I’m there is demonstrating how my students have been using three key Apple Apps as part of their creative workshop.

What I love about what Apple have done is that these apps are all fantastic by themselves.  But when you look at how they work together to support the compositional and production process they create their own ‘ecosystem’ that greatly assist students with creating original music.

Music Memos

Music Memos is the newest app.  It’s basically the Voice Recorder app that as been available for iOS for a long time but configured for musicians with a few neat features.

My students use it on their iPhones and iPads for capturing their rough musical ideas when they’re in practise rooms, on the bus or anywhere that inspiration strikes.

Here is a student of mine using it to record some ideas she had for a verse in a new song.

Music Memos has this amazing ability to not just record audio, but to also analyse the timing of the performance and the harmony used.  It is then able to create a session timeline of bars and beats and provide you with information of the chords that were played.

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It can even provide a virtual band of bass and drums to play along with your performance (of which settings you’re able to configure).

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While all this sounds amazing in reality my students haven’t found it hugely accurate with it’s analysis (but this is more the fault of the performers than the app).  With very good performers (like you’ll probably see on YouTube reviews of the App) it works fine but with high schoolers I’ve found the chordal analysis and bass & drums backing very hit and miss.

You will notice in the video that Bella was very intentional about trying to play as in time as possible and strongly outlining the beat – this really helps Music Memo’s with the analysis (but even then, it still got a lot of chords wrong in the analysis).  However, many students struggle to play their parts clearly so the analysis can be rather misleading.

But, this doesn’t diminish how useful Music Memos is in capturing ideas, tagging them with keywords and allowing them to share those ideas with friends.  It really is the perfect digital scrapbook.

However, when the chordal analysis does work it’s amazing as you’re able to import your Music Memos files into GarageBand on iOS or MacOS (including a MIDI realisation of the bass and drums that were added).

GarageBand

Music Memo’s projects are easily able to be opened in GarageBand on the iPad.  This is fantastic as you’re then able to use the amazing ‘Smart Instruments’ to create new chord progressions, accompaniments from a variety of instruments such as keys, bass, drums, strings, etc  For students that don’t play piano or guitar this is a massive support to their songwriting.

However, using iCloud you’re also able to open Music Memos projects into GarageBand on the MacOS.

This is what we did here.  Bella opened her project up so that she could record some MIDI keys and start mucking around with overdubbing vocals, harmony parts, etc  She’s also able to alter the exisiting Music Memos Bass and Drums or she can create new parts using GarageBand’s Drummer tracks.

What is very clever is that GarageBand has created a tempo map of her performance in Music Memos so any loops we drag in to the session will be snapped to the correct timing.

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However, if we wanted it to be all exactly in time we can do this be deleting all the tempo changes in the tempo track at the top of the window.  GarageBand is then able to conform the original Music Memos performance into time using Flex time.

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The best thing about using GarageBand at this stage of the songwriting process is that the student is now able to start playing around with the structure, instrument choice, drum patterns, add vocal harmonies, overdub guitar solos, etc – basically create a polished ‘demo’ of the song and arrangement.

This is of great assistance to the composer and musicians that are going to be collaborating in a recording session.

If you’d like to download Bella’s basic demo and have a go at creating your own arrangement you can do so by clicking here (please don’t share or sample this work – all copyright is retained by Isabella Ford and St Andrew’s College).

If the artist is really happy with the demo then they’re able to open their GarageBand file in Logic and record in a studio environment.  However, for this project we decided to start in Logic from scratch with the musicians.

Logic Pro X

Once Bella had her song sorted out we went into our school studio with musicians for a few hours.  She played them her song live and also played her demo from GarageBand.  They discussed what feel it should have, and how to structure the piece.  The string player (who also did BV’s) thought through possible parts she could add in and discussed with Bella.

They ended up adding in an extended solo section which is not what Bella had originally intended.

Here is the final result:

We recorded into Logic Pro X through an Apogee Symphony interface using preamps from Grace, La Chapell, Focusrite, Radial and API.  Our studio also has very nice acoustics.  Using equipment and a facility of this quality meant that we were able to get very good sound tracks that were easy to make a rough mix of in a couple hours.

However, the biggest reason why this song sounds great is not because of the quality of our equipment, or the skill of the musicians (of course these things are essential).  It was the effective creation process that these three Apple Apps helped with.  Through capturing ideas in practise rooms with Music Memos, to crafting an effective arrangement  and ‘demo’ in GarageBand, and finishing with recording a live band of skilled musicians into Logic Pro X.

This workflow is what has been key to the success of this song.  And to prove this isn’t an isolated case here are some of the other songs produced by my students in this manner.

 

Teacher training – Music Technology

For New Zealand High School teachers here are the details of some Professional Development workshops I’m running.  Please register your interest by emailing sales@learningideas.co.nz

Tuesday 12 April – Incorporating Music Technology into your Music Department
Cost: free (this day is funded by the Heads of Independent Secondary Schools Trust so is only available to teachers from Independent Schools)
Time: 10-4pm
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Course structure for Achievement and Unit Standards
  • Project Based Learning
  • Equipment and skills required to teaching Performing Arts Technology and Music Technology Unit Standards
  • Collaborative Composition using technology
  • Open forum time for teachers to discuss challenges and successes of teaching in an Independent School environment
  • Apple Distinguished Educator Programme
Wednesday 13 April – A beginners guide day for teachers new to teaching Music Technology.
Cost: $150.00 + GST
Time: 10-3pm
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Overview of gear required for teaching music technology – basic studio setup
  • Overview of 27656 (MUSTEC 1)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 26687 (SOND 1)
  • Producing Notation from Audio & MIDI including a demo of the new features of Melodyne 4 (if time)
Please bring your laptop and a MIDI keyboard (although I have plenty if you to use if it’s inconvenient for you to bring your own).
To prepare for this day please download and install the free software Pro Tools First from: http://apps.avid.com/ProToolsFirst/
Please note, this may take some time so please aim to install it a few days in advance of the workshop, not the night before ;-).  Please also watch the getting started videos further down on that page (this will take no more than an hour).  You also need to download the free Xpand 2 plugin/software instrument through the Avid Marketplace (from within Pro Tools First) but we are able to do this at the workshop.
Thursday 14 April – An advanced day focusing on best practice for teaching and assessment of level 3 Performing Arts Technology Unit Standards.
Cost: $195.00 + GST
Time: 10-3pm (with time for questions and discussion until 5pm).
Venue: St Andrew’s College, Christchurch
Topics covered:
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 27703 (SOND 2)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 28007 (SOND 3) – as part of this we will record and mix a live student band and walking through the assessment process.
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 27658 (MUSTEC 3)
  • Assessment tips and techniques for 23730 (new v4 for 2016)
  • Course Design for year 13 – Project Based Learning (if time)

The ideal setup for a school recording studio

Last year I was lucky enough to be granted the Head of Independent Schools Scholarship Trust award. This enabled me to travel to San Francisco and NYC to study how Music Technology is successfully being incorporated into high schools.

As a result of this study I have produced a document called The Music Educators Technology Survival Guide. This is a free download and takes you through recommended equipment required to setup up a music technology programme in your high school. It also provides an overview of the requirements for the NZQA Unit Standards, which you may use to assess your students’ music technology skills.

However, it’s one thing to have all the gear for teaching music technology but I’ve found the physical makeup of your studio/recording/mixing spaces, are critical to student success.

Of course, the quality of the acoustics in your recording space(s) is one of the most important factors but unless you’re involved in a new build of your department there may not be a huge amount you can do (whatever you do, don’t put egg cartons on your walls, they will only make things worse!).

But if you are lucky enough to plan a new setup this is what I recommend you aim for when you’re trying to record a rock band.

Recording Room Setup

Band recording in one room

Some important things to note:

  • All the musicians (apart from the singer) are recording in the same room at the same time but the only instrument that is actually mic’ed up in the recording room is the drum kit.
  • The guitar signal is recorded via a DI box, which is then outputted to an amplifier in a separate ‘amp’ room (using a specialized reamp device). The guitar amp is mic’ed up with one or two mics and those signals are then returned to the recording system. The guitar amp signal is then fed back to the musicians via headphones.
    Guitar Signal Flow
  • The bass player is recorded via a DI box with the signal returned to the musicians headphones. The bass track usually sounds great if you have a good quality DI (like a Radial JDI) but if you need to reamp it later and/or overdub this is also an option.
  • The singer is recorded in the mixing (or other) room with their signal coming back to the musicians’ headphones. If the quality of the singer’s track is not good enough they can be overdubbed later.

Why does this setup work so well?

Generally high schools students are not going to be good enough to record to a click track and retain a good feel, and they’re also not great at overdubbing instruments one by one. So this setup allows them to play all together as they would in a normal rehearsal room, hopefully creating a great groove.

But with our multi-room setup (i.e. having an amp room) we are able to record each instrument on to isolated tracks in our DAW so if one musician makes a minor mistake you don’t have to stop the take as you would if you had the amps in the same rooms as the drum microphones. Any minor mistakes can be cut out and re-recorded (or inserted from another take) just by the musician that made the mistake, without forcing the whole band to do another take.

Having all instruments on isolated tracks (without any ‘bleed’ from the other instruments in their tracks) allows us to fix timing and pitch issues with software like Celemony Melodyne.

On a recent session the bass player had huge trouble locking in with the drums. If the band had recorded to a click track it would be easy to ‘quantize’ the bass audio to the grid but as I said before, most high school bands aren’t good enough to be able to record to click well.

But using the new version of Melodyne 4 you are easily able to generate a ‘tempo map’ of the performance (most likely using the drum kit as your timing reference) which you can then quantize the bass to, making the two musicians perfectly in time with each other (even though they didn’t record to a click). I’ll do a full review of this software and walk through this process in a future blog.

If you want hands on, practical help with understanding how to create a recording setup like this I’m running workshops for teachers – Learning Ideas Teacher Training.

What is your physical recording setup in your school?  Comment below and share what works for you.

Thanks, Duncan

Avenues for Professional Development for teachers

For me, the greatest issue in NZ High School Music Education is how do we get more schools teaching Music Technology – i.e. using MIDI and audio (microphones, DAW’s, interfaces, etc) to produce music.  While I’m a huge believer in teaching reading music and notation (in my professional career most of the work I got was because I was known as one of the few good sight-reading bass players in town) the reality is that these skills are of less importance to students wanting a career in pop and rock music.

For these students, knowledge of how to produce with Logic or Pro Tools is of a lot more importance.  Now, I know that if I wrote this on the Artsonline Musicnet email network (an email network connecting NZ High School Music Teachers) the daggers would be out with plenty of people attacking me (but also plenty of people in support).  But in all my reading, research and experience running a recording studio and teaching high school for over ten years I’m becoming more and more convinced of the importance of music production skills using technology.

Let me say out front that this is not my background.  I’m not trained in music technology.  I have two music degrees majoring in classical and jazz music.  But the longer I’m involved with the music industry the more I see the need to train our high schools students for the realities of our music world.  The simple fact of the matter is that if they are into Pop or Rock, then it’s more important to know how to produce music with a DAW than it is to be able to read Figured Bass or to be able to analyse Sonata Form.

What is heartening is that there are plenty of teachers that agree with me but many teachers who have been around for a while often have the question: “Where do I start?”

My business, Learning Ideas Ltd, has been providing Music Technology workbooks for the New Zealand Unit Standard system for the last few years and as best I can tell, these workbooks and tutorials have been of great help to many students.  I have also been running workshops for teachers all over NZ for the last few years.  And while I think these are very positive and helpful sessions for teachers I’m mindful of the fact that many teachers are overwhelmed with information.

What many teachers need, particularly older teachers, is someone to walk along side them in the teaching of their first year of music technology.  By all means use the workbooks and tutorials from Learning Ideas but teachers should seek the help of someone else who knows the ‘content’ very well (even if they’re not trained teachers).

These might be teachers at other schools, but probably not as most teachers are struggling with the workload at their own school so can’t help other schools too much.

So far, I think the solution lies with our Tertiary providers.  Places like MAINZ, SAE, CPIT and Universities that are running music production courses (like Massey, Auckland, etc).  Teachers should seek out the people who run those music schools to find the best students in their 2nd, 3rd or 4th years of study.  After all, in NZ, everyone involved in the music industry is involved in education in some way so getting ‘placement’ into high schools to assist teachers can only be good for those Tertiary students.  And because they’re not qualified yet teachers shouldn’t have to pay them too much!  (Teachers need to remember though that any resources or teaching associated with Performing Arts Technology Standards can be paid for with STAR funds).

I see this as a win/win situation.  Teachers can offer Music Production/Tech courses that will attract higher numbers into their programmes, and they can be in charge of assessment.  But in the teaching of complicated things like Compressor Threshold and Ratio, Phase, RT, Parametric EQ, and so on… they can have Tertiary students who should know the basics of all the knowledge and basic techniques of use.  Teachers will still need to do their own PD (see here for some good options) but the pressure on the teacher to know everything immediately is taken away.

So, if you’re one of those teachers that want to offer a music technology course in 2016 but don’t know where to start send me an email to sales@learningideas.co.nz

I’ll set you up with the resources and I’ll help you touch base with your local Tertiary Music Tech provider who maybe in a position to send some talent students or recent graduates your way.

Garageband – serious DAW or a toy?

This week I’m lucky enough to be attending the Apple Distinguished Educators Institute in Singapore.

Yesterday I enjoyed lunch with the Heads of the Development teams for iMovie and Garageband.  They were both very inspirational in their presentation but at the same time kind, down to earth and accessible.

I’ve done recent posts extolling the wonders of the new Pro Tools First mainly because it is free, cross platform (which many schools may require) and comes with excellent MIDI instruments and reverb, compression and EQ plugins.

However, there are many schools that are lucky enough to be Mac only (yes – big bias coming through here – but that is only because I’m very much over finding that our MIDI keyboards and audio interfaces don’t play nicely with the myriad of Windows devices kids bring to my school).  For these schools the logical solution for them in running a music technology course is Garageband.

So I thought I’d do a bit of a post showing why Garageband really is one of the best pieces of software around and how it can be useful for NZ teachers doing the Performing Arts Technology at level 2 and above.

Plugins

When you highlight a track and press this button:

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you end up with controls to do broad changes to your sound.  Now, these are excellent.  But for level 2 SOND standards and above you need more control.  You need to be able to change the threshold of the compressor, the ratio, change reverb levels, work with parametric EQ.

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Initially it may seem that you can’t do this… until you press this button

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which shows you a plugin menu:

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Here you are able to open the individual plugins which contribute towards the first user interface that you saw, and in here you can customise pretty much anything you need to.  And it sounds great!!!  Remember, these are the same plugins that are in Logic, just packed slightly different to seem less intimidating.  There are a few features missing from what you’d get with Logic (such as ability to control and knee or release in a compressor) but most of what you need is there.

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If you’ve created a guitar track then it’s the same scenario, you’re able to see the pedal board, amp selection and all other aspects that go into making that particular sound.

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And we don’t have time to get too far into the Drummer feature here but needless to say, it really is an amazing feature.

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So when you dig a little deeper, you can see that Garageband is far from a toy.  It is a serious DAW and completely usable for all of the SOND standards.  Where you might find you have some issues is when it comes to editing audio to improve the performance.  Here it may be a little clunky… but still possible.  Pro Tools First would definitely have the edge here so level 3 SOND students may want to try both DAW’s and see what works for them.

The guys from Apple shared some really exciting news about the next release of Garageband (which I’d better not share here) which will make the fact that this is a free piece of software even more amazing!

Watch this space for a full review of the new Garageband when it comes out later in the year!

Duncan

A fantastic DAW for Music Technology teachers…

Late last year I did a post stating that for New Zealand Music Technology teachers one of the best Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to use was Studio One Free from Presonus (along with Garageband and a few other choices).  Pretty much straight after doing that post AVID announced that they were producing a free version of their industry standard software, Pro Tools. Well… it’s taken them six months to finally release it (I was wondering if it was going to be vapourware) but Pro Tools First is now here.  You don’t seem to be able to download it from the website straight away.  You have to subscribe on the website and they will send you an email with the download link. After a very short time of playing around with it I’m 80% certain I can now recommend it to NZ teachers as the best software for teaching music technology with the MUSTEC Unit Standards (27656, 27658, 23730) and SOND Unit Standards (26687, 27703, 28007). I’m not doing to give it a complete endorsement until I get into the school term and have tested it with a bunch of students on a bunch of different computers but for now here is why I think it’s going to be the best option for NZ students doing the above Unit Standards:

  • It’s free!
  • It is very similar to the full version of Pro Tools, which is the worlds most popular DAW for recording studios movie post-production.
  • It works on both Mac and Windows
  • It includes high quality, fully functional 7-band parametric EQ, compression/limiting, gates & expanders, reverb, delay, etc
  • It includes Xpand 2, a high quality software synthesiser/sound library that provides all the necessary instruments to do the MIDI requirements of the MUSTEC standards

PT First Edit Window

So, how are these features specifically better that other options for school teachers? (note, I’m not comparing it to software like Logic, Cubase, Pro Tools HD, etc as these all cost too much money for most schools).

Presonus Studio One Free – this is severely limiting in the plugins it provides.  Therefore you can not use this software for 27703 and 28007.  It has a great software synth for level 1 MUSTEC/MIDI but it’s not a good choice of software for level 2 and above.  Please note, Studio One has recently been updated to version 3 and their new free version, Studio One Prime, has not yet been released.

Garageband – this is Mac only.  If you have Mac’s then it’s probably the best solution for your school as it’s likely your students will be very comfortable using it and it has a low learning curve.  If you’re in a Windows and Mac environment then it’s good to still use but teachers may prefer to keep things simple and use one piece of software across both platforms.

Reaper – this isn’t strictly free (it has a never-ending evaluation period) but it does provide great plugins (including EQ, compression, reverb, etc).  However, it doesn’t ship with very good software synth options for working with MIDI.  You have to install third party options.  While I have provided instructions how to use this with third party synths (like IK Multimedia’s SampleTank Free) in my MUSTEC 1 27656 resource many teachers have found it quite confusing (which is why I amended that resource to include Studio One free Tutorials). So is Pro Tools First the ultimate option for teaching music tech/recording in NZ high schools?  Quite possibly, however like most things in life, there are a few catches:

  • You have to create an AVID account which stores the sessions in the Cloud.  I’m not sure what kind of strain this will place on school wifi networks but I’ll be interested to test it over the coming weeks.
  • You can only have three projects going at once.  However, you can delete old projects which will free up a space.  I think they will allow the option to purchase more project ‘slots’ in the AVID Marketplace but personally I don’t think this will be necessary, students just have to be good about finishing projects before starting new ones.
  • You can’t use any 3rd party plugins with it.  But as mentioned above, the included plugins are excellent so they’re not required for teaching purposes.

I’m sure there may be some other negatives but these are not apparent to me as yet.  No doubt students will find problems for me! I’ve done a little video demonstrating setting it up and recording some basic MIDI and audio with it:

I’d love to hear from other teachers and students about their experiences with Pro Tools First.  Please give it a go and come back here to post comments about your experiences.

Thanks,

Duncan

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2016 – Hi there, well I’ve now been using Pro Tools First with students for the last year and I have to say… be very careful with it!  It is so buggy, it is constantly crashing and my students have had real problems with it.  It’s such a shame as on paper it really does look like the best DAW for students.  I have had students complete assignments on it but it has been tough going.  Some students with two year old laptops had to give up and switch over to Reaper or Studio One.

Anyway, it’s free to try so if you can download it and get it working then everything I’ve written above still stands.  It will be great for you.

Collaborative Composition in Music – Project Based Learning

Over the last five weeks I’ve been trying a new way of running collaborative composition in my year 10 Option Music class.

This year I’ve been blessed to have a large class of highly motivated and talented students, so they were the perfect class to take a risk and jump into what is for me a new way of teaching composition.

The basic summary of what we did is that I divided the class into five groups.  In the first week each group had to start writing and recording a song (in a rough demo format).  In the 2nd week the groups swapped songs and continued on with what another group had started the previous week.  We did this for five weeks so that in the end, every group had been involved in the composition process on each of the five songs.

Initially the students were very nervous about this process as I’d done very little in terms of how to actually write songs.  However, that didn’t worry me as within each group of five members I knew that there were people with various strengths that when combined would make the process go smoothly.

Prior to this we had done a little work on what makes a good chord progression (mainly analysing four chord songs) and an effective melody but within the context of their own personal compositions, which they recorded/sequenced in either Garageband (Mac users) or Studio One Free (Windows users).  It wasn’t much, but it proved to be enough to get the students on the way with the process.  What was critical to the process though (which I didn’t realise until we got a few weeks into the process) was that a strong knowledge of how to use technology and specifically MIDI keyboards/guitars with software sequencers made all the difference to the success of students being able to pass on their work to the next group (only a few students in the class had strong notation/theory skills so technology bridged the gap very effectively).

Here is a little video where I show one of the songs and how each group contributed towards it week by week:

And here some of the songs created by the students (please keep in mind that these are only supposed to be at ‘demo’ quality… we still intend to record them properly at a later date):

This whole process has been an incredibly empowering experience for the students and is a great demonstration of the high end of the SAMR model:

SAMR

Software like Garageband and Studio One has enabled students to achieved a huge amount in a very short time and made it possible for this separate group collaborative thing to happen.  Students that recorded audio onto iPhones or wrote down music with traditional notation were no where near as effective in the sharing of their music with others.  By far the best way for this process to succeed was for students to compose using MIDI for the instruments and microphones/audio for the vocals… all along with a click so the music could be easily edited and rearranged by different groups.

Here are a couple of short videos watching students in action as they were creating their songs:

For other teachers who are wanting to run this sort of unit I’ve found that the following will make the process go very well:

  • Ensure that each group has at least one person who plays the following instruments: piano, guitar, drums, voice.  Often drummers don’t have a huge amount to do in the first week or two but as the weeks went by I discovered they were increasingly taking charge of the projects… running the technology (i.e. the computer DAW/sequencer)… which was critical when it came to restructuring ideas previous groups had come up with into coherent song structure of intros, verses, choruses, etc
  • Try and have a computer with a MIDI keyboard and a microphone setup in each room.  If you are using student laptops instead make sure you have a dedicated USB drive that holds the files that they work off… minimise copying of files between computers.  We ended up a losing a complete work from one room that students were working in as they mistakingly copied the wrong files then deleted the proper one.  The most successful songs were those that came out of rooms that had dedicated computers that students used each week.
  • Use the note pad facilities of your DAW (like Garageband or Logic) for writing down chord progressions, lyrics, ideas, etc  Don’t have things on scraps of paper as they may get lost.  Keeping everything with the DAW file is an elegant solution for keeping everything in the same place.
  • Don’t record piano/guitar ideas as audio… try to record them as MIDI.  This will enable successive groups to edit what was recorded.  If it’s audio, they’re stuck with it and are unable to improve upon it.

For me this process has been such an eye opener.  The students surprised themselves with what they could come up with.  The loved the process (they always arrived early from lunch so they could start as quickly as they could) and they grew so much as the weeks went by.

I will be making sure that this way of composing will be incorporated to NCEA composition at our school.  It will grow the numbers of students taking music and will help to break down the perception that you must be an orchestral musician who has been learning since you’re seven years old to be able to succeed in NCEA (even after five years at my school I’m still trying to destroy this myth!).

But overall… it was a heck of a lot of fun.  And that is what teaching and learning should be… shouldn’t it?

Project Based Learning in music – part 3

One thing I get asked a lot on courses I run is about how I structure my NCEA music classes.  If a typical NCEA subject consists of 22-24 credits some teachers are a little incredulous when they hear I offer 53 credits at level 2 and 64 credits at level 3.

The first thing I point out is that it’s not as bad as it sounds as students don’t take all those credits (although I have had one student that did… but he was a rare sort of student as he went on to get NZ’s top Music Scholarship mark in 2013) and even if they are taking around 38-44 credits, up to 16 of those credits could be performance ‘standards’, which we don’t spend any class time on (they do all their learning for this with their instrumental teacher and assessment takes place in concerts).

However, with the majority of my year 13 students doing Project Based Learning this year the whole NCEA credit thing and course structure has become a little more complicated.  In some ways it’s not… in that they’ve chosen the sort of project they want to do (such making an album, or composing for film projects produced by the Year 13 Media/Film class) and the available NCEA Standards should take care of themselves.  But with a dozen or so students all doing different projects, assessment within the NCEA structure can be hard to keep on top of and regularly fills my sleepless nights with worry!

I’ve got one student who as a result of her student leadership position in the school is struggling to keep on top of her workload.  We are now almost halfway through the 2nd term of school (only 4-5 weeks away from halfway point in the year) and I haven’t seen any substantial work from her yet.  It’s clear that she is going to struggle to complete her task of producing a singer/songwriter type album by November unless we find something to motivate.

So this week, we’ve done a review – something I’m finding hugely necessary to keep the students on top of workload and to keep them focused (I’m trying to sit down with each student at least once every two weeks).

What we have done this week with this student is what I believe is the secret to offering lots of NCEA credits – assessing multiple standards from few tasks.  Let’s be clear, it’s not double dipping, it’s about designing smart tasks that have multiple aspects to the work flow that can fit in with the requirements of multiple standards at once.  What I’m finding with PBL is that the tasks need to be personalised to the individual student.  This is the task we’ve designed for her:

  • She has recently developed a real interest in Gospel Music (as a result of what she’s singing in the school choir) and wants to do a research project on it.  She hasn’t narrowed her line of inquiry yet but it’ll be something along the lines of looking at the importance of Gospel music to African-American slaves on the cotton fields and how their harmonies developed… through to how Gospel music continues to influence the harmonies/style of modern R’n’B styles of music.
  • She will do her research and present it but a major part of the presentation will be arranging a piece of music in a Gospel style, using the knowledge that she will develop through her research.  She will produce notation of her arrangement which she’ll annotate for the purposes of the research presentation.  She may even produce two arrangements of two different types of Gospel arrangements with different instrumentation.
  • She will also produce a recording/sequence of her piece of music using knowledge she’s developed using Presonus Studio One and/or Reaper.
  • If we take this further, she may even perform one or two of her arrangements in a performance evening for solo or group performance (but this is less likely as she has plenty of material to use from her singing lessons).

So, from this one task which she is hugely motivated to achieve will result in the following NCEA credits:

  • 3.10 Research standard – 6 credits
  • 3.9 Arranging standard – 4 credits
  • 23730 sequencing and notation standard – 8 credits
  • TOTAL – 18 credits

If you add her solo and group performance Standards of 12 credits she has a course of 30 credits, which is plenty!  If she was doing the 28007 (SOND 3) recording standard, which could easily be incorporated if she had the time to do the learning for it, she would have another 6 credits.

If you’d like to follow her progress as she works through this project you can follow her blog here:

https://musicnotes97.wordpress.com

Thanks, Duncan 🙂