Before coming to work for MakeMusic 8 years ago, I was an orchestra teacher at an urban high school in Austin, Texas. I taught 130+ students in 4 orchestras for 6 years, and only a handful of them took private lessons. We went to UIL contest and got superior and excellent ratings every year, attended music festivals in Virginia and Corpus Christi, TX, and more importantly, my students enjoyed learning music and have become lifelong friends and learners.
However, when I first got there, I wasn’t really sure how I would do it all. Over the next few lines, I’ll tell you about the challenges that I faced, the paradigm with which I started my career in public education, how it had to change, and how MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) helped me do the job I needed to do.
I was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, where there is a strong music education tradition. There is El Sistema (which has been replicated in various parts of the United States and around the globe) and there’s also the school I attended, which was founded first: the Colegio Emil Friedman, a private K-12 school rooted in the arts, and whose mission is to develop students’ potential to their maximum through the development of their multiple intelligences, emphasizing music and sports and optimizing and deepening knowledge, creativity, intuition, and independence. The school’s motto is “There is no culture without musical culture.”
I started to play cello at the age of 6 at the Colegio Emil Friedman with pull-out lessons during the school day, which later transformed into first biweekly, and then weekly after-school lessons. Later on, came the ensembles. By the time I joined the first of the orchestras at school in around 2nd or 3rd grade, I already knew how to play my instrument. Rehearsals were about putting a piece together, not about learning the mechanics of my instrument in a heterogeneous class. As I advanced in my lessons, I got to move to the more advanced orchestras. So I experienced “rehearsal” as that: a coming together of the different instruments for a 2-hour session twice a week after school to put the pieces together and truly rehearse as a group. We also had daily sectionals with like-instruments. In my mind, this is how things worked. This is how it should be.
Teaching Public School in Austin, TX
Fast forward several years and I am now in the United States, starting a job as an orchestra director at a large public high school, just fresh out of graduate school with two advanced degrees in performance. I knew kids started learning their instruments in the 6th grade (not 1st, like me) but didn’t have a full understanding of what that meant. I was in for a reality check and a huge paradigm shift.
How was I going to be able to teach 130 students who play different instruments at different levels of proficiency in 4 different groups, all by myself? How could I do this when I only saw the students for 50 minutes a day every day (or 90 every other day when the school switched to a block schedule)? How would I know how well each and every student was playing their music and what were their areas for growth? How could I demonstrate advanced techniques on the other 3 instruments when I could only play the very basics on those? How was it possible to do this without the help of private teachers? How could I do it without being at school for 12+ hours every day? Was that even possible?
I realize now that these are questions that every teacher probably asks themselves, that there’s a method, that we all do this every day, and that we’re successful at it. But now that you know where I was coming from and what the model in my mind was, you may better understand why I felt paralyzed. My paradigm had to shift. I had to adjust my thinking and find a way to be there for every student and with the resources that were available. It took me a while to figure it out, but eventually, I did it.
The “Aha!” Moment
The first couple of years went well mostly because I rode them on the tails of the juniors and seniors who knew what they were doing and helped me move things along. I’ll forever be grateful to them! I held sectionals, and I had before and after school rehearsals, but it still seemed it wasn’t enough. I had a couple of private teachers that were coming to teach lessons at the school, but it was only a handful of kids who were taking the opportunity.
I was still thinking about how to “photocopy” myself, so to speak, so I could help more kids individually. Then in 2009 or 2010, I went to TMEA and while walking the exhibit hall, I went past the SmartMusic (now MakeMusic Cloud) booth. There was a violinist playing to music that was displayed on a large computer screen and with accompaniment. As soon as she finished playing it, the correct notes turned green and the incorrect ones turned red. And I thought: “Aha! This is it! This is amazing! It’s immediate feedback! Kids can practice in front of the computer, with context (the accompaniment), and receive visual and aural feedback about their performance. This is like guitar hero for orchestra (did I just date myself? ;P)! They can listen to their own recordings, and they can see the fingerings they are supposed to play. If they have any hesitations, they can slow down and practice small chunks in loops! THIS IS IT!”
So I went back to my classroom, held a meeting with parents from the Booster club to present what the tool could do and what I planned to do with it, and they supported me.
What MakeMusic Cloud did for Us
MakeMusic Cloud (SmartMusic) is a really rich program with incredible amounts of content and features that can be used in a multitude of different ways. You can ask 10 teachers how they use it and you can get 10 different answers, all of them valid. You can start small, or dive all in, either works, the important thing is to start!
Once we bought the subscriptions the first thing I did was to use the program in class and introduce it to my students. I would play back recordings of the pieces we were working on, I showed how the cursor moved across the screen and how helpful it was for note reading and timekeeping, I showed them the metronome and tuning tools, I demonstrated how the immediate feedback worked, I slowed down pieces and looped difficult sections so that we could practice repetition as a group over and over. Later on, I started scheduling assignments for students to practice difficult sections of the music we were preparing for concerts. Some were graded and some were not, but I always listened to their recordings and provided written feedback about their performance. I instructed them to submit their best take even if not all of their notes were green and I could always override the grade the program gave them. The important thing was to get them to practice more and make improvements.
MakeMusic Cloud allowed me to hear what every single student was doing and how accurately or inaccurately they were playing. This helped me better plan rehearsals and better address the issues or misunderstandings that were taking place in class. Soon, we were able to put pieces together much faster than before because students were practicing in context. They knew how they were supposed to sound and how their part fit in with the whole.
There were many different ways in which I used this wonderful program, including uploading exercises that I created in Finale to drill on difficult technical passages of music we were working on, or even to help students prepare for auditions. Practicing with MakeMusic Cloud was so helpful to my students, that I started programming ⅔ of our concerts with music that was available in the program. Our groups always sounded better on those pieces because of the immediate feedback the students received, which helped them improve. I’ve written elsewhere about memorable pieces and performances with my students, but perhaps one of the most memorable moments was the first rehearsal of one of our UIL contest pieces in January, right after the winter break during my last year of teaching. I had chosen the music before we left for the two-week winter break (2 out of the three pieces for full orchestra that I chose were in MakeMusic Cloud) and I had asked the students to practice 100 minutes over break (MakeMusic Cloud tracks the practice time). When we returned, most of them had done it. Then we got ready to rehearse and low and behold: we played all the way through and all the notes, rhythms, and dynamics were already there! We could start actually rehearsing, which had been my wish the entire time. I felt this was the culmination of my efforts: I had gotten to where I wanted to be. My students could come prepared to rehearsal and we could address the finer points of performance, instead of the very basic aspects of note reading, hand position, shifting, and bowing. MakeMusic Cloud helped me make that possible.