Technology for the Teachers Who Teach the Teachers

April 30, 2006

Editor's Note: The author points out that this article was adapted, with permission, from an article originally published in the TI-ME newsletter (Fall 2005,

The college music experience of today reinforces the need for our students to be as technology proficient as possible in order to be tuned into the skills needed to succeed as professional musicians and future music educators. But, what about training for the teachers who teach the teachers? An essay written many years ago by B.F. Skinner entitled "Why Teachers Fail" (Skinner, 1968) puts an historical perspective on this concern. Skinner thought deeply about many issues pedagogical and philosophical beyond behavioral reinforcement and getting his pigeons to press bars. In this essay Skinner laments that "college teaching, indeed, has not been taught at all." He continues by noting that "the beginning [college] teacher receives no professional preparation. He [sic] usually begins to teach simply as he himself has been taught, and if he improves, it is only in the light of his own unaided experience."

Can the same be said forty years later for training in technology skills for college music instructors? Do not Skinner's words serve as a "motivator" for us to ensure that this important group in the learning chain of music education be given the same serious attention? Participation and interest in ATMI sessions at the annual College Music Society conferences seems to suggest that this teachers-who-train-the-music-teachers group is motivated to improve its awareness and skills in music technology. For the past eight years, Illinois State University and The College Music Society have hosted an intensive one-week music technology training institute in June tailored to meet the pedagogical needs of college music instructors at all levels of experience, just the audience Skinner addresses. Further to this end, CMS and ATMI are collaborating in an initiative for incorporating technology training experiences with CMS regional meetings. The first experiment was the Great Lakes regional chapter meeting in late March; a four-hour mini-workshop provided help with PowerPoint techniques, design, and delivery.

Here is a checklist of six questions college music teachers can use to assess where they stand with their personal music technology skills. If you are reading this as one of those college teachers who excels in technology, feel free to use the checklist when working with your colleagues. If you are a college teacher looking for something beyond Skinner's "unaided experience," this checklist is for you.

Am I making full use of the technology skills of my students?

A beginning reaction I frequently see with colleagues encountering new music technology is a mixture of fear and intimidation. I've always suspected that there is an inverse correlation between age and the dexterity with which one feels comfortable using and adapting to technology. This leaves our students always several steps ahead of us. If you have similar feelings I offer some hope. Let your students provide the technology expertise; you provide the aesthetic eye, ear, and hand. That's what you were trained for. Give them the technology and turn them loose-they know this "stuff" better than you ever will. You serve as the guide-on-the-side for what you know best, musicianship and pedagogy. If you are teaching a music styles class, consider challenging the students to find a computer and some software (perhaps one of them has a laptop with ACID, GarageBand, or Cubase) and have them create compositions in the style you are currently studying in class-what would Mozart have created with GarageBand and a Mac instead of the clavier, for example.

What is driving my interest, the technology or the curriculum?

Many of us like to experiment with new technology for technology's sake. That's a lot of fun and often leads to interesting creative applications. But, when it comes to its application in the classroom, we need to make sure pedagogy drives the technology. We don't want to turn a music theory course into a computer notation class devoted to Finale and Sibelius. We can, however, enhance the learning experience in music theory classes with the same technology.

Prepare the theory exercises in electronic form using the notation format of choice, post them on the Web or in a Blackboard or WebCT course area, and have the students complete their work and return the electronic files for your critique. This requires learning only a small subset of notation software skills, enough to handle the assignments at hand. Technology in this example is working in support of pedagogy. As Peter Webster and I emphasize in our textbook, Experiencing Music Technology (2006), the people and how they use music technology should come before issues of hardware and software.

Where's my aim? Am I focusing on large- or small-scale music technology projects?

Someone once said "before you do anything, you have to do something." How often have we seen a colleague with a mental block that keeps them from exploring new skills? It is typically because the first step is too large and complex. What's that old acronym, KISS, Keep It Simple Sousa (or was it Shostakovich)? Instead of thinking you have to learn Flash, Dreamweaver, and Max/MSP before you have your music classes use computers, start with selecting some simple entry tasks:

  • Web searches, online e-books and prints, and library searches from common Web browsers
  • Basic digital audio editing and with publishing music files on the web for sharing in QuickTime or MP3 format (start with software like the free, cross-platform title, Audacity)
  • Bibliographic searches and formatting using software like EndNote or the online service, RefWorks, integrated with Microsoft Word.
  • Using PowerPoint for in-class notes, assignments, agendas etc. Just post to the Web after each class (I let mine expand with each class during a unit and post it in Adobe Acrobat PDF format right after class).
  • Using music notation software (e.g., starting with the free Finale NotePad) to create simple music exercises for class.

Do I have the most flexible setup for using technology?

There is good news here! The hardware you need as an instructor couldn't be simpler. Go mobile! Get a laptop and, if you need a keyboard, add an inexpensive MIDI keyboard controller like the very portable, 2-octave, M-Audio O2 or Edirol PCR-1. Everything else is software!

Why a laptop? Because you can take it any place you are comfortable working. Use it in class, in your office or at home, at the library, at the concert for recording, and the local coffee shop. Carry a network cable, a stereo audio cable, and, for Mac users, a digital video to VGA video adapter in your bag with you-I also carry an extra battery. My laptop and M-Audio O2 keyboard fits comfortably in my backpack. This should take care of being able to connect for class, presentations, study, or recreation.

Do I have a basic repertoire of music software that I can keep up to date with and use effectively (and feel you are in control)?

Remember our KISS rule above. Look how much mileage Sousa got out of the march form, all 135 of them! Don't feel you have to conquer a lot of software to start making things happen in the college classroom. Here's my low-budget list for starters and it is pretty much cross platform - Mac and PC.

  • Notation software (Finale or Sibelius) and their accompanying educational tools: MakeMusic!'s SmartMusic and Finale Performance Assessment, and Sibelius' Educational Suite. Restricted by budget, then go with NotePad or PrintMusic! or the Sibelius Student version.
  • Basic loop sequencer (GarageBand for Mac and ACID Music Studio for PC)
  • Band-in-a-Box for lots of creative possibilities from jazz to music styles
  • Audacity for digital wave editing
  • Music skills (choose one): Auralia, Practica Musica, MacGamut, and/or MiBAC Music Lessons

Put the following on your just-be-acquainted-with list: Reason; sequencers like Tracktion, Cubase, Logic, Sonar; soft synths like Kontakt, Garritan Personal Orchestra, and Korg Legacy Collection.

Have I taken advantage of support groups for music technology?

You won't find a group of professionals more willing to help their colleagues than music educators with technology expertise. Start with CMS and ATMI as your home base for support. Then look to your other professional affiliations for help: SMT, MENC, TI:ME, and the like. Look for web discussion groups for online help as well as conference workshops that provide training and sharing of music technology experience. ATMI's listserv is open to the public and you will find those of us that use that resource to be very helpful with just about any request. See the instructions for subscribing on their web site (

Support doesn't have to be national in scope either. The "buddy system," effective in those swimming classes we all took in our youth, works for music technology. Find a colleague who wants to work with you and enlist help for your team project from a student, department technology support person, or from campus technology support. Perhaps your campus honor program offers honor's mentorships. And, as a reminder, there is the CMS Music Technology Institute this summer, June 3-8 (

Let's return to Skinner's point. You do not need to be a college instructor seeking an "unaided experience" with music technology skills. This checklist hopefully provides "positive reinforcement" for expanding your repertoire. There are many resources, starting with CMS, to help create the "aided experience." Be sure that your students enter their teaching careers with good role models - models for effective uses of music technology and models that came from the experiences you provided as a teacher who taught technology in practice!

2704 Last modified on May 7, 2013