Fear not the Machine: How Technology can Expand the Role of the Teacher
Editor's note: In the November/December 2014 issue, Clavier Companion launched a series of articles addressing the future of piano teaching. This article is part of that series, which will continue in future issues.
Susan, a teenage piano student, loved the music of pop star Katy Perry. Susan was especially fond of the song "Dark Horse," which she had wanted to play on the piano since she first heard it. She asked her piano teacher for help, but he replied that he only taught "classical songs." She had no hope of learning the song with him! Then a friend in school showed her PianoMaestro, an iPad app that looked and felt like a game. It displayed both the music notation and the keys on the piano, slowly and one hand at a time. The program even recognized notes when she played them at the piano using the iPad's built-in microphone. Working on her own with PianoMaestro, Susan spent hours learning "Dark Horse" until she could play it in tempo, hands together.
Instead of fearing the threat of creative destruction looming in the not-so-distant future, we can explore how our roles as teachers will shift.
Susan is an example of a student who is engaged in music learning and music making without the active help of a teacher or mentor. Susan's story demonstrates how technology is bringing what economists call "creative destruction" to the field of music teaching. This term is used to describe the process of innovation that produces changes at the expense of destroying what existed before. While the concept has existed since the invention of the wheel, its prevalence and significance has increased due to the pace of technological innovations within the last century. Creative destruction can have a frightening impact on occupations, industries, and employees. When a new and improved product or service comes along, the replaced version suffers or is destroyed. Consider, for example, the modern smartphone. It has changed the way we live and work forever, but it has also rendered many other devices, such as cameras and calculators, obsolete. As the usefulness of these devices faded, the people involved in their production and distribution either lost their jobs or adapted their skill sets to remain employed.
Confronted with the creation of new ways of learning, communicating, and creating, educators must recognize that they need to adapt to remain relevant. In the current information age, teachers no longer serve as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Knowledge, of varying levels of quality and reliability, now resides on the Internet in many formats. In addition, many software applications actively "teach" users. This teaching comes in various forms, including tutorial videos, software applications, and even online courses. Hardware and software advancements, combined with the connectivity facilitated by the Internet, have resulted in technological tools that are capable of replacing or expanding many of the functions traditionally performed by human teachers.
As teachers, we should be concerned with how our jobs are changing. Ideally, instead of fearing the threat of creative destruction looming in the not-too-distant future, we can explore how our roles as teachers will shift. How can these changes help our pedagogy be more effective, and how can they improve student learning? What do these technological tools do well? What does technology do poorly? How can teachers offer the most value to their students? In short, it is essential to understand how teachers can adapt to the new learning paradigms.
Independent music learning
There have always been people who learn to play music on their own or with the informal help of peers and family. In fact, many prominent jazz and rock bands began this way. They learned by listening, imitating, asking questions, and seeking and sharing information. Opportunities for informal and independent learning have increased rapidly with the advent of the Internet, online videos, and the arrival of apps that provide tools for systematic practicing. In her article, "What can music educators learn from popular musicians?", Lucy Green offers studio teachers effective strategies based on the benefits of informal learning.1 Her suggestions include 1) the use of "purposive listening" (using recordings and imitation) as a learning tool, 2) a more relaxed focus on music reading, daily practice, and good technique (at least on some occasions), and 3) the encouragement of student-driven learning environments and peer teaching. As revealed in the opening story of this article, technology has the potential to enhance these informal learning practices. Technological advances in the field of music making and music instruction can be grouped into three broad areas: 1) technology that provides tools for creativity, 2) technology that facilitates access to information, and 3) technology that performs routine tasks such as drilling skills, assessing performances, and tracking progress. In the following sections, we consider steps that teachers can take to capitalize on this enormous potential.
Tools that foster creativity
Creative tools empower users to compose and make music with ease in innovative ways. Recently, Jimmy Fallon and Billy Joel used a simple looping program called Loopy for iOS to create a song on the spot in a wildly popular segment of The Tonight Show.2 Since many teachers understand the importance of teaching improvisation and composition, they should consider using tools such as Loopy, or more sophisticated software such as Apple's Garageband, to empower students' creativity while simultaneously teaching aspects of form and theory. The ability to layer sounds using pre-made drum and bass loops and sampled instruments creates many possibilities for improvisation and composing in a popular style. Keeping in mind the principles of informal learning, a studio project using this type of technology might include figuring out and recreating pop songs by ear. The teacher's role is to show the use of the technology and to help students when they encounter difficulties. Other student-driven group projects could involve improvising layers one at a time or composing new pieces while the teacher acts as an advisor.
Instruction can continue after the weekly lesson is over, since apps can facilitate continuous communication with the teacher throughout the week.
Tools for accessing information
To facilitate independent learning, teachers can encourage the use of software titles such as Synthesia and PianoMaestro. Students could also regularly learn to play pieces by ear from music videos or online tutorials such as Mario Ajero's Piano Podcast. For more formal, teacher-directed learning, teachers could record and share videos of lesson pieces (a relatively easy process using smartphones) and practice directions. This will help students practice more effectively by using purposive listening and imitation at home. In this way, instruction can continue after the weekly lesson time is over, since apps and programs such as iScore and PianoMaestro facilitate continuous communication with the teacher throughout the practice week.
With the use of technology, entrepreneurial teachers can consider expanding the reach of their work beyond the confines of their studios, to become online or in-person consultants for self-guided learners seeking help with specific problems or skill development. We have already witnessed the beginning of this trend with the creation of online consulting sites such as Google "Helpouts," which include several music teachers who offer consulting services for hourly fees.
Tools for practicing, drilling, and assessing
Many instructional technological tools are programmed to perform routine tasks. If we can describe a concrete sequence, a machine can automate the process. As technology advances, the list of complex tasks that may be considered routine is becoming more extensive. Technology's capacity to automate these routines for students can offer piano relief from repetitive tasks that can consume valuable lesson time.
In order to take advantage of these new tools, we should carefully consider the lesson activities that require a great deal of time but relatively little teacher input. For beginning students, one of the most basic skills we teach is the sense of steady pulse and idiomatic rhythm patterns. During early lesson experiences, students need ample reinforcement and practice with this skill. Obviously, students have had access to the metronome for centuries to help hone this skill at home, but today's technological tools address this same skill in more creative and pedagogically practical ways. Many apps facilitate drills that help students see, hear, and tap or play rhythmic patterns. After each pattern, these apps typically offer a score or evaluation of the performance.
Instead of replacing teachers, these apps aid them by freeing up precious lesson time previously consumed by reinforcement and review, or, in the worst case, re-teaching of forgotten material. Many of the learning objectives we include in our curriculum fit the category of drilling and repetition. We should use technology frequently to review and reinforce lesson concepts, and, in some cases, we can even use it to introduce new concepts.
A bright future with technology as our ally
Advancements in technology do not threaten our careers as teachers. Instead, they offer new and creative tools for us to use that will spark interest and foster greater motivation in our students. In order to use technology in a seamless and complementary fashion, we must first become familiar with the technology itself. Just as our students learn informally, we too can use the Internet to stay current with the latest developments. We can visit teacher websites and blogs that review new software, and regularly visit the "technology" pages on major news sites. In more formal settings, we can sign up for workshops and webinars and attend conferences where teachers are sharing their ideas about applications for technology in the teaching studio. If we do, unlike Susan's teacher who would not help her learn the music she loved, we can facilitate meaningful musical experiences for our students by enhancing our teaching with technology.
1 Green, Lucy. (2004). What can music educators learn from popular musicians? In C. X. Rodriguez, (Ed), Bridging the gap (13-27). Reston, VA: The National Association for Music Education.
2 "Billy Joel and Jimmy Fallon Form Two-Man Doo-Wop Group Using iPad App." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cU-eAzNp5Hw.
Courtney Crappell, D.M.A., NCTM, serves as Associate Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the University of Houston, Moores School of Music where he coordinates the class piano program and teaches piano and piano pedagogy. He earned his doctorate at the University of Oklahoma.
Alejandro Cremaschi, D.M.A., NCTM, is Associate Professor of Piano Pedagogy at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is a frequent presenter in national and international conferences and has published articles in the MTNA e-Journal and the Journal of Music, Technology and Education, among others. He has recorded for the Marco Polo and Meridian labels.