Mobile technology is the new normal
Editor's note: In the November/December 2014 issue, Clavier Companion launched a series of articles addressing the future of piano teaching. The following two articles are part of that series, which will continue in future issues.
Think back to an earlier time in your life.
Did you turn a small knob to flip through the three major television networks? Were Mike and Carol Brady or Edith and Archie Bunker household names? Was your daily jog inspired by a favorite cassette in your Walkman? Did you place calls with a rotary dial phone and memorize your friends' seven-digit numbers? Were floppy disks or CD-ROMs required to run a software program on your computer? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, it's proof that you don't qualify as a digital native.
The title "digital native" was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001.1
Born in the 2000's, digital natives use verbs such as "swiping" and "texting" instead of "dialing" and "typing." They view their favorite videos on high-definition, hand-held screens and have never seen a bulky television housed in a boxy, walnut cabinet. This crowd was born into a world where video games, movies, emails, texts, YouTube, and Google could be held in the palm of a hand. As this article will focus specifically on the rising popularity and cultural dependence upon hand-held devices, it seems appropriate to earmark these natives as the mobile generation.
Undoubtedly, this mobile generation seems to adjust and morph with the swift changes in technology. But, it's apparent that even those who cannot claim the same digital heritage have come to grips with a new reality. The rapid advancements in hand-held devices have triggered a universal appreciation for the state of technology. The latest gadgets have escalated to such technological heights that they are now sleek and simple to use. They are no longer reserved for the experts or the geeks. Members of all five generations who presently share the globe find mobile devices irresistibly intuitive, appealing, and extremely customizable. This mass appeal has dramatically shifted the question of "do you own a cell phone?" to "have you upgraded to the latest operating system?"
Perhaps you have resigned yourself to the fact that you will never catch up, and therefore you have resisted the immigration to a smartphone or tablet. Some would say you are better off without the slick hand-held devices, as their addictive nature, the dangers of social media, and too much screen time are serious concerns. Maybe you just purchased your first mobile device and are both excited and intimidated by the learning curve involved. Most likely, you embrace the hand-held devices, proudly own a smart phone or a tablet, and even text on a regular basis. Wherever you are in your technological journey, if you do not qualify as a digital native you have earned a title as well: digital immigrant.
Jumping on the mobile bandwagon and crossing over into a virtual homeland as a digital immigrant requires courage, flexibility, and perhaps a willingness to look stupid. It may be worth the risk, as your journey provides a vital link to the students of the mobile generation who populate your piano bench.
Before I go on, it's important to clarify that your relationship with your students is based on much more than the level of your mobile tech savviness. Your personality, choice of method books, educational background, imagination, interest in various genres, approach to technique, and off-the-bench resources define who you are. You will always be relevant to your budding pianists and their families because of what you offer: the gift of music.
That being said, plugging your studio into mobile technology can provide common ground on which to foster a lasting relationship with the mobile generation. As the opening paragraph suggests, change is inevitable. Since I began teaching more than twenty-five years ago, I've encountered a radical shift in how I teach and correspond with students and parents. Below are examples of the unique dimensions and vital links that digital mobilization brings to my experience.
To save paper, I type lesson notes and assignments on my laptop and email a PDF of the file after each lesson. As most of my students own a phone or a tablet, they access these notes on their devices. Recently, a student of mine reported that her grandmother was concerned about how much the student looked at her phone while practicing. The granddaughter told her grandmother that she was reading her lesson notes. Ahhh...music to my ears!
Completing forms for festivals, competitions, and recitals can require birth dates, addresses, and other necessary details. Sending an email to a parent is one way to retrieve the information, but the fastest method is texting either the student, parent, or both. Most of my texts receive a reply within minutes.
With the extensive content of Google, YouTube, and Wikipedia, desired information and inspiration can be accessed with a swipe and a tap. I'll frequently add YouTube links of performances in lesson notes. Students are eager to visit the links so they can compare and contrast various performances of a favorite selection.
Just like any other skill, learning how to perform takes repetition. Unfortunately, the opportunities to perform for an audience occur infrequently. The unprecedented and instant access to the camera of a mobile device provides a suitable substitute for a real performance opportunity. Recording performances prior to a recital or festival simulates the pressure of an audience and moves performers into that elusive performance zone. In addition, performers are eager to view the video, react to the brutally honest feedback, and make adjustments.
Festivals and recitals offer students a chance to test their developing performance skills. Busy helping at a recent, local Federation of Music Clubs festival, I knew I'd have little time to chat with my students who were participating in the event. In a last-minute email updating parents on the festival details, I requested that students or parents text me about their performance experiences. What fun it was to receive various text messages throughout the day expressing pride and success. I even received a photo with proud siblings holding their certificates.
Sharing my cell phone number with students allows me to confirm lesson times, answer questions about assignments, view video clips of progress between lessons, and so much more. Thanks to the magic of mobile technology, I've never been more connected and in tune with my students and their families.
Quite often smiles and cheers of excitement ring out in my casino— oops—I mean studio. A plead of "Can I do that again?" is heard regularly, even when lesson time should have ended five minutes earlier. Studies show that having fun while learning helps students retain new concepts. Students in the concrete operational stage (ages 7–12) need regular feedback and reinforcement to build skills. Today's top music apps, available on both tablets and phones, offer budding musicians a winning combination of learning, feedback, and fun. These apps offer relevant challenges and motivating rewards for achievements, thereby engaging learners. This carrot-and-stick approach guarantees focus until a victory occurs, which in turn means a concept has been cemented into place. I'm a firm believer that when you gamify, you solidify. (Editor's note: For more on gamification, see the following article by Linda Christensen.)
Pleasing personal preferences is essential to student retention. This has become so much easier thanks to the expanding virtual library of digital scores of the latest hits. When a student asks to play a favorite tune, an online search can determine if there is a score for the tune at the appropriate level within minutes. If I can't find the written scores, there are mp3 files and apps that will slow down the recording (without changing pitch) to help my students learn the tune and create an original arrangement.
Apps for reinforcing theory concepts, ear training, and reading skills using the latest gamification tactics are gaining popularity. It is not uncommon for students to read music from digital scores with the help of apps that provide backing tracks or enable page turns controlled by a Bluetooth pedal. My column dedicated to teaching with apps in Clavier Companion is a reflection of the significance and permanence of these pedagogical tools.
Inevitably, this new normal comes with its own set of issues, as these handy devices can distract and cause addictive tendencies. In my opinion, the negative side effects that populate today's mobile landscape are balanced by numerous advantages.
Making music is not limited by chronological boundaries. Members of all generations treasure the gift of music. As music teachers, we are fortunate to have an immediate and tangible connection with those who warm our bench because of a shared passion. Along with music, mobile technology has established a common ground for those who were born into the digital world with those who have immigrated to it. As my personal experiences indicate—which may be similar to yours—this commonality brings a fresh dimension to student, parent, and teacher interactions during and between lessons. The great digital divide between generations is shrinking thanks to a new normal that is all in the palm of your hand.
1 Prensky, Marc (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. www.marcprensky.com.