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15 minutes reading time (3098 words)

How do you use technology in your summer teaching?

from the series: Tomorrow Today: Technology

George Litterst, Editor

Summer time is special. Family schedules lose the routine that is imposed by the school calendar, students float in and out of town, and everyone is in a different frame of mind. The circumstances that surround summer teaching challenge us to keep our students excited about music making and provide with us with an opportunity to burst out of the usual routine and undertake engaging projects with our students.

Below are two thought-provoking essays to inspire your planning for the coming summer. In the Tech Tips column, I'll address the issue of technologies that our students can use at home to support these creative ideas. 

Technology for bringing out hidden creativity

by Sam Ecoff

Going beyond the usual educational software

For many of us, summer is a great time to teach. Because there are few contests, festivals, and recitals to prepare for, there is more time to pursue special projects with students and find new and engaging ways to motivate and inspire them towards great performances during the next school year. Music technology is a great place to start because many students find music technology very exciting and highly motivating. In addition, music technology can provide a fresh approach to teaching traditional musical concepts.

While some teachers are familiar with educational software titles that cover a broad range of musical concepts - like Music Ace ( or Midisaurus ( for many teachers the world of sequencing and synthesis remains a far-off mystery, seemingly approachable only by the most technically savvy or those with deep pockets. Times and software change, however, and there is a new crop of exciting software available which is easier to use and more affordable than ever, opening up a world of creative opportunities. 

Sequencing software engages the students in musical creativity

A sequencing program is a program that enables your students to record, edit, and manipulate MIDI performance data that they create playing a MIDI keyboard or digital piano. Many current sequencing programs, like Apple's Garage Band '08 ( or Propellerhead's Reason (, feature built-in sounds and some pre-made musical patterns. When using one of these programs, students can record multiple musical lines, one after another, and hear them all played back simultaneously.

These features have many possible uses. For example, one student might undertake a project to record the primo part of a duet and then record the secondo part on another pass. Another student might choose to learn about arranging pop music by building arrangements from drum loops and then composing additional musical parts using other sounds. The latter idea is especially popular in my studio where my technology resources have inspired several students to create original works. 

It is important to note that sequencing software gives students an opportunity to apply the musical skills they've acquired in their lessons. It has been my experience that the novelty of creating sequences is often a great inspiration to practice more beca use students can see an immediate use for the material they're studying in lessons. I typically spend the last five minutes of each student's weekly 45-minute lesson reviewing the music they've created on the computer during the previous lesson, and we learn some new sequencing techniques. I always make a point to show them how some of the musical ideas from their lesson can fit into the composition that they're working on using the computer. Sometimes this means borrowing a line from the left hand of a Beethoven sonatina to create a bass part for a rock song or using the cadences that another student is learning to add a pad part behind a dance remix of My Heart Will Go On.

Sequencing projects like these provide a great way for students to get their talents noticed by other people and garner appropriate praise. The students in my studio are always eager to listen to the work of other students, and we have created several CD compilations of student works that have been distributed within our studio.

Younger students aren't the only ones who are excited about working with the sequencing software; these projects are also a huge hit with my adult students, and several parents of younger students have commented that they didn't realize how talented their students were until they brought home a CD with their composition on it. Interestingly, this use of sequencing software has sometimes generated the enthusiastic support of parents who previously seemed merely to tolerate their student's lessons. 

Until sequencing software was available in my studio, most students chose to use their computer/video time following their lesson to passively watch an educational video. However, I wanted to engage them more actively and set up sequencing opportunities. I knew I had made a great choice adding sequencing software after one of the hardest-to-please students said with great enthusiasm, "I'm never watching a video again!" 

Technology can inspire students to be more creative and allow them to apply musical skills learned in the lesson.

Summer solutions for keeping your students engaged

by Tom Stampfli

The challenge of keeping students during the summer months

Every independent piano teacher knows the difficulties and frustrations of keeping their students during the summer months. We all know the value, pedagogically and financially, of maintaining our students' lessons for one or more months during the summer season. The problem often lies with the attitudes of both students and their parents. When school lets out, many parents and students believe it's time to quit lessons until school starts up again. The obvious solution is to expose our students to a different format and different activities during the summer - activities that will entice them to continue their lessons for at least part of the summer.

The challenge for us is to answer the question, "What should I do to keep these easily distracted students engaged and happy during the long summer months?"

Over the years, I have used the following technology-based activities with great success in a number of summer time venues, including private lessons, group lessons, and summer music camps for my private studio and/or college program. Some of these require the use of keyboard classroom facilities you may not currently own, but these facilities are often available through creative liaisons with your local community college or music store. Working with other local independent piano teachers may increase your access to the equipment that you need for your summer program. The following suggestions are activities that can be accomplished in a variety of formats. 

The joy of keyboard ensembles

Most of the time, piano students interact with their teachers on a one-to-one basis. T hey attend lessons alone, they practice alone, and most of the time they perform alone. Using the group dynamic within a keyboard lab environment offers students a refreshing approach to learning music.

One way to facilitate this possibility is through your local college or university. Many of these institutions are not using their keyboard labs during the summer. For a minimal fee, you may be able to make use of these facilities for a special weeklong camp or a weekly activity for students. If you don't have one of these facilities close by, you may be able to pool your resources with other teachers to create a keyboard ensemble, thus enabling students from different studios to work together.

One of the most enjoyable group activities for students of all ages is participating in a keyboard ensemble. If the available instruments are multi-timbral (i.e. have more than one instrumental sound), so much the better. The added dimension of making music with a variety of orchestral and electronic sounds enhances the experience. With a keyboard orchestra, part of the fun is allowing students to choose the orchestral mix for each selection, thus providing extemporaneous experiences in instrumentation and arranging.

There are several sources of music writ- ten either for piano ensembles or multi-timbral keyboard ensembles that can be easily obtained through various music publishers or on the Internet from independent composers. Junior high band and orchestral music, borrowed from your local schools, also offers an affordable alternative to buying music for these activities.

Many ensemble compositions have been written to accommodate a variety of student levels within one selection. This enables your advanced students to be challenged sufficiently while allowing those who are less developed a chance to perform in a group setting - and everyone gets to benefit from the need to practice their counting skills!

If you choose your music carefully, it should be fairly easy to learn, as students only have to play one part or line at a time. It usually helps to have six to eight keyboards available so that the majority of the principal parts can be sufficiently covered, thus enabling a satisfactory performance.

Finish off your summer season with an ensemble concert. Your students and their parents will really enjoy this season finale! 

Summer duets minus one

Most students really enjoy playing duets, especially if they can perform with someone other than their regular teacher. However, it's often hard to match summer schedules with the right students at the right level. So what's the answer?

If you have a MIDI keyboard with digital recording capability or if you're really fortunate and have a hybrid MIDI/acoustic piano such as the Yamaha Disklavier, you can encourage your students to learn both parts and perform duets by themselves. Once again, this encourages your students to develop their ensemble skills while giving them something uniquely different from the regular lesson format. I like to have my students learn and record the secondo part first, since most duets place the melody in the primo part and students usually prefer playing the melody as the live part of the performance. 

The advantage of working with a MIDI- based keyboard or recording system lies in its versatility. Students can record at one speed and change the tempo to perform at another. Early practice sessions with the recorded secondo part can be slowed down to help students master the challenges of playing with another part.

Another advantage is the ability to substitute different orchestral voices for the piano sound once the recording has been completed. A simple substitution that is very effective with many styles of music is a string ensemble sound. Students can take a simple sonatina and transform it into a concerto-like work. 

Summer recording project

Regardless of the venues or formats you used during your summer lessons, I highly recommend that you reward your students' efforts by helping them produce their own CD recording. During the last five years, CD/ DVD audio recorders have become very affordable and have replaced the cassette tape as a means of archiving music. For as little as $300, you can purchase a very effective CD recorder that can produce recordings at almost professional levels of sound quality.

While I recognize that this is not an inexpensive investment, our profession must keep up with the technologies used by both students and other professionals if we're to maintain credibility in our field. However, if you're enough of a techie, you can avoid spending the $300 by using your computer to record and burn the CDs.

Planning a recording and implementing it through a series of recording sessions can result in amazingly good student productions. This sort of project piques the students' interest, and they take great pride in the result. I have known students to take these recordings and give them out to their friends, who really appreciate the effort. 

A sight-reading summer

Sight-reading is an activity that many of us find difficult to fit into a short lesson. However, the summer can be a great time for exploring this skill by asking your students to sight read through a broad variety of music, usually several levels below their current repertoire.

One of the things that I like to use is the concept of contextual sight-reading. Sitting at another keyboard, I like to play along with my students, often playing the teacher accompaniments that come with various solos from a variety of method books. I may playa second piano or a MIDI keyboard - once again using orchestral textures - while forcing students to maintain a consistent tempo throughout the piece.

To facilitate contextual practice away from the studio, I often loan my students an accompaniment CD that comes with one of the many methods books and supplementary materials available for student practice. So as not to ruin or lose my original disc, I usually make one duplicate archive disc that I loan to the student. That way, if the student damages the disc, I'm only out about fifty cents.

Recently, I began to create my own contextual accompaniment discs for both classical and popular pieces that do not come with accompaniment CDs. While this takes a bit of time, once these pieces are recorded, they can be used again and again with different students. My current goal is to build up a library of these accompaniments that I can then loan out to my students. Once again, a MIDI keyboard and/or a CD recorder meets the needs of this particular project, and the students really enjoy the challenge of sight-reading with an accompaniment part. 

Imagination + preparation = lots of fun

In closing, there are many other learning opportunities for summer fun using technology as a "hook" to get your students involved. It doesn't take a lot of technological equipment, just a bit of imagination and preparation, as well as a willingness to approach a new lesson format. The benefits, both pedagogical and financial, are well worth the investment in equipment and personal effort. In the end, you end up having fun, too!

Tech Tips

George Litterst, Editor

Submit your questions to this column by sending them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

Q. What technologies can my students use at home to support my summer teaching activities?

A. There are many low-cost technologies that your students can use at home to support special summer activities. Here are some of my favorites:

Finale NotePad

Finale NotePad is a free software program for both Windows and Macintosh computers. It is a simplified version of the well-known Finale music notation program.

Using Finale NotePad, students can work on notating their music compositions at home with a personal computer. This program enables a student to enter notation using their mouse and computer keyboard. If a student wants to use a MIDI keyboard to play music and have it transcribed, the student can upgrade to Finale SongWriter for $49.95. In either case, the student can bring his/her composition from home into your studio and use it with your copy of Finale, Finale Allegro, or Finale PrintMusic (all of which are more full-featured notation products from the same company called MakeMusic!).

USB flash drive

If your students are working on music notation, MID I sequencing, or digital audio projects in both your studio and at home, they need a way to transport their data to and from your studio. And, they need a medium for backing up their work!

Of course students can email their data to you, but that requires more work on your part. Instead, I recommend that students acquire an inexpensive USB flash drive. These devices can be purchased in 1GB capacities for as little $15. It should be noted that a 1GB flash drive can hold almost as much data as two CD-ROMs and is no larger than a pack of gum. These days, all computers come with a USB port, so compatibility is rarely an issue. 

Keep in mind the fact that many modern digital pianos now come with USB device ports. This means that you or your students can use these devices to load MIDI files directly into many MIDI keyboards for playback.

A good source is TigerDirect ( Alternatively, do a Google search for usb flash drive.

USB floppy drive

Floppy drives are old technology. However, many of the print music publishers still publish MIDI files that coordinate with their method and supplementary books on floppy disks.

If you ask your students to purchase MIDI files from these publishers, you may find that your students lack a computer at home that can read the floppies. For this reason, it is a good investment for you to acquire a $16 USB floppy drive (assuming that your computer lacks such a drive) so that you can copy your students' MIDI files for them onto their USB flash drives.

Of course you are merely going to transfer the data on their behalf from one medium to another. You're not going to go about passing out free copies of these MIDI files, right?

To find an inexpensive usb floppy drive, do a Google search for usb floppy drive. 

Classical Archives 


This website used to be called the Classical MIDI Archives. Indeed, it still offers an amazing collection of classical MIDI files, with everything from solo piano to full orchestrations. At last count there were over 18,000 files by nearly a thousand composers.

Interestingly, there are now even more classical audio recordings!

You can sample the site for free. Better yet, you and your students can subscribe for just $20 per year and have continuous access to all of this material. It's an amazing bargain. And, as you well know, all of your students have listening devices (computers and MP3 players) on which they can listen to this material. 

Music Learning Community 


If you have been to any national piano teacher convention looking for inspiring technologies to incorporate into your teaching, you have probably encountered Chris Hermanson. Although Chris has become a software developer, she is one of us, a piano teacher.

Check out her website where you will find hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of educational music games that your students can play while online. You can subscribe very inexpensively for the benefit of your entire studio. Doing so is one of the best ways to send your students home with fun, supplementary assignments. These games are fun and productive not only during the summer but during the school year as well. 

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