Composing & Arranging

 

Love ’em or hate ’em, computers are here to stay and are rapidly permeating most areas of our lives. Music is no exception.

There’s music software ranging from humble metronome and tuning duties, right through to sophisticated composition and recording, and everything in-between! In preparing the next generation of musicians, integrating music technology into our lessons is therefore an important aspect of our student’s development.

But where to start? What software should students use? Will it be expensive? What skills need to be taught?

Over the next few months I will looking at some of the basic concepts of music technology that I teach in my music lessons as well as sharing some advanced techniques learnt from my experiences as a freelance composer and producer.

So why incorporate music technology in lessons?

  • It brings exciting variety into the lessons for both us as teachers and for our students
  • Particularly good for engaging teenage boys but I’m equally pleased to see the enthusiasm of my female students too
  • Helps give us a “USP (unique selling point)” when students are looking for a new teacher
  • Playing back to students what they written or recorded and allowing them to “see” their music is a very powerful method of learning
  • Helps us stay relevant as teachers
  • Gives students skills that they will be need in the future

What software is available?

For simplicity, I would divide music software into three basic roles:

  1. Software for notating sheet music
  2. Software for recording
  3. Utility software for tuning, metronome duties, guitar pedal software, drum machines, soft synths, etc.

How much?!

The good news is you don’t have to spend a penny! There is much legitimate, free software out there and some of it is exceptional. Beware that there is a lot of illegal, cracked software that may be very tempting. As teachers, we need to set a good moral/ethical example to our students and their parents. Software developers rely on sales to fund future releases and cracked software often contains bugs that can cause serious problems.

Notation software

NoteFlight is a fantastic free web based product and has provided a very good starting point for lots of my students. As their skills develop, some students have upgraded to Sibelius First, which can later be upgraded to the industry standard Sibelius. It is worth mentioning Finale which is another highly respected notation package in the music industry.

Recording software

There are many great products available for recording. You many hear of them referred to as DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations).

Apple provide their free entry level product GarageBand on their iPhones, iPads and MacBooks which is simple to use and can later be updated to their flagship product Logic (available on Macs but not the iPhones or iPads). With the Apple Camera Kit and a USB cable (same as a USB printer cable), you can connect a midi keyboard to record music. Bluetooth keyboards are now available so that you don’t need to use cables anymore! Guitars and microphones can also be connected for use. IK Multimedia provide some great products for singers, guitarists and keyboard players to interface with their mobile devices for recording.

Cubase is a long respected DAW which has the benefit of being cross-platform (I run it on both my PCs and Macs) and has been my weapon of choice since I was 14! It comes in three flavours, Elements (entry-level), Artist and then the full version.

Finally, I would like to mention a website called MusicRadar which is a fantastic resource for learning about software products and learning about how to use music technology.

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Motivating Students to Practice Scales…

Scales… Ugh!  Who loves to learn to play scales?  Arguably scales are very helpful to learn skills, pass exams, play faster, etc.

Motivating students to practice – using scale sticks for random choice has helped my students want to practice their scales.

You’ll no doubt agree that it is better to motivate students to practice their scales rather than berate them for not practicing them…

My earlier blog post ‘Scales Made Easier‘ helps my students to learn scale patterns.  However, I have added a fun element to provide a way of preparing students for the randomness of needing to play scales out of order, to sharpen their mind.

Introducing wooden sticks has helped students to practice scales in a more fun way (which scale am I playing next, left/right/together etc?).  I also use several dice with ‘left hand’, ‘right hand’, ‘hands together’ or ‘hands together with eyes closed’, 1 finger, together contrary motion, etc., for scales or arpeggios.  Students pick a stick and roll the dice (for scale, broken chord or arpeggio, depending on what stick they picked).

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  • How can I get my piano students to play musically?
  • Will they ever learn to truly perform rather than just play?
  • How can I help them to become more confident music readers?

These are some of the challenges that Alison Mathews has addressed in her new book “Doodles” published by Editions Musica Ferrum.

Aimed at beginners to around grade 3 (ABRSM), this chunky book contains 128 little pieces of 4-8 bars (measures) arranged in four difficulty levels.

Now the interesting part! Rather than name each piece, Mathews has provided a small picture, often an emoji, hence the title “Doodles,” which is meant to inspire a mood in the music student. She has also given lots of interesting directions like, “playfully – fish are chasing in the coral” or “fast and furious – what else could you do to make it sound stormy?” I love how at the centre of these short activities the emphasis is on performance. The pupil just simply can’t resist but will soon be inspired to create their own pieces. Watch out John Williams, we will all be writing shark music at this rate!

An interesting feature is the use of the same pieces at each level but with increased difficulty and technique. This a great way to help a student see how to develop a composition. I can see my pupils having lots of fun improvising with these pieces and using them as the basis of their own compositions. Young pupils love engaging their imagination, so this book will inspire them not only to be better readers of music but more importantly, to play with feeling and understanding.

Lots of different playing techniques are explored through the pieces and are an intrinsic part of each song. Legato, staccato, dynamics, tremolandi and glissandi are all represented. I’ve even picked up a tip for helping young pupils to play a glissando without hurting their fingers by using a roll of sellotape!

My only criticism is that there are no key signatures used. I’m very keen on introducing a sense of key very early in development but this is a “minor” grumble compared with the fantastic way that musicality is being taught here. Maybe this is an issue that could be addressed in later editions or subsequent volumes.

For its ability to inspire musicality in such a fun and engaging way, this book gets a big thumbs up from me.

To purchase the book, click here.

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