This is the second part of an interview with music teacher John Gardner. John is also an avid technologist and able to be a virtual assistant with music arranging/composing and general office skills through his company Virtual Music Office. You can see Part 1 here.
Technology for Teaching Music
Andrew: Do you use any technology or software in your day to day running?
John: Yeah, I like that question. I use Skype some when I’m doing the remote lessons. I use Finale notation software. Some students are working on something specific. There is a weakness that they have and I’ll write an exercise for them. I want you to do this or I’ll transpose something for them or for someone else. I use SmartMusic. Are you familiar with SmartMusic?
Andrew: The practice software?
John: Yeah, it’s a practice software. We’re trying to get the school to let us put enough subscriptions in that we—see, our school has, every student has an iPad and we’re trying to get the school to put SmartMusic on all the iPads but that’s a subscription. They don’t want to pay for it but I use SmartMusic to, if they’re working on a solo, I can provide them the accompaniment to practice with. Sometimes when they come in to a lesson, I can’t do this with the remote people, but I can on the local level. I can use SmartMusic and we’ll play scales with accompaniment or we’ll practice. It’s got a site reading component where I say, okay, I want to find the difficulty level. I want to find where your brick wall is, then we’ll work from there. Scales and exercises, it’s got rhythm. I like SmartMusic a lot.
Andrew: How much is the subscription?
John: It’s about $40 a year.
Andrew: Oh, okay, not so bad.
John: No, it’s not.
Andrew: But the student has to also pay the same price or the teacher—
John: If they want to have it on their iPad to go home, take it home and do it at home, they have to buy a subscription. Actually, we buy an educator’s license at the school which I think is about $150 or thereabouts and then additional subscriptions. Right now, we have one educator license and four, what they’re calling practice licenses. We can put four copies on computers that we have there at the school, so I can send a student back to play something. One of the things that it will do is we can take a piece of their music that they’re practicing on, put it into Finale, Finale transfers to SmartMusic and then they can go back and practice with SmartMusic and SmartMusic will actually record them including marking for them what they missed.
Andrew: Wow, so you actually can hear what you’re—
John: Yeah, you put them, it comes with a microphone where you use the microphone on your iPad or your Macbook or computer and so if they’re practicing a scale or they’re practicing sight reading—green notes were good, red notes you missed. If you’re slightly off, it shows you that. It’s not 100% so not comfortable sometimes at school using it if I’m actually giving the students a grade because sometimes the software will make a mistake but it’s good for letting them practice and a lot of band music, they’ve got the actual band that compliment and so I can send the kid back there to work on their 2nd trumpet part with the band sound coming at them.
Andrew: And it doesn’t cost more to add arrangements or something?
Andrew: Oh, wow.
John: No. That’s all part of what you get, so it’s a good tool for individual practice and I usually encourage my students to do it because then even the remote students, I can give them an assignment, they can record it with SmartMusic and they can send me the file.
Andrew: Wow. You know, I’ve heard about it but I just never explored it, so I’m very excited about that.
John: It’s a fun tool.
Andrew: Does it work with Sibelius as well because I’m on Sibelius.
John: I have not—My son is a music teacher and he loves Sibelius and I know the local university loves Sibelius. The other band director I teach with loves Sibelius. I guess my—you know, I use Finale more because it interacts with SmartMusic.
Andrew: And they don’t do that with the—
John: SmartMusic and Finale are part of the same family. So it’s like two products from the same company. I use it mostly for that. Sometimes I use some online theory programs if I’m working with somebody and I’ll have them go to Musictheory.net and there’s exercises. The only downside is I can’t have them do an exercise where I know how they did it. It’s just the kind of thing where I can say go practice, listen to this interval or these intervals.
I use Google docs sometimes for collaboration, communication. I use Google sheet.
Andrew: That’s with the student?
John: Yeah, sometimes usually with the parent, like this morning right before you called, I’m at home working on a Google doc with the band director who’s over at the school, we’re compiling a list, so we’re both able to type on the same list at the same time. It’s good for that kind of thing but I also use it for surveys and homework. I can use the Google—it’s not Google sheets, I guess it’s Google forms that allows you to create questions, multiple choice, or paragraphing insert, and they do that and then I get their answers back, so I can get various kinds of homework or listen to this piece and I want you to critique it—What did you like? What did you not like? Even themselves, listen to this recording of you playing your solo with the accompaniment and judge yourself on your form and then I get copies of that.
Andrew: Do you actually embed the audio in that form?
John: You can. You can put it. Well, you can put a YouTube link in there. You can do that sort of thing. I do use YouTube for recording and playing back, letting them hear who they’ve done or in the case of marching band, we’ll actually video a rehearsal and let students see that. We use our iPads at school. A couple of years ago, I took the whole—for basketball season, I took all of your basketball music that was in three-ring binders and I scanned it and uploaded it, so they can download it onto their iPads, so when they go into a basketball game now, they just take their iPads and I just say #25 and they punch in 25 and it pulls up the piece of music.
Andrew: Are they actually mounted on a little music holder?
John: We don’t have the official iPad stands but the iPad, it’ll sit on the music stand. You just have to make sure you don’t kick it over but we haven’t lost any of them yet from that way. We thought we would. We thought that it would be risk especially at a ball game but we haven’t had a problem with that.
Andrew: What apps are on that iPad that are being used?
John: When I scan them, I usually just put them in a PDF format and then I post those. Our band has a website, I’ll post those on a page and then they can download the PDF into ibooks in their iPad and when they download it, every title has a number and so I do everything by number because in a ball game, they can’t hear you talk to them. There’s a lot of them there, so I can just pull up a little #15 and they can find that. And then iPads also make it easy in their concert band. We don’t allow students to take their folders home because inevitably they take them home and then they’re sick the next day and their stand partner doesn’t have any music but they can take pictures of the music with their iPads and they can take the iPad home and practice that way. That’s probably most of the technology. With their iPads, they have access to metronomes and tuners.
Andrew: What about when you teach the students, do you keep notes for the students anywhere?
John: I probably should do better at that. I know there’s a trumpet teacher that comes in every week—well, several times a week to work with students and he always writes down everything they do but then he gets it to them. Here are your notes from today’s lesson and he hands it to them and then they’re supposed to bring it back the next week for him to review which is a good thing to do. I don’t do enough of that because I’ll usually just mark some things in their book or make comments but then I have found that if I don’t remember what I old them to do, they don’t remember either. What did I tell you to practice this week? So yeah, taking notes is a good thing.
Andrew: Is that something that you think to be served by some technology that you already have?
John: I could do that with Google docs. I probably should do it with Google docs and share that with the student but I haven’t but now that’s probably a good idea.
Andrew: And then you can probably send it to the parent too just so that they can check it.
John: if they can have access to it.
Andrew: How do you keep your roster of your students? Do you have any kind of way of tracking who’s coming when?
John: Well, I use Google’s calendar and that integrates with my phone, and so yeah, that what I use for scheduling.
Setting Policy For Remote Lessons
I’ve got some requirements before I started working with a 14-year-old girl on Skype, I have a conversation with mama—mother or father or somebody and I ask especially if we’re doing this at their home, that there be a parent there. They don’t have to sit there next to them but—so, I get parental permission in advance but just because of all the stupid stuff that you hear whether it’s in the public school, teachers and students, and you just got to be really careful.
My son administers a school of performing arts that’s actually in a church and he tells me some of the things they go through just to avoid any kind of accusation that there’s something inappropriate going on with—because most of their teachers, they’re in a college so a lot of the teachers or college students, a lot of the students or elementary and middle school kids, so they’ve gone through windows and all the practice rooms. They have a staff member physically walk into every lesson every time. Sometimes during that 30 minutes, somebody’s going to walk in and parents have to sign the students in and sign them out. It’s all about making sure mom and dad know you’re here, they know what you’re doing, they’re here they know what we’re doing, here’s how it work, things like that.
When I used to do lessons in my home, I would strongly encourage a parent to stay. Go sit on my couch and read a book. I’ll take the student to the dining room, not all of them did, but that’s always one of those things, so I don’t do it my home anymore. And that’s part of the reason, other than my Skype lessons, I’ll do those from here. I’m here and there or somewhere else. But I like the Skype lessons where I’m working with a student who’s in a band office because now there’s an adult at the other end or somebody around.
You’ll see that I put that on the website. I require a conversation with the parent. Now I don’t, with this high school because I’m dealing with a teacher who’s working with this student and I’m working with them but when I have someone that I don’t know contact me and want to do something, I do make sure I have a conversation with the parent. I make sure I have at least some kind of an email interaction back and forth where I’ve got something in writing from them. Here’s what’s going on and it’s just a protection. I mean, you got to be so careful because in today’s world, you don’t have to be guilty. You only have to be accused.
And you could be ruined. My son tells me about one of his teachers who is a college student and it wasn’t one of the lessons in his school of performing arts. It was a guy giving lessons at the college to, I think he said, she was a middle school student accused him of touching her. Well, the university kicked him out. They expelled the kid and then a month or two later the girl confessed that she made it all up but in the meanwhile, here’s a kid that’s lost his college education. And so the university there now requires their students who are giving private lessons, video of the lessons which is an excellent idea.
Every once in a while in the summer time at school, I’ll have some students who want to come in for lessons and there’s not a lot of people in the school building. Once I make sure mom knows where they are and I have a lesson out in the big ensemble room when I open the door—there’s always somebody in the building, a custodian or somebody walking through, just try everything you can do, just try to eliminate the possibility that somebody can say something.
Trends in Private Teaching
John: The positive for private teaching is that a lot of public schools are cutting. They’re cutting budgets, they’re cutting personnel, some are actually cutting music programs that seems to happen more in the elementary school where they’re completely cutting something out or they’re cutting it way back but even in some public schools where they’re cutting it, the school of performing arts that my son works with, that has helped them thrive actually because the parents in the area where the schools are cutting back are saying, “Well, we still want music education and so they’ll work with that. That’s probably the biggest positive or in rural areas where there’s no teachers around for Skype lessons or Facetime or some remote way of doing things.
You have on your list one of the biggest threats—the two biggest, the safety issue that we’ve talked about, have to deal with not getting yourself in a position where you can be accused of doing something improper with a teenager or even a child, somebody starting lessons. It’s just something that you have to be really careful about and I think some parents, I’ve never had somebody tell me but I just wonder are there parents who won’t let their kids study privately and that’s part of the mix. I’m not going to let my kid get—because if you’re doing private lessons, with instrumental lessons, a lot of times you’re in the music library and the door is shut or in a practice room and the door is shut. And there’s not always going to be a lot of people around. I think some parents, whether they admit it or not, that’s a little bit in the mix and then the other big threat at our area is just the economics of it. I can’t afford it. I can’t afford lessons. I can’t afford to get my kid step-up instruments. Some won’t even get their kid’s instrument repaired. No, we bought that instrument—I’m dealing with high school kids that are playing on the instrument they got in 6th grade that was designed for 6th graders. Now that trombone student needs a bigger trombone, not the little peashooter that they started on and the parents are like, “We already bought him one. We’re not going to buy him another one.” Economics are an issue.
Andrew: Do you see anything about the change in how much interest there is in music lessons?
John: There’s a lot more competition for kids, a lot more opportunities for them to be involved in different things. Some of them tells us that, I want to be on the tennis team and I’m doing this with the honor society and I’m on the math competition team and so mom and dad just say that’s enough, I can’t do something else.”
Andrew: I mean, that probably has been not always the case, right? But is it increasing or decreasing?
John: I think it’s increasing. Our high school has now—there are 40 extracurricular clubs for them to be a part of—
There’s a lot of competition for the kids and then more and more of them feel like they have to have a job. They have to get a job because they have to get a car because—and they have to pay the insurance. It’s hard to compete with them sometimes.