Thoughts on the new Core Arts Standards

Today, the National Core Arts Standards were updated, to much furor on the Music Teachers Facebook board.  I feel like it is a good opportunity to discuss my feelings on the topic here.

I had a conversation with a high ranking official of the Ohio Dept. of Education once, during a meeting on Arts standards once.  My questions had to do with the application of the standards in our program.  It went something like this:

Me: “So, in a band class am I supposed to fully address all of the standards for my grade level, including singing?”

Official: “Well, not exactly”

Me: “What about choir?  There are standards about instrumental performance – should I be attempting to have our choir people address those?”

Official: “Certainly not”

Me: “OK, so my theory has always been that the standards are meant to be addressed by the entire department as a function of our offerings”

Official: “Well, yes”

Me: “Yes?  Or you’re not sure exactly”

Official: “Well, it hasn’t really been defined to that degree”

Me: “…”

So after this my whole stance on arts standards changed.  They’re not a bad thing at all, and certainly not something to be scared about.  Let’s get a few things straight:

  • In most states, Music is not required for graduation
  • If budget cuts need to happen, Music can certainly be cut without legal repercussions
  • Since Music isn’t required, the average student can not be exposed to all the standards, even if they are all addressed in every class (which they typically are not)
  • Standards are typically required performance and content targets for every student
  • Thus, these are not standards in the traditional sense

The Math teacher’s curriculum is required by law.  The Music Teacher’s is not.  Then, these “standards” must be a hedge against further inquiry into the appropriateness of including an optional Music curriculum in your school.  Let’s pretend Music wasn’t a typical offering and you had to start a program from scratch.  The standards could be considered a guideline for offerings.  Since the Arts standards offer no guidance on pacing or content, it can be surmised that they are meant to be covered as a department rather than by each individual class.  I believe this is not clearly defined to avoid confusion and difference in format from traditional core subject standards.

To those worried about having to “teach to these standards”: I would be very interested in hearing of a story of a teacher having to significantly change their curriculum to match the standards.  To those considering changing their curriculum – only do it if it benefits your students.  For instance, reading about Mozart and writing a report is definitely not an age-appropriate activity for a first grade music course.  These standards are not asking you to do that – but if you happen to do some reflective listening, there is a national justification for it.  For those of you who do nothing but sing and dance at that age, there is also a national justification for that as well.  Should every teacher attempt to address every standard?  I don’t believe it’s possible, nor do I think that’s the intent of documents like these.

The biggest misconception of Arts “standards”

In my view, the misconception is that these are designed for every music class to hit every standard.  Yes, a band class can touch on reflective listening, but the bulk of activity in the course is designed for preparing live concerts.  Likewise, my Music Technology classes can discuss and  talk about performing our work, but the course is not designed around performances.  Nor should it be, and nor is it being asked to be!  As music teachers, we are terrified that a legislator that doesn’t “get it” will come in and make us give bubble tests in Choir and make our 6th grade non-performance general class give concerts.  With proper justification for our activities this doesn’t have to be the case – and these standards are designed to be broad targets that pretty much every existing music program is already hitting.

Why do they make new standards all the time?

Simple.  NAfME (and others) are lobbyists at the core.  Their job is to ensure that Music & Arts are a part of mandatory education going forward.  To that end, they release documents like the new Arts standards to show that they’re serious about playing ball in today’s educational landscape.  Think STEM to STEAM.  Without a standards document that matches the language and trends in education, there is no justification to add the “A” to STEM.  The document is more about language and attitude than about practice for the average Music teacher.  Your program will most likely fit into areas this document targets and the work you’re already doing with SLO’s will justify the performance of your students.  If NAfME weren’t involved in this process and sat on the sidelines lamenting the decline of Music Education it wouldn’t do much good – by releasing standards and providing states with an easy-to-copy template they’re helping to keep Music & Art in the conversation.

So what are the standards for then?

They certainly don’t serve as a guide for anyone’s teaching.  Music teachers have always taught to their personal strengths and will continue to do so regardless of what NAfME or anyone else says, barring standardized Music tests, which thankfully haven’t come into play.

In my view, the standards are there for a teacher to have outside justification for what they do.  Let’s say I want to teach Guitar instead of Band.  With the standards, this is now possible.  Let’s say I want to teach Music Technology instead of Music History.  With the standards, this is now possible.  Both cases require an amount of radical change to tradition, but fit well within current standards.  There is no need to justify the worth of these activities, as they are within an agreed-upon set of standards.  If the standards become too specific and constraining, there would be a big problem but in their current form (and knowing musicians, for the foreseeable future) they will retain enough room for big new, creative ideas.

Do NAfME standards matter?

Not technically.  They are, however, a template for states to use for their own standards process and will probably be copied down the road as states revise their standards.  Again, Music standards are relative – there is no provision demanding that every 5th grader learn Violin, in the way that there are many mandates in state standards for students to achieve a certain degree of reading proficiency by a given age.  So we call these “standards” to fit in with the current zeitgeist of education, but they are really guidelines – varying targets that a teacher can call out when justifying their lessons.

Should teachers worry about the standards?

Probably not.  I suppose if you’re a bad teacher maybe.  If we start requiring standardized tests for these subjects, then we can demand mandatory staffing for these subjects – again, we’re not there yet.  But for now, these new arts standards will simply serve to be an external justification of what you already do.

Initial Thoughts on GarageBand 10.0.3 for Yosemite

Short version: It’s no WatchBand, but it’ll do.

Background

First of all, I had some good conversations with folks about GarageBand.  I’ve been very vocal about my dislike for last year’s version, and some took it as a generic “OMG I hate GarbageBand” as if I won’t stoop to using it or something.

Let’s be very clear here.  When I started teaching in 2004, GarageBand was released that year and basically no one taught Music Technology.  The software was esoteric and hard for outsiders such as typical educators like myself to understand.  I didn’t know why you’d need things like track effects or bus groups because I had no idea what any of it meant.  GarageBand represented an actual accessible starting point for those of us who wanted to make music on the computer but had no good entry point.

So fast forward 10 years and an entire career built in part due to GarageBand.  Last year, after GarageBand 10 was released I installed it and started upgrading my projects for my beginner class.  Immediately I started noticing things were missing.  My projects were going to have to change big time to keep using GarageBand.

Of course, I could have just stayed on the old version – lots of smart people I know did exactly that.  But why build a curriculum around a product I’m not excited about?  One that I’m wary of updating?  This was not an option either – I can’t passionately get kids excited about making music on a product I’m not terribly sure has a future.  Even though I have the old version, students who like the course and buy a new Mac will get stuck on the new one.  It’s Final Cut Pro X all over again (disclaimer: I liked Final Cut Pro X, but I totally understand how professional video people felt when it was released and had a huge feature set missing).

The key here is communication – Apple is great at running developer and public Beta versions for it’s important apps like OS X and iOS.  So why not just call something totally unfinished like FCPX 10.0 and GarageBand 10.0 what it is?  Unfinished!  Taking the features out without communicating that they’re coming back sends the message that “you don’t need those anymore.”  Sometimes this is necessary, but with professional tools this needs to be clear as a bell.

GarageBand +0.3

So on to yesterday’s version.  One thing is clear to me: Apple is pretty confident that their main user base for this app is Guitarists.  Podcasting support is pretty much out (including that excellent Ducking function – giving meaning to autocorrect users everywhere).  Same as last year, the look is decidedly Logic-Lite.  The wood panels are still there, but they’re much more slim.  Column panels snap out from the left side just like Logic has done since they went single-window.  As for me, I miss the animations but for people who had trouble considering GarageBand a serious-enough tool for music making, maybe these changes are welcome.  It’s not like my software of choice looks any friendlier, and kids seems to like that just fine too.

One thing that still bothers me about this new version is the perceived lag during recording.  When you hit record and speak into the microphone, the waveforms should more or less appear in real-time on the screen.  In this version (still) the waveforms redraw every couple seconds and it implies that the computer is having trouble keeping up with this simple task.  It doesn’t give me confidence that it’s not going to crash under a heavy load, and it certainly doesn’t compare well to other DAW apps in this regard.  Whether there is actual audio lag or not, this is a big concern I think – the whole argument of choosing a Mac over a PC for audio production hinges on the thesis that audio handling has less latency and more stability on Mac OS X than on Windows.   It certainly still does, but the vendor-made bundled app lagging like this out of the box might make people think other wise.

Here’s a comparison.  Notice how much smoother recording appears in the old version (top):

So here’s hoping they continue improving GarageBand.  For whatever internal reason they decided to do a ground up rewrite, I’m hoping they recognize the thousands of educators now relying on this software to be easy, foolproof and friendly.  It’s not like there is a competing product really – the competitor to having a GarageBand-based Music Tech course is simply to not have one at all.  We’re relying on you, Apple to keep this movement alive.

Okay, onto the good stuff.

3 Cool New Things about GarageBand 10.0.3:

1. Track FX are back.  Now they’re called Plugins, and they look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.12.47 PMScreen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.12.54 PM

They’re located in the Smart Controls, and have to be revealed with the “i” button.  Not a terrible system, and I’m digging the inclusion of the core set of Logic effects (the old GB Track Reverb was it’s own thing, for instance).  This is a big deal – last year’s version implied that this type of detail was out of the question, and it’s nice to see them back.  On the other hand, seeing this also implies that GarageBand is on a different track than iWork – feature parity with the iOS version is apparently not a priority here.

2. Automation Drawing

With the pencil tool, the way the good Lord intended.  This pairs well with last year’s inclusion of the ability to copy and paste automation with regions.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.16.05 PM

 

3. Serious Amp Designers

Just look at the new Bass Amp designer: Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 8.17.58 PM

Paired with the other Amp Designer, you’ve got serious tools for guitarists.  I’m pretty sure there was a version of Logic that charged an upgrade fee just to use these plugins.  Way cool, way pro.

In conclusion, I’m fully expecting the newly-unified Apple Inc. to continue incremental improvements to GarageBand and allowing this new version to flourish into a great reason to have a Mac lab in your music department.  Maybe someday I’ll move my beginners back to GarageBand too – the projects still work, mostly.  For most folks, GarageBand 10.0.3 will be just fine software on which build a curriculum.  For me though – I’m waiting until it’s airtight again to switch back.

 

TI:ME Free Online Symposium is Happening NOW

TI:ME Members and non-members alike can logon to check out our free Symposium on Music Tech Pedagogy that is happening right now.  I’ll be speaking at 3:00pm EDT about the types of projects I like to teach and the methods I use to teach composition to kids with little or no music experience.

I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of this – it’s an honor to be in such great company.  A quick rundown of the participants today:

Jay Dorfman – TI:ME’s national president and all around great guy from Boston U.

Mike Medvinsky – a former electrical engineer turned music teacher, who has in middle school kids making some cool things and really maker-faire kind of stuff

Bill Bauer – Bill used to serve on the Ohio TI:ME board before moving to sunny FL.  He’s one of the smartest and most earnest people in the field, and his research into music learning methods in the digital age are second to none.

The other two speakers, Chris and Adam, I don’t know as well but I wouldn’t be surprised if their accomplishments are right up there with the others.  Be sure to log on today to check out what’s going on right now in our field.

LHS Music Tech Promo video

It’s been awhile since I’ve made a nice video outlining what I actually do at Lebanon High School.  Many people do not realize that I only teach Music Tech.  There is no band or choir or guitar class that I cover.  We have one of the only programs in the country with the participation levels to warrant such an arrangement.

My course track is unique too.  There are few college paths purely related to Music Tech.  In 2014, you still cannot get a Music Education degree with technology as your concentration.  Most widely regarded programs are at the Masters or Doctoral level.  Thus, the sequence of curriculum leads to a wider media production standpoint, allowing students to explore fields like broadcasting, theatre production, or apply the tech to a traditional music degree.  Many students use the experience to bolster their applications to undergrad programs like these.  Some will go into a related media field such as film production.  Other students will just graduate and fly off to LA to become famous.  Either way, I feel like we have tapped into a totally different kind of track than what I see happening at other schools – one that others, such as the CCM E-Media program and the NKU Electronic Media program are also serving.

But don’t trust me.  Let the students speak for themselves:

I’ll also be speaking about my program at the TI:ME Online Symposium this Monday at 3pm EDT, if you are interested in learning more about Music Tech & Media Production at Lebanon HS.  It’s free for TI:ME members, and easy to register for through the website.

From One Clip, Many (Beginner-level House Music in Session View)

In my beginner Music Tech class we’re currently working on House music in Ableton’s Session View.  A key component of the project is generating tons of descendent clips from one original clip.  The idea was originally to use an old technique as inspiration – the TB-303 bass machine.

In the 1990’s, a lot of electronic music was very repetitive, and changed timbre more than it did notes or rhythmic material.  This is because those patterns were tougher to change and generate than the timbre changes one could accomplish by turning a knob.

This is also the first project we make in Session mode.  I want this strange-looking view to feel accessible and uniquely useful, so clip duplication is a pretty good starting point.

In our song, we start with a very simple bass pattern.  I like to use the opportunity to show what a monophonic instrument is and how the notes interrupt each other rather than playing chords.  In our example, the students generate the part by locating two octaves of a note with our left index finger and right index finger.  When we press the circle to record a clip, we “park” our left hand on the lower note, leaving it unchanged while simultaneously “interrupting” it with the higher note.  To create more interest, we allow the higher note to drift a bit to nearby keys.  After a quick quantize (cmd-U) the result is a cool alternating bass pattern.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.29.06 AM

I then have students add more instrument tracks to the set – one of each synth category (Pad, Keys, Lead, Rhythmics, etc).  We then copy the initial bass recording onto the other tracks.  Each time we will adjust the octave (in the Notes box, simply type “+12” until it’s in a good sounding octave for that instrument).  After a few other steps involving form sections the Session view ends up looking like this.  Notice – the red clips are all the same exact clip, possibly octave shifted.  There are also drum clips and sound effects to help with transitions between scenes.

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.29.10 AM

When the song sections start coming together, we record the song scene-by-scene into the Arrangement view as a linear, finished song.

This long tone bass part translates to a big variety of sounds when placed on other instrument tracks.  Some things the students learn all in one shot with this project:

  • How MIDI clips are portable between instrument tracks
  • How Instrument timbre affects the sounds of notes, even if the notes are exactly the same
  • How to economically write a full song without needing to generate lots of original music beyond the original keyboard recording

Those are just the technical skills though – the real fun of this project is learning about House music and how to build up and drop and all that fun stuff.  Here’s what the finished project sounds like.

Keep in mind this is a project for beginners who have only been making music for about 8 weeks, and it totally works.  Let me know what you think!

In defense of the iPad

John Walden, for Sound on Sound:

Of course, instead of an iPad, today’s aspiring music technology junkies could buy a computer-based system. Whatever route you take, there is still a bunch of other ‘stuff’ (mics, headphones, speakers, software) you have to acquire alongside the computing platform itself and I’d absolutely agree that the laptop (or desktop) system is likely to be more powerful than the iPad. That said, I love my mobile iPad-based music workstation and, despite its more modest grunt, it’s still a capable device for crunching zeros and ones.

However, price and power aside, lots of today’s aspiring musicians have bought into mobile devices for other reasons. For them, and for their overall IT needs, it is simply their computing platform of choice. The fact that it can do music technology is, for many, a bonus, but one they can happily exploit with relatively low additional costs for software.

The last part is tricky for schools.  For many aspiring musicians “the fact that it can do music technology” is simply not enough.  They want to “do music technology” the way the pros do, and that’s with “computer-based systems” (probably meaning laptop or desktop computers – technically stomp boxes are computer-based systems).

But yeah – when you sit back and think about it it’s pretty amazing that you can just plug a guitar into your phone and lay down tracks.  The world is crazy.

 

Headline of the day

Pro Tools 11 Announced: Do we Care?

We’re certainly not saying there aren’t any dance producers who use Pro Tools, but, in comparison to the likes of Logic, Ableton Live, Cubase, FL Studio and Reason, the size of Pro Tools’ dance music user-base is negligible. Version 11 doesn’t look like turning that situation around.   What do you think? Is Pro Tools relevant to dance music?

No.

Via Attack Magazine