Music education moves online

Thanks to advancements in so-called Web 2.0 technologies, music education is extending beyond the classroom with the help of software that allows for virtual, real-time music lessons and collaboration online. These technologies can supplement and reinforce the traditional teaching that occurs during private music lessons or school classes, their proponents say.

Software from new companies such as eJamming, WorkshopLive, and In the Chair can connect students and teachers in online groups or in solo sessions to record and edit music online. The growing number of homes with access to broadband internet service has helped fuel this emerging trend.

eJamming is a software application and online service that enables musicians to find, network, and play music online with one another in real time. Using eJamming Studio 1.5, musicians can plug their MIDI-enabled digital instruments–keyboards, guitars, bass guitars, drum kits, and wind controllers–into their computer’s USB port to connect and play with up to seven other musicians simultaneously.

“Real-time, in-sync connectivity expands the possibilities of any music-teaching approach. The only limit is the teacher’s imagination,” said Gail Kantor, chief executive officer of eJamming Inc. “We’re seeing the genesis of a new teaching culture … Plus, there’s a ‘cool factor’ to eJamming that will inspire students after class to connect and study together.”

Using the software, a teacher can connect with up to seven students on an eJamming “stage” using a typical DSL or cable internet connection.

eJamming includes built-in voice-over-internet protocol technology and has a sound library containing different instrument sounds. These sounds use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface), a sound-specification protocol that enables exchanges of musical information between synthesizers and computers, to ensure that if one student plays a harp sound from his or her computer, the other students on that eJamming stage will hear exactly the same sound.

Teachers may show examples of a melody or rhythm and have students group together in eJamming to re-create that example. The software also broadens the possibilities of teaching in an economical way–music teachers who give private lessons can teach more students at once and don’t have to drive to their lessons.

eJamming still allows students to get “a simultaneous experience, almost as if [all the participants] were in the same room,” Kantor said.

Web cameras can be used for a more complete experience, she said. They can be pointed at a student’s hands, so his or her teacher can view finger placement and motions. Aside from playing and listening to music in real time, users can record everything they hear. Each person’s musical execution is saved on everyone’s hard drive simultaneously, and a student or teacher can export that sound file to any mixing software program. The interplay and collaboration that eJamming makes possible “inspires … kids to pursue further education, because they’re actually having a lot of fun,” Kantor said. “I recognize the importance of the solitary practice experience, to practice and learn intervals and chords, but responding to what you hear [from others] makes you play better and inspires you to practice.”

Teachers also can instruct students to compose their own works and share them by recording them on eJamming, then having them peer-reviewed.

“These are things that you can do with eJamming that you can’t do with traditional education,” Kantor said. “It can be supplemental to a traditional education.”

Students can use real-time music teaching tools such as eJamming in many different and beneficial ways, either with their peers or with an instructor, said George Litterst of TimeWarp Technologies, a software company that develops interactive music practice and performance software.

“Two students may be collaborating on a project that they work on separately at home, and their composition takes the form of a MIDI file that can be shared through the eJamming software,” he said. “The two kids can talk with each other over the internet, hear the music together, play with it, change it, and add to it.”

Litterst added: “I think it can be equally useful for both [classroom and private music teachers]; it hits a number of different places. There’s quite a colorful spectrum between those two scenarios.”

Nearly a year old, WorkshopLive operates on the same premise as eJamming, offering keyboard, bass, or guitar lessons via a high-speed internet connection. Students can choose their instructor, and a patent-pending student-teacher matching engine helps select the right educator and lesson plan to match the student’s ability and style of learning. David Smolover, founder and CEO of WorkshopLive, said his company has been in publishing for about 15 years and has produced CDs, DVDs, videos, and books–but none of those products give music students what they need to learn.

“Those technologies have significant limitations–they’re one-way, they tell you what they want you to hear,” he said.

Mastering a topic’s terminology is a challenge in any field, Smolover said, and music is no exception. WorkshopLive’s site has defined more than 1,200 musical terms and gives students access to a musical glossary. If students don’t understand a certain term, they can click on the musical glossary and watch a video of a teacher explaining the term and demonstrating it with a musical instrument.

“We’re getting a tremendous amount of interest from school systems that are having a very difficult time supporting their music programs because of budget cutbacks,” Smolover said. This winter, WorkshopLive will be piloted in a number of school districts across the nation.

But WorkshopLive is not meant as a replacement for an actual teacher.

“The teacher is essential,” Smolover said, adding that while computer-based programs can tell students if they played the right note in the right time, the act of hearing music with the human ear and judging its quality is something only a teacher can truly help a student with.

Educators and others can visit for a free trial.

Australian company In the Chair has developed In the Chair 2.0, music software that gives students the feeling of playing alongside professional bands and orchestras through a full-immersion experience. Students see and hear the simulated musicians.

In the Chair includes streaming video of a conductor directing the specific piece of music a student is practicing, and the sounds a student hears from the simulated orchestra are real instrument sounds instead of synthesized tones generated by a computer sound card. The company calls its simulated experience an online “flight simulator” for musicians. Company representatives say the real-time video of the conductor, combined with the notation, teaches students the discipline needed to play with an ensemble at real performance tempos.

The system is currently available for clarinet, flute, trumpet, violin, cello, recorder, and saxophone. More instruments will be added soon, the company says.

In the Chair recently formed a partnership with Sibelius, a California-based music software company, to incorporate the company’s Scorch technology into its software. Scorch is an interactive browser for the display and playback of musical notation. Students can sync scrolling sheet music with the pre-recorded version of a professional band playing the same song. The software monitors the student’s playing via the computer’s microphone and then gives the student instant feedback on whether he or she played the correct note with the correct timing.

A feedback panel, using a friendly tutor’s voice, gives students information about how they score on tone, timing, pitch, and dynamics. Students receive a numerical grade for each performance, as well as detailed, text-based feedback on graphs. This feedback system can be valuable in helping teachers pinpoint where their students are having problems, according to the company.

Using a new online component, teachers and other composers can edit or collaborate on sheet music that they upload to the program. In the Chair 2.0 also has the ability to eMail performances or burn them onto a CD for instructor review.

“Students will feel that they are actually sitting in with the band or orchestra instead of simply reading sheet music off of a computer screen,” said Jeremy Silver, CEO of Sibelius Software, now owned by Avid Technology.

As useful as these sites might be for supplementing a school’s music education programs, some experts caution they cannot replace traditional, face-to-face instruction.

“What I’m nervous about is we’re creating a group of musicians who read manuals and are glued to the computer all the time, and that’s never what we would encourage our kids to play music for,” said Debra Barbre, a music education specialist for Roland Corp. “There’s something to be said [for] sitting with a teacher.”

While computers should not replace music teachers, Barbre said, these web-based instructional programs could be useful for practice, or even for beginning musicians who are looking for additional ways to hone their skills before taking more advanced personal music classes.

Laura Ascione

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