Today we have access to technology tools for teaching composition/arranging, notation, listening skills, and performance. In this article I want to address what I believe to be the most important classroom application – ensemble performance. By “performance” I mean a class of general music students making music together – no quantizing, no fix-it-in-the-mix, just ensemble music-making.
I understand that to some this view may seem outdated or irrelevant. Many contemporary “artists” regularly use pre-recorded music and real-time pitch correction devices in “live” concerts. Others don’t even attempt to sing live – they are too busy doing jumping jacks. (One is tempted to ask the qu
estion in a Clintonian context – is “live” “live” for these people?) Live music-making may well become a niche musical activity, given the reduction in the number not only of professional orchestras but also community bands and choruses. The Tuesday night community chorus rehearsal has been replaced by the advocacy group meeting and the yoga class. (I don’t mean to pick on classical music groups; concert attendance for many popular acts is also down, as evidenced by the record number of tour cancellations this past summer.)
Everyone reading this article has performed in ensembles as part of their training. In college I sang in choirs, accompanied choirs, played bass in stage bands and combos, played continuo in an early music ensemble, and played violin in orchestras. After spending more than forty years creating “ensembles” by myself with tape recorders and computers, I will be the first to agree that there is something magical about a group of people making music together.One of the most enjoyable graduate courses I have taught is “Keyboards in the Classroom.” In this course students learned about electronic keyboard arranging and performance techniques. As a final project students composed or arranged a piece of music for a keyboard quartet. Each student had to assign the parts, rehearse the group, and perform it in the concert on the last day of class. The quality and diversity of musical styles was amazing; we had string and brass quartets, jazz combos, Dixieland bands, organ/brass combinations, rock groups (folk/funk/acid/metal), Renaissance consorts, Indian ragas, and sound effect collages. The camaraderie of the students interacting in these classes was completely different from my classes in advanced sequencing, where students
sat as monks in a digital scriptorium, working alone and in silence while I walked around the room chanting MIDI controller numbers and sample rate specs in Latin.
The experts tell us that today’s students have fewer social skills because they spend so much time alone sitting in front of a computer and a television. We need to give students in labs not just opportunities to learn but opportunities to interact through ensemble performance. In some labs performance seems to have taken a back seat to the allure and instant gratification of notation programs which auto-orchestrate, sequencing programs which auto-quantize, accompaniment programs which auto-harmonize, and audio editing programs which slice, dice, and auto-align audio clips. I am by no means negating the creative and educational value of these programs, but let’s face it – many of your students can, if they desire, learn programs such as Garage Band by themselves; they can’t play in a keyboard ensemble by themselves.
Why isn’t ensemble performance stressed as much as it should be in labs? I believe the major obstacle is the lab setup. Many labs are not set up for classroom performance, and most educators don’t know how to modify the setup to facilitate this option. (I address this problem in an article appearing in the upcoming December issue of Music Education Technology.)
Performance used to be the raison d’etre of music. Composers learned compositional technique in order to write music to be performed; they learned notation in order to communicate with performers; performers spent years developing technique in order to perform live. Although technology has created other avenues for musical expression, the emotional and intellectual responses to live performance remain unique.
Many students in your classes may never again have the opportunity to perform in an ensemble; you are the last call before they spend the rest of their lives as listeners. They can sit in front of a computer anytime. They can’t get the joy, excitement and satisfaction of playing in an ensemble by themselves. They need you to make that happen.
by Don Muro
composer, performer, author, educator, lecturer, and producer, NY
Classically trained on violin, piano and organ, he is recognized as a master synthesist specializing in live performance techniques for electronic keyboard. In 1977 he commissioned ARP Instruments to build what has been called the world’s first portable 32-note pedalboard synthesizer controller. He has presented electronic music concerts, lectures, and clinics to more than 500,000 listeners throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.
He has taught the basics of music technology to thousands of music educators and students as a visiting artist and adjunct faculty member at several institutions. He has also written over eighty articles for educational journals and has published several books and videos on music technology. He served as a contributor to the New York State Education Department and as a member of the Technology Task Force of the National Association for Music Education (MENC). He is currently a member of the TI:ME Board of Directors as well as the New York State School Music Association Technology Committee. He is also a regular contributor to Music Education Technology magazine. He has three new publications available this month: The Church Musician’s Guide to Music Technology is published by GIA; Concert Suite, for recorders and CD, is published by J.D. Wall; the MIDI/Keyboards module, a set of nine music technology lessons for the Music Expressionsr Middle School curriculum, is published by Warner Brothers. To read the TI:ME interview, click here. For more information visit www.donmuro.com.