With that reference to Inspector Gadget, I suspect I'm dating myself a little! I grew up in a (not that long ago, honest) age, unimaginable to some of the youngsters I teach, without iPads, iPods, YouTube or Facebook. All my school – and music theory – work was done on paper. If I wanted to hear a piece of music, I had to buy a recording, listen out for it on the radio or go to a concert. Downloading music was a very new thing!
This isn’t a post about the ‘good old days’ though. Technology is a hot topic with music teachers, with articles in magazines about the latest software, apps and gadgets to help with teaching. I’m generally a fan of technology so I've investigated quite a few of these, and adopted some for use in my lessons. I use quite a few internet resources for sheet music and theory (see my links section for info on some of these), but today I'm concentrating on my favourite apps - mainly iPad but some of these are available for Android and other systems too.
Rhythm Cat (http://melodycats.com/rhythm-cat/)
Rhythm Cat was one of the first musical apps I downloaded, drawn in by the name! It's a game which gradually builds rhythm skills, teaching how note values match up to sounds. There's a great, really varied soundtrack to play along to, and some beautifully-designed cat-related graphics.
There are a few apps for testing and improving aural skills - those skills of clapping in time, echo singing, sight-singing etc, which build general musicianship and are part of the ABRSM exams. ABRSM themselves offer the Aural Trainer, which is pretty good. AuralBook has a couple of advantages over this though - for one thing it's free, the full version for all eight grades. It also doesn't just play exercises or record your responses - it does both of these, and analyses your responses! So it plays you a melody, you sing it back, it records your singing and compares it to the original. Same with your clapping to see if it's in time. The one offputting aspect is the tone of voice of the 'examiner' who asks the questions and tells you how you've done - it's quite abrupt and doesn't pull any punches when it comes to saying you've made a mistake. Even the "wow" when you get something perfectly right sounds a bit sarcastic. But I've found if I warn students about this in advance, we end up having a giggle about it - one asks me if I've "brought the rude woman this week"!
Another app that 'listens' to you! This one tests your scales and arpeggios - again, recording them and comparing them against how they should sound, checking notes, tuning, speed and rhythm. You can work on a particular scale, or ask it to 'challenge' you which prompts you with scales picked randomly from the appropriate syllabus. You get a mark and a really detailed note-by-note analysis, plus a big cheer if you do well! I've found this one really motivating for some students, being driven on to get a better mark. The big downside to this one is the price - there's a free version but that's quite limited. The full app is £4.99 and then there are further costs to download exam syllabuses (sets of scales for each grade).
I also like ScaleBox - although this doesn't 'mark' the scales for you, it encourages self-assessment which is a really useful skill to develop.
Alongside these apps, I make use of a metronome (lots of free ones available), a piano app which gives you a small playable keyboard on the screen (handy for theory - explaining intervals etc), and a recording app - again really helpful for encouraging students to listen to and self-assess their own playing. My favourite is Voice Record Pro which is free but has lots of useful features, including the ability to upload and share recordings online - handy if students want to keep a copy of their recording.
Not all teachers are fans of apps and gadgets – I’ve heard them dismissed as gimmicks, a waste of time, or only used as a ‘treat’. I use them as part of a range of materials, and I do think you need to take as much care testing them out and assessing them as you do with any teaching materials, tutor books etc (so yes, I have sat at home and gone through all eight grades on AuralBook, and all the levels on Rhythm Cat)! Just as there are books I choose not to use as a teacher, there are apps that I’ve decided were badly designed, pointless, or just confusing to use. I make sure the ones I use actually teach students something, but I also want them to be intuitive to use and fun too.
Part two of this post - coming soon - will look at more 'physical' gadgets, including the "helicopter thingy" that my youngest pupils are very keen on!
Why am I researching adult learners? Perhaps the best place to start is to look at what an adult music learner is. The ‘adult’ bit is self-explanatory, except that when we talk about adult music learners we don’t usually include music students in higher education, even if they are over 18. But we might include students who are at university studying a different subject, but taking music lessons as a ‘hobby’. Adult learners include those who are learning an instrument (or singing) from scratch in adulthood. They might play or have played another instrument, or maybe not. It also includes those who have continued to play from childhood, not made a career of music, but continue to learn and develop their playing. A lot of adult learners are ‘re-starters’, having played at school then stopped for some time (anything from a few years to a couple of decades). Some adult learners get lessons from tutors, and some are self-taught. Some are even musicians or music teachers, learning a new instrument – I’ve had attempts at the violin, clarinet and saxophone myself, with varying levels of success!
For the purposes of my research, an adult learner is anyone who defines themselves as such, as that seems to be the easiest way to define such a varied group! But these variations got me thinking – do all adult learners feel the same about learning music? Do they have different approaches to it? Do they share common concerns? What are their aims and priorities? How do they relate to their teachers? How do they feel about exams and performances? Does it make a difference whether they’re a beginner or a re-starter? Do they consider themselves to be ‘musicians’? I don't expect to be able to answer all of these questions in one dissertation, but essentially, I want to find out how adult learners describe their experiences and express their identities. In future posts I’ll explain how I plan to do this!
Why do I want to do this? I teach the flute to a mixture of children and adults (roughly half and half at the moment). Parents enquiring about lessons for a child rarely have any doubt that the child will be able to start learning an instrument. Adults are often uncertain – they have concerns about being ‘too old’, not sure if they can learn something new, worries about going back to something they ‘used to be able to do’. Children are used to learning, to not being able to do something; adults are often less so, and more easily frustrated by the process.
I’ve found that a lot of teaching guidance and materials are aimed at teaching children. Reading around the subject and asking other teachers* I’ve found there’s a range of attitudes to teaching adults from “they are notoriously difficult to teach” to “I much prefer teaching adults”. There has been some research into adults learning music, but much of this focuses on older adults (retirement age and above, when people are traditionally seen as having free leisure time to take up new pursuits). I’ve found there’s often a focus on teacher’s experiences of teaching adults, which is an invaluable resource, but I feel that more could be done looking into the subject from the learners’ point of view. I think that really getting to know what adult music learners think and feel could help to inform how teachers approach teaching them, and how organisations (amateur music groups, professional groups running courses, universities training future teachers, and exam boards) can meet their needs.
*If you’re a teacher and would like to add your thoughts to the discussion, I’ve got a brief online survey open at http://www.sheffieldflute.co.uk/ma-survey.html - please do join in!
Rather like your first music lesson, writing your first blog post can be both exciting and a little nerve-wracking! I’m blogging because I’ve got lots of ideas I want to write about, but this first post is a quick one to say hello, a bit about me and what I’ll be blogging about.
So, hello! I’m a flute and music theory teacher, and I also work teaching baby and toddler music classes. Between those, I currently teach music in various forms to people aged between about six weeks and sixty years! I play in local ensembles around Sheffield and Yorkshire, and run a group for adult flute players. I’m also a part-time distance learning student, in the final year of a Masters in English Language with Lancaster University. When I left school, my English teacher wrote in my school yearbook that she hoped I’d enjoyed her classes “almost as much as music”, and the truth is that I have a lifelong fascination with both! I think there are lots of connections and similarities between how we learn and use language and music, the roles they play in our lives. I’m interested in ‘sociolinguistic’ approaches, which examine how language is used to express identity, social relationships and attitudes, and I’m particularly intrigued by how language is used by musicians, musical organisations, music teachers and even in musical tutor books.
I’m currently working on my MA dissertation which is about adult music learners. Using linguistic analysis techniques (more about those in later posts), I’m analysing a large data set (or ‘corpus’) which consists of text where adult learners talk/ write about themselves. The aim is to find out the main ‘discourses’ of adult learners. What are their priorities, their challenges, their feelings about learning music? How do they describe themselves and their experiences of learning music? I’ll be blogging about my research and related topics over the coming months.
You can also expect posts about flutes, performing, teaching and music in general. Comments are very welcome (but do need to be approved to avoid spam and nonsense, so won’t appear immediately) – I’d love to hear your views!
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The Reliable Musician - a series of blog posts on the skills that make the sort of musician people want to work with!