The Educational Value of SMARTMUSIC

One of the never ending ironies in Public Education is this: Arts in schools get little respect. This is especially true when money is tight and school boards find them to be convenient targets for cuts. The reasons for this are many and deserve examination. However, in this post, I will examine one potential reason and I will illuminate a potential solution for music education-a particular software product marketed under the name SMARTMUSIC that legitimizes the educational value of performing music classes-beyond a reasonable doubt.

I believe one potential reason that arts education (I will focus exclusively on music education for the rest of this post) is that stakeholders have little clue HOW the arts are, in fact, Educational. Arts and music teachers are largely to blame for this because we feed into underlying misconceptions about what we do. For example, a tired argument for keeping music in schools for the past decade has been to cite the so called 'Mozart Effect'. We have told school boards that "music makes you smarter" and that kid's SAT scores will go up as a result. We do this instead of talking about specific habits of mind that are developed in arts classes such as listening, perceiving, making inferences, counting, decoding, communicating, cooperating with others, synthesizing and creating. So, music (and arts) courses are being asked to be saved because they have an apparent, unproven non-music, non-arts specific effect on education. No wonder the argument has little traction. (Incidentally, I hope that high SAT scores are not taken as a serious barometer of intellect or individual learning potential. I hope!)


The reality is that those of us who teach an arts subject spend our entire careers dealing with misconceptions about what we do from those that should know better. Teachers and administrators often make the mistake of believing that students are all "talented" and that what
we do on a regular basis is "fun" day in and day out. And aren't we "lucky" to teach the subjects and students we teach. The reality, of course, is that we're often dealing with large numbers of students who have a WIDE range of ability levels and more lesson plans/preparations since we teach discrete 'subjects' such as flute, tuba and mallet percussion in the same day. And, yes, for brief moments (on concert night, for example) the work is highly satisfying but it is also stressful because of the need to differentiate instruction multiple times daily. Concert night is the result of consistently and deliberately working towards (music) education objectives. The kicker is what we do. What we music teachers do is this: We display our work publicly over and over again. We rely on cooperation and measured improvement from the students we teach. No student we teach can fail. Yes, in fact, no student can be left behind (and never, ever was by any competent music teacher).

There, I said it. But let me be explicit: In a math (or science or social studies, etc class), a student can fail to do homework and/or fail to study for tests and, therefore, fail the class (or hold on with a "D" as is often the case for social promotion). The teacher can but does not need to assist the student to do better beyond some basic reinforcements. Not so in music performance classes. NO student can fail. Here's why: because if even one student is playing wrong rhythms and/or notes, the band sounds "off". It's a collective 'bad performance' because of ONE student's shortcomings. The public assessment will be less than. The audience will notice. So what do we do? We make sure EVERY student can play everything correctly, competently and musically before concert night. (By the way, I'm sure the majority of math, social studies and science teachers help their students to gain mastery-I'm just illustrating the point that their reputations are not made or lost in public view via public means of assessment).

From an educational pers
pective, in music (band) class, we identify misconceptions, make note of them and make sure to re-teach each individual student in need of such "response to intervention". We have always operated this way and always will. Anyone teaching right now knows that "RTI" is one of the current buzz words in Education. Here are a few more:
  • Standards-based education
  • Differentiated instruction
  • Using data to drive instruction
  • Performance-based assessment
  • 21st century learning
Let me now illuminate how these educational objectives are being met in music education programs using SMARTMUSIC software in the band and choral music curriculum.


SMARTMUSIC is the name given to software now available for use by music teachers and music students
(MakeMusic, Inc.). Smartmusic is described as "learning software with the power to transform music learning. Students of all ages and skill levels can play or sing with professional accompaniments, making practice both rewarding and fun." It is quietly revolutionizing the field of music education. When used, it transcends expectations, fixes misconceptions and ensures steady progress by student musicians. And best of all SMARTMUSIC can be discussed using an educational lens.

Smartmusic allows students to perform music along with accompaniments or to simply play a line of music at a time. Music standards such as reading music, understanding and executing musical instructions (articulation and dynamics, for example) are addressed within the context of each composition, exercise or folk song.

SMARTMUSIC contains music at a variety of levels from basic to advanced. A teacher can assign specific exercises for each student
depending on their specific needs (to address misconceptions and weaknesses). These assignments are delivered digitally (via e-mail and by the student signing into the Smartmusic database).

Proper music instruction has always been performance-based since the only way a student can demonstrate understanding is to execute the skill(s) on his or her instrument. Music Education was doing performance-based assessment long before the term became an Educational Imperative. By it's very nature, Smartmusic uses a performance-based assessment model.

Using data to drive instruction is, again, something that has always been done in music education. However, Smartmusic kicks it up a notch. Data are collected as recordings of student performances. These data are automatically uploaded to a "gradebook" kept on Smartmusic's servers. This gradebook looks like a regular gradebook with columns of assignments. The recorded performances are accessed by clicking an icon next to each student's name. Additionally a snapshot of what notes/rhythms students played correctly or incorrectly is viewable by the click of a mouse. Correct notes/rhythms are green in color and incorrect notes/rhythms are red. Intangibles such as tone quality, intonation, articulation and interpretation can then be rated by the teacher using the mp3 recording. Based on the strehgth (or weakness) of the data, music can be reassigned or new music can be assigned to address particular issues.

SMARTMUSIC makes use of technology in engaging, creative and meaningful ways to ensure high quality, data-based music learning. Importantly, it is a tool that helps music students and music teachers do what they have always endeavored to do-to learn to be competent, independent musicians and to teach music effectively.

Photo credits:
Nationaal Archief / Spaarnestad Photo / J. van Eijk, SFA003001896.
Saxaphoon by Oude School at flickr

NOTE: This blog is in no way affiliated with Smartmusic or Make Music, Inc. The views and opinions expressed in the post are those of educational blogger Andrew Garcia.

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