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Gary Stager on How Computers Will Save Music Education

Express yourself during your summer vacation!

One of the biggest lies in education is that computers are a threat to school art and music. Budget cuts, misplaced academic priorities or an over-emphasis on standardized testing have put the squeeze on arts programs yet I have seen no credible evidence that a choice has been made between computers and human expression.

It was a guidance counselor, not a PC, who tried to convince my parents that I should spend time in a daily study hall rather than a music theory class. Computers may save school arts and will offer unprecedented opportunities for creative development.

Forms of human expression previously off-limits to all but the most talented and elite members of society are now accessible even to young children. Animation, filmmaking, music composition, digital imaging and audio broadcasting are within reach of everybody. Ingenious software such as iLife '05 and hardware improvements turn schoolbags into portable media studios.

Ingenious software
and hardware
improvements have
turned schoolbags into
portable media studios.

The Web informs us of new tools, inspiration and creative communities to support our efforts. The Internet also offers collaborators and a limitless potential audience for our creative output. The democratization of publishing and expansion of the learning community affording unprecedented collaboration and access to expertise represents the most valuable use of the Web.

Innovations abound. It is up to us to help students take advantage of emerging technology. NOTE: You may not be able to do some of these things at work since school network policies often prohibit the interesting use of computers.

Free and "nearly free" software like Finale NotePad, GarageBand, Acid and others allow students to enter the world of music composition. SmartMusic allows kids to practice along with sensitive accompaniment and e-mail their session to a teacher. See the resource box below for these urls and other sites that offer loops, instrument sounds and advice to share student compositions.

Student-composed music may be used to score their films. Elementary school kids at the Willows School in Los Angeles watch projected extreme sports footage, sans audio, and improvise scores on desktop MIDI keyboards. Students at the American School of Bombay downloaded archival audio of historic speeches and then used music composition software to bring history to life.

Digital apprenticeship

Messing about with music alone is one thing, but now students may apprentice with expert artists as well.

Through the centuries art and music was funded by the patronage of the rich and powerful. The Internet revives this practice and democratizes it. Now amateurs may not only purchase recordings by their favorite artists via the Web, but they may participate in the artistic process through interaction with the artist, sheet music and videoclips of recording sessions. Students may even take lessons online from one of the world's finest trumpet players and composers, Brian Lynch at Artistshare. This should inspire educators to think of new forms of collaboration and publishing.

Berklee College of Music offers world-class courses in music, digital audio production and even GarageBand for educators online. Students, 15 and older, can take college-level courses from school or home.

Perhaps the most remarkable development in the democratization of art comes to us courtesy of the rock band, Nine Inch Nails. The band recently released their current single, The Hand that Feeds, online in GarageBand format. Children may not only "read" the technical aspects of a hit recording on their computer screen, but they are able to manipulate the song in order to create new music. Such acts of deconstruction and reconstruction scaffold the learning of music composition in unprecedented ways. Whatever your musical tastes, this offers revolutionary access to the creative process.

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.