Chris Russell: Inside a High Tech Choir Room

October 24, 2014

IMG_7177By Eliahu Sussman

As technology increasingly seeps into every nook and cranny of our daily life, some may think of the choral room as a Luddite’s sanctuary – after all, besides a piano and some voices, why on earth would any other tools be required to facilitate vocal music education? However, there are a plethora of tech resources and devices that can enhance and transform choral instruction in some remarkable ways.

There are also potential dangers that come with using technology in education, particularly if you do so purely for the sake of, well, just using technology. “That’s not something you ever want to do,” says Dr. Chris Russell, author of the book iPads in Music Education and the blog, Technology in Music Education. Russell is also the choral director at St. Paul Park, Minnesota’s Oltman Middle School, which converted into a one-to-one iPad school in 2013 – meaning that each of the school’s 790 students now has a personal iPad for school use.

Rather than simply employing the latest gadgets in the name of innovation, Russell notes that the same traditional concepts, skills, and activities that have always been a staple of the choir room should continue to flourish, and the latest technology can simply help that process. In short, whether we’re talking about iPads, laptops, smartphones, projectors, SMART boards, software, cloud utilities, or any other newfangled innovations, there are ways in which these tools can be utilized in beneficial ways, whether that means automating busy work, simplifying complex tasks, or creating new learning opportunities for students.

In this interview with Choral Director, Dr. Russell discusses some of the specific ways in which technology can be an asset in the choral room, several models for its successful integration, as well as some pointers for keeping the role that technology plays in perspective.

Choral Director: What was the genesis of your interest in utilizing technology in instruction?

Chris Russell: I am a trained tuba player and a singer, but I am not the world’s greatest piano player. While I can play piano passably for rehearsals, the first area where I began using technology with my classes was with Finale to create accompaniments. At the time, in the mid-to-late ‘90s, the sounds in Finale weren’t that great, but you do what you have to. At the school I was working in at that point, we hired an accompanist for performances, but the money wasn’t there to have that person in class all the time.

From there, I realized that those accompaniments could turn into rehearsal tracks, and those rehearsal tracks could be used on various devices. And one thing led to another, until technology has become a large part of what I do today.

CD: Which areas of music instruction do you find benefit most from the 21st-century tools?

CR: First of all, you don’t necessarily need technology to be a good teacher. However, the world is changing around us. In fact, other fields are using technology to attract students. One of the very first things you have to realize is that the rest of the world is offering an enticing future, and it’s dangerous to be the one spot where technology isn’t used.

But in terms of overall instruction, I strongly believe in using projected materials in class, particularly for sight-reading and warm-ups. I like using SmartMusic, not only for projecting sight-reading exercises on the screen and running through them that way, but also for assessment of sight-reading skills. That’s a big area where a lot of educators struggle: they teach sight-reading, but they don’t know how to assess it.

Assessment technique is rooted in having each child go into a practice room and record him or herself on a tape recorder, and then the teacher goes in the back and listens to each student’s recording. The technology that exists today can make that process so much easier – it’s just overwhelming. So for me, in my instruction, from the second that the kid walks into the room – this is at the middle school level, mind you, and we are a one-to-one iPad school – technology is used pretty much every moment of the day.

IMG_6769CD: What does a typical rehearsal look like? Can you walk me through it?

CR: The first thing I use is an app for iOS called Attendance2. Every kid is given a QR code, and when they walk into the room they scan in. That makes life unbelievably easier for me in terms of attendance management.

I also use Attendance2 on tours. It works brilliantly on the road, because as the kids walk on or off the bus, you can use your phone and scan the QR code that they’ve been given or that they have on their phone as they walk past you. Once they scan in, you are never wondering who is not there, as every kid is accounted for. It’s just brilliant.

After attendance, the next thing that the students work on is a literacy project. Our district has a focus on literacy, so in our middle schools, we ask kids to answer a journal question every day. They actually do that on Google Forms, which is another great tool. They walk in, pull out their iPads, and start typing a response to the daily question while I’m taking care of the housekeeping things I have to do at the beginning of the hour.

Then we start with warm-ups, which are projected onto a screen. And then we move from warm-ups to sight-reading, which is also done on the projector – we use SmartMusic for that.

Then from there, we typically go into a short teaching deal. At this level, it could be teaching a musical concept, or it might be about music notation, or maybe a dictation exercise. There are different apps that I use depending on what we are doing. And from there, we go into rehearsal.

My rehearsal accompanist actually ends up being my iPad, believe it or not, with an app called Notion – which is unbelievable. And then the kids and I are using iPads for sheet music, which is just wonderful compared to dealing with lost papers, lost folders, forgotten folders, folders still in the rack, and so on – they all have everything right on their iPads. And from there, we just work through the rest of the rehearsal.

And then at the end of the class, I often show a short video as a sort of reward. Sometimes the videos are music-related and sometimes they’re just a short, funny clip that’s either cool or popular on YouTube. There was a wonderful video from a couple of years ago of a soprano at the Met singing “The Doll” aria, for example. Or for something fun, we might show one of those silly skits where kids create a dialogue and adults act it out.

Anyway, as you see, technology is threaded seamlessly throughout the class. It’s not, “Hey, we are going to do technology time now”; it’s part of what we do every day.

CD:  Right. Let’s talk about the one-to-one iPad aspect. When did the school decide to get iPads for all the students?

CR: It’s a special initiative in our district called the T3 (Transforming Thinking through Technology). We are in a pretty large district – the sixth largest in Minnesota – and the five lowest-performing schools in the district were targeted with the hope that one-to-one iPads would improve those schools. Included are one high school, one middle school – our middle school – and then three elementary schools. It started in the fall of 2013, and that’s one of the reasons why I came to the school last year, in fact – because of my experience and interest in using iPads in education.

IMG_6716CD: Has your instruction been dramatically different in a classroom where the students all have iPads versus in a classroom where they didn’t?

CR: Basically, it changes some things you can do. For example, if we are doing a composition exercise, it’s a little tricky to do when kids may not have a piano at home – they may not be able to hear what they are doing, they may not have a piano app on their phone, or they may not even know how to play piano. But there’s a free app out there called Notate Me Now, that you use to write music notation out by hand, it converts it into digital music, and then you can play it back. So it turns it from analog handwriting into digital music notation, and then you can actually play it. That changes how you can do that activity. And it changes how the students can write, because they can hear the music and they can see the notation. And it doesn’t necessarily require the knowledge of how to use a keyboard. So that’s just one example of things they can do now that we couldn’t if they didn’t have iPads.

CD:  I imagine that many educators reading this story or even seeing the headline, “Using iPads in the Choir Room” are going to say to themselves, “Well isn’t that nice for those folks? There is no way our students can afford iPads.”

How would you recommend that educators approach integrating some of this technology or using some of these tools in those settings, which might be more typical?

CR: It’s really hard when you don’t have a common platform, or if you have a platform that isn’t as accessible to music. For example, some schools are going with Chromebooks right now. But the issue with Chromebook is that most of our music classrooms don’t have desks, and those devices are meant to be sitting on a desk – there is a keyboard attached to a screen. There is only so much you can do with that in a choral setting.

As for technology integration, there is a model for that called “SAMR” which was created by a guy named Ruben Puentedura. SAMR stands for “Substitution,” “Augmentation,” “Modification,” and finally “Redefinition.”

In general, when you integrate technology you are trying to move into transformation, where you transform what you are doing to things you could never do before. The first entry level is substitution, where you are just substituting technology for something else. Then you augment your activities and improve on what you are doing. For example, substitution might just be having your sheet music as digital music. Augmentation would then be highlighting, coloring, and marking the music without damaging it.

Then you get to the next phase, modification: that’s the whole new level of application where you can do something you never could do before. So modification is a situation like with sheet music, where you can attach an audio file – a practice file – right into that digital music sheet reader. Now you can not only see your music and mark your music, but you can actually rehearse with accompaniment on your sheet music, too.

And then the final step is when you have gone through those other levels and you are completely transformed with redefining: you are doing something you could have never possibly thought of before. And when it comes to sheet music, maybe that’s when you have a sheet music reader that also has a recorder function, so that after you have seen the music, written on the music, and heard the music, now you can record yourself performing the music and submit it as an assessment to your teacher. This is something that you couldn’t have ever possibly done with paper music. And that’s just an example of that process.

The catch is that a lot of technology plans – whether it’s laptops like Chromebooks, or a bringing your own device (BYOD) scenario – don’t have a level playing field when it comes to music and in the way that we can integrate music.

CD:  What do you mean they don’t have a level playing field?

CR: They are just not created equal. For example, Android is a wonderful operating system, but the music apps just don’t exist for those devices. Part of that is because of the hardware. There is a latency issue with the Android devices that doesn’t exist with iPads. From the beginning, the iPad was built with Core MIDI, and that is huge. From day one with the first iPad, it has always had an eye towards music. The iPad has its limitations, too, but when it comes to music, man, you’ve got this real special thing. 

So some schools will say, “Go Chromebook,” but the teacher can’t substitute that for sheet music, because you are not going to hold a laptop in your hands while you are singing in choir. Augmentation? You can’t write on the screen, so you can’t be annotating your music. You have to jump into the levels of transformation right off the bat. And the catch is you are supposed to be going gradually from substitution to redefinition; you are not supposed to try to redefine from the very first moment. So the choice of device can really impact you. And in order to use some of those devices, you almost have to say, “Okay, stop rehearsing; it’s now technology time.” And that’s the kiss of death when it comes to technology. You don’t ever want that.

That’s when you, the music teacher, can try to explain – especially using that SAMR model – about how hard it can be to integrate some of these tools. And the keyword here is “integrate,” because, again, you want it flowing seamlessly as part of what you do. The technology integration is supposed to be invisible.

There are a lot of other situations where teachers – and this was me for years – have their own technology that they use with the class and that they use themselves, but their students don’t have it. However, that tends to also be the technology they’ve bought themselves – and there is nothing wrong with that.

CD:  Regarding students bringing in their own technology, certainly you want to avoid any sort of scenarios where there is not an even playing field amongst the group, right?

CR: You know, there is a big trend right now of bring your own device (BYOD). That’s a really popular model because it eliminates the cost of technology to the district. And, basically, it gives every kid the Internet in his or her pocket. But the catch is that just being able to Google something isn’t the definition of technology integration, either.

CD: Sure, especially in a particular setting like a music class.

CR: If it’s a BYOD situation, unfortunately, the district has already made the choice that it’s not going to be a level playing field, so then you have to try to find the best solution for what the kids do have. So, for example, if a student has an Android tablet, there are only a few good music readers on Android, where there are 20 or 30 on iOS. You look at the kids and say, “If you want to use digital sheet music, you are going to have to download this app,” like, say, Orpheus Music Player, Mobile Sheets, or Easy PDF Reader, which all work with music. None of them hold a candle to, for example, forScore on the iPad. But for that kid, maybe it works. 

CD: What areas would you suggest that people not try to utilize technology for, as far as your instruction goes – keeping in mind that the goal here is really teaching the love of music, along with some knowledge of how it works and how to make it happen?

CR: Well, you can teach choir without technology and, in fact, that is very common. The most sophisticated technology in some people’s room is a CD player.

Ultimately, technology can infuse every part of the curriculum, but it will never make up for solid instruction. You still need to be able to teach the foundations. You still need to have the ability to teach, even though you can use resources for musical terms and how to read notes. You still need to have pedagogy.

There is another approach called the TPACK model, which basically says that good teaching with technology requires the use of three elements: technology, good pedagogy, and content knowledge. Ultimately, the ability to still teach and the importance of knowing the voice, choral music, and repertoire – those don’t go away. What does happen is the infusion of technology can make those things easier, in time.

People need to start where they are comfortable. That might mean they show their warm-ups on the screen. A lot of choir directors don’t visually show their warm-ups, they just lead kids through them. There’s a strong connection in terms of music literacy for kids to be able to see what they’re singing and follow along. Instead of just writing your warm-up order on the board, you project the actual printed music on a screen. Even if you aren’t making a big deal about it, for the kids to see it and follow along will improve their musical literacy.

CD: Do your students bring their iPads on stage during performances?

CR: No. By maybe two weeks before a concert, when we are seriously rehearsing the music, the iPads are out of their hands. But up to that point, that’s what we are doing.

This year, one of my goals will be writing and learning everything through Solfege. The students are still going to be using tools on their iPads for that. We’ll be learning the songs in Solfege before we kick in the language. Once we switch to the language, we’ll eventually be off of the iPads and then into concert mode. Doing it through Solfege can be slow and painful, but it’s unbelievable how strong the students are when they are done with that process.

CD: Right, it pays dividends.

CR: This technology thing isn’t for everybody. What I always tell people is number one, grab onto one thing that you are going to do and just learn it and use it. And then just stick with it. And number two, expect things to go wrong. It’s Murphy’s Law, but it’s true. Something is going to go wrong. If, say, you planned your lesson on the SMART Board or the projector screen and the bulb goes out, it’s like the entire world just collapses. So always have to have a backup in the event that the technology doesn’t work. You just have to take a deep breath and then figure out what are you going to do. It’s okay for things not to work. It’s okay to make mistakes, and there’s a danger that sometimes we expect that not to happen.

CD: That goes back to not relying on the technology instead of solid pedagogy?

CR: Right, that has to be at the core: the content knowledge is huge, and then the pedagogy is huge, too. The truth is, again, with choir, you can teach without these tech devices and resources; but there are wonderful tools that exist if you have the opportunity to start using them.

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