By Eliahu Sussman
The explosion of digital media and content has touched just about every corner of modern life. While a singer’s instrument will always be organic and the infusion of technology is certainly not necessary for choral success, a number of new tools aimed at helping choral directors teach their craft are worthy of attention. From full methods and curricula to simple apps that can help singers rehearse, technology for vocal music educators is opening a world of possibilities that can enhance and facilitate instruction. In addition, these new tools tap into the enthusiasm that students have for digital content, giving them the opportunity to continue learning at their own pace through a medium that is both familiar and engaging. And perhaps more importantly, some of these tools can be used to measure, track, assess, and record student progress, providing objective, verifiable record keeping and assessment that can be shared with parents and administrators. Whether looking for supplementary exercises, a digital assistant, or a virtual fill-in for private lessons, consider these tools that were specifically designed to allow your students to help themselves make progress efficiently and effectively, while having fun in the process.
eMedia Singing Method
eMedia is a company that has been making music software for years, including popular methods for learning ear training, piano, guitar, and more. With their sights set on the school choral market, the company’s new eMedia Singing Method, which was released over the summer, has some impressive features. The core of the content comes in the form of some 230 lessons, which cover proper technique and the basics of vocal music performance, as well as exercises designed to build skills like vocal projection, range, vocal agility, expression, and sight-reading. And while it can function as a stand-alone instructional method, the Educational Edition of eMedia Singing Method also comes with a Lesson Plan and Teacher’s Guide that has tips on how to utilize the program within the choral classroom.
One aspect that makes this piece of software particularly fun and engaging is its interactive features: the software actually listens to the singer, and can provide real-time feedback about pitch and tune. A student will see on the screen if he or she is sharp, flat, or in pitch. What’s more, the built-in Performance Evaluation provides specific feedback on mistakes, with an overall score for performance, making self-assessment both fun and interactive. The lessons are delivered by Ory Brown, an accomplished voice teacher and performer who has over 25 years of professional experience.
The CD-Rom and downloadable software covers folk, pop, jazz, R&B, opera, classical, and show tunes with over 80 songs including hits made famous by John Lennon, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and more. There are also more than 30 full-motion videos and animations, and features like song looping allow students to highlight and repeat any section of music that needs extra repetitions. Interactive feedback and review help reinforce new concepts and develop the ear of student singers.
A 30-day trial of the software is also available for download at www.emediamusic.com/demo/vocaled. In addition, the company is seeking school choral directors interested in using the software as a part of a pilot program, offering free usage of the program for part of the school year.
While perhaps more widely known among instrumental music educators than their vocal music counterparts, SmartMusic has a ton of great features that all music teachers can appreciate. SmartMusic assists educators with just about every step in the music learning process, from building skills like ear training, music literacy, and sight-reading and sight-singing to tracking progress and formulating detailed assessments. Like the eMedia Singing Method, SmartMusic enables students to continue their instruction long after choir rehearsal has ended.
One feature that should appeal to anyone running a large ensemble is SmartMusic’s online grade book, which can automatically update with each student’s work, tracking and assessing the time spent on Smart Music exercises and the progress being made. Teachers (and parents) can then simply log in to the grade book and see what each student is doing, and how he or she is performing in the various exercises. The grade book offers a two-pronged assessment. First, there’s the technical aspect of singing the right note in the right rhythm, where, when the student sings into the mic, the computer screen displays a red note if it wasn’t performed accurately or correctly, and a green note if it was done well; and then it provides an overall score. But then it also has the option of sharing the actual content, so teachers can listen to each of the exercises that the student recorded into the program, rather than simply relying upon the computer-generated score.
Thanks to the SmartMusic grade book, instead of taking time out of rehearsal to comment on each individual singer’s strengths and weaknesses, those assessments and comments can now be done outside of class. And all work is trackable and measurable, so if anyone is ever wondering why a student received a particular grade, now there’s concrete evidence that can be pointed to – something that might be new for many vocal music educators. This can also be a huge help for those teachers who are feeling pressure by their administration to document and assess what’s happening within their classrooms. So in addition to helping formulate students’ grades, it also helps provide transparency for parents and administrators to see what’s happening in the classroom and all of the wonderful things that vocal music teachers and their students are doing.
Beyond assessment, SmartMusic can be used to:
- Assign solo repertoire
- Assign and assess scales and arpeggios
- Assign and assess rhythms
- Provide Sing-by-ear exercises
- Help student create audition recordings and CD archives
- Import any MP3 or WAV recording into SmartMusic
- Transpose solos to any key
- Create custom warm-ups and repertoire
In addition, SmartMusic can help students prepare for auditions and contests with more than 2,000 popular vocal solos from state contest lists. In the past few years, the SmartMusic library has grown to include vocal music titles like 90 Days to Sight Reading Success, Building Beautiful Voices, and Patterns of Sound – Vol. 1. In addition to the ever-growing library of content available through SmartMusic, custom repertoire and accompaniments can be added through Finale.
Sonja is a tablet-based app designed for singers and musicians to learn and practice music. It differs from other apps by using a visually intuitive hybrid notation system featuring color-coded notes that vary in length depending on their duration. Various elements of a song – different vocal parts and instruments – can be muted or adjusted for volume. While not on the scale of SmartMusic or eMedia’s Singing Method, this free app is a useful practice tool that can help singers practice individual parts both solo and in the context of multi-part harmonies. For example, a song can be imported, then a student can highlight his or her part to learn and practice it, while mute other voices or parts. Then, the singer can mute his or her own part, and sing along with the rest of the ensemble, practicing blending his or her part in with the rest of the ensemble.
These are just a few of the many new tools available to assist vocal music teachers and students with everything from rehearsal to assessment. While the “if it aint broke, don’t fix it” adage is perfectly reasonable, sometimes these clever and helpful software programs can provide solutions to problems or challenges we don’t even know we face. Anything that can make your job easier – or help your students further develop their musical talents – is worth a second look.