When schools across America closed their doors and ushered students home to hinder the spread of COVID-19 earlier this spring, music educators everywhere (rightfully) began to panic. But from that moment and onwards, Dr. Jim Frankel had the resources they needed, packed into the online classroom he founded called MusicFirst.
Actually, to be clear, MusicFirst has been serving music teachers, choral directors, and band & orchestra staff for years, but it wasn’t until 2020 when the world learned just how vital technology is to a well-rounded music education.
This has been a path that Frankel has been pursuing for decades, from his anecdotal introduction to synthesizers via “Chariots of Fire,” to his former service as a music educator in New Jersey, and now as a member of the board of directors for TI:ME.
SBO recently spoke with both Frankel and Rachel L’Heureux, the company’s director of marketing, to better understand how MusicFirst is uniquely positioned to serve music educators from across the globe in 2020 – and beyond.
Jim, how did you first get interested in music technology?
Dr. Jim Frankel: The real story is that I saw a movie called “Chariots of Fire,” and at the time, I was taking piano lessons and I wanted to play the song. I bought the sheet music and it simply didn’t sound like what I heard in the movie and I got really upset. I asked my mom why it didn’t sound like it. I was 10, 11 years old, and she said, “Well, I think that’s a synthesizer. That’s not a piano that you’re hearing.”
She brought me to this wacky synthesizer nerd that she knew, and I went into his living room for a private lesson. It was the biggest modular synth ever. I totally freaked out. I knew that actually is the life-changing moment for me. I then spent two years saving up money for my first synthesizer. I wanted to be a rock keyboard player, I wanted to play all the cool synth stuff. When I went to college, you couldn’t do that – you couldn’t be a synthesizer player, so I actually played tuba in high school band. I wanted to be a musician, and a music educator, so I got in [to college] on the tuba and then kept playing synth in bands and was composing my own stuff.
In my second year of teaching, I taught in a very wealthy school district in New Jersey, and I had to teach general music. I didn’t know how to teach general music, but I said, “I wonder if these kids would be into synthesizers as much as I am.” I started to incorporate music software into my teaching and, instantly, they loved it. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world. That’s really how it all started – I was looking for a way to connect with kids to make music relevant.
I would think that after spending so long working on this, 2020 would feel like an explosion: “Everyone finally can understand what I’ve been trying to tell everyone this whole time!”
Dr. Jim Frankel: Right. It is a hardcore double-edged sword in that this is the absolute worst way for people to realize what we’ve been talking about all along is actually good. It’s terrible that it took a pandemic to make people realize. It’s a ready-made solution, and we’ve never been busier. Our team is working literally 15 to 18 hours a day.
Rachel L’Heureux: I really think that it kind of gave us a sense of kind of meaning in all of this insanity that’s been happening in the world. And the other part of that is that we have clients and music educators that have been using this technology [since] before the pandemic, and it’s been really beautiful to see them come to the assistance of people who are new to technology and really help them get on board and start using it with their students.
For teachers who aren’t familiar, how would you explain MusicFirst to them? And how would you explain that technology does not have to be this scary, intimidating thing when it comes to incorporating it into their classrooms?
Dr. Jim Frankel: Right now, music educators and all teachers, in general, would much rather be in their physical space with their students with them making music. MusicFirst has always been a virtual space; it’s just an extension of that physical classroom for many. The easiest way to describe MusicFirst is it’s an online classroom for music educators. It was custom-built for music teachers, so every feature was carefully thought about [regarding] “what do music teachers need?”
Essentially, we’re a learning management system, but I like to call it an online classroom. There are many out there, but none of them were made for music teachers. How we differentiate [ourselves] from any other platform is that we have a massive content library that has tons of premade quizzes, assessments, lesson plans, and tasks for all aspects of K-12 music education. It’s not a “curriculum,” it is a massive library of content that’s already made. When we show that to teachers, their jaws hit the floor, because since Friday, March 13, they’ve been having to create their own content.
If the teacher wants to make a 10-question quiz on the parts of the violin, it will literally take that teacher up to two hours to make a 10-question quiz. They have to find the images, create the quiz, save the image, upload it, resize it. It takes forever. So, again, the MusicFirst Online Classroom [offers a] huge content library that’s already premade stuff, so they literally don’t need to make anything. They can just get right up and running and have months and months of stuff ready to go.
The other thing that makes it really compelling and very different than any other learning management system is that we have 10 software titles that can be integrated into it. Every music teacher is different. No two music teachers are alike, no two music programs are alike, even within the same district. By offering these 10 different software titles, teachers will say, “Well, hey, I want to do notation stuff with my kids. I want my kids to write music, so, yes, please, I’ll add that notation software program,” or “Hey, I want to automatically assess my students’ singing or playing an instrument. Yeah, I’ll take that.” They go around a buffet of software and they choose which ones fit their teaching style and fit their goals for their program.
What most teachers do is they’ll choose two or three software titles. We include one or two depending on what they teach, and then they’ve got this content library. Anybody who gets the online classroom with our content and our software is literally set up for months of activities. And they’re meaningful, it’s not fluff; it’s meaningful stuff that’s pedagogically appropriate, that’s building individual musicianship skills. What most music teachers are so fearful of right now is, “I can’t do band, I can’t do choir, I can’t do orchestra. What the heck am I going to do?” What I’ve been saying now for five months is this is the perfect time to build individual musicianship skills with your students because there is no real virtual rehearsal solution that’s effective. This is a perfect time to build up your kids’ musicianship. We’ve been really fortunate that we had everything ready to go on March 13 and people just immediately started jumping in and saying, “Okay, let me figure this out.”
Rachel L’Heureux: Something that’s important to add is that all of those curricular resources that we’ve had are created by music educators, and they’re fully customizable, so they were never intended to replace a music educator. They’re intended to be a jumping-off point for the teacher to use the units, lessons, tasks, and quizzes that they think will be useful for their individual programs. The other thing that I think is important to mention is that we have all of these software titles available on a single platform. With a single sign-on, the student gets into the MusicFirst Classroom, and then they have access to all of these resources. They’re not constantly switching between one program and another. It’s all in a single place.
The other thing that was really important to MusicFirst when we first started is that we’re compatible across all internet-enabled devices. It doesn’t matter what your student has access to if they’re doing virtual learning. It could be a one-to-one Chromebook program, it could be their phones, it could be a PC, it could be a Mac – whatever it is, we work on it, and I think that’s really important, especially now.
Dr. Jim Frankel: Yeah, it is critical because there are the technology haves and the have-nots. What this pandemic is also showing, is that it’s impossible to expect every child to have this access at home.
Kids don’t have fancy laptops at home, so if they can only get to their parents’ phone or their phone for a couple hours, and if you have multiple students in the same house and they’re all sharing that phone, you can’t have an asterisk next to your platform that says, “Oh, by the way, this only works on Chromebooks with this version of the software.” It has to work on everything or else what teachers are going to become is tech support. They don’t want to have kids going, “Hey, I can’t access it. It says it doesn’t work.” They’re already having to do something brand new, very uncomfortable, and that is to teach completely in a virtual or a hybrid blended environment. To add that kind of wrinkle to it is just too much.
You said that for a teacher to make their own content, to make a quiz, that could take up to two hours. How long has it taken you folks to build up all of the content that’s available to teachers?
Dr. Jim Frankel: Eight years. Actually, if we launched August of 2014, we started creating the content in September 2013, so, to be dead accurate, seven years of building content. The best thing is that most of the content is now authored by music educators who are using our platform, so that rather than it being corporate crap, they are actually in the trenches.
What we’re thrilled about is that, for example, we have close to 20 courses, and those are premade, year-long courses of study. Those courses were built by music teachers who used it over their school year, and we have a way of sharing content. Music educators are exceptionally generous in sharing their work with others for no compensation. For example, one teacher, Marjorie LoPresti, did her entire music theory course on our platform and I happened to notice that she was sharing all of this content. It was so good, I hired her. She’s now our digital content manager.
Looking at people who do use MusicFirst, what are folks veering towards right now in their curriculums? What have they been most eager to use and teach their students since distanced learning started in the spring?
Dr. Jim Frankel: We have three main customers. We have a platform for the K-5 music teacher called MusicFirst Junior. It is completely separate, and it’s built differently with a different intent. That has been very popular with K-5 teachers. It is what I call a conceptual curriculum rather than a sequential curriculum. It’s a massive reservoir and has some resources for that specific age group; it is very different than our MusicFirst Classroom, which is really grades four and up.
The second customer is the performance ensemble director saying, “Are you kidding? How am I supposed to teach choir online?” For them, our premade courses are very popular, and we have two software products that are extremely popular. One is called PracticeFirst, which is our automated performance assessment software, and the student sings or plays an instrument into the computer and it gives them a score on how accurate their performance was. They absolutely love that because they can get their kids playing and singing on a regular basis and give them feedback. The other one is called Sight Reading Factory, which is this amazing sight-reading generating program where kids are being given sight-reading examples and then they’re singing or playing those back and recording and submitting those. Those are the two most popular, but we’ve got ear training software, notation software, and there’s a whole slew of them. But for the performance ensemble director, that’s what they’re sticking to.
Our third customer is the general music teacher, meaning non-performance-based instruction. They are focusing heavily on notation programs like Flat and Noteflight, and then digital audio workstations, which is Soundtrap and Soundation. They’re having their kids create music, compose music, and learn about music. We have five general music courses that are ready to go. We also have two theory courses: music theory and general music.
I know what teachers are going to think when they hear all of this: “This sounds amazing, but how much is it going to cost?” How is it possible to make something that is so complex and rich with a variety of features and content truly affordable?
Rachel L’Heureux: I think part of that is that it is so customizable. The MusicFirst Classroom itself starts at $4 per user, per year, with a 50 user minimum. We allow educators to pick and choose those pieces of software to add on to the MusicFirst Classroom that suit their needs. The thing that serves them, great, get that! But if it doesn’t serve them, it’s not something that we want to push on them.
Dr. Jim Frankel: We can’t do free, but we’ve got to come as close to it as we can because, first of all, our number one competitor in all of this space is free stuff, right? For example, our K-5 solution is $399 for unlimited users for a year. While that is not the least expensive product on the market, it is far from the most expensive.
Our flagship, our MusicFirst Classroom, like Rachel said, is totally customizable, so no two purchase orders are the same. It makes it a very, very difficult process for us as a team, but it makes it very affordable for the teacher as a result. It starts at $200 a year, and most of our orders for entire music programs are less than $1,500 a year. It is very affordable, and when you stack us up against our competitors, we’re very proud of our pricing.
What we did – by the way, other companies did it too – is we gave it away for free during the pandemic with all the software turned on, and we gave away 550,000 seats. If you wanted to put that into a monetary value, those seats have a retail value of $24 each, so when you add that up, it was over $10 million we gave away.
Back to your earlier question, what we’re actually selling is a username and a password, and then the software manufacturers get their cut, and we pay server costs. There are real costs involved, but we said to all of our partners, “Hey, we need to do this big time because these people need it now.” We gave that away, and it was meant to be certainly helpful, for sure. We also thought, “Look, if this really works and this crazy pandemic keeps going, maybe they’ll consider buying it in the fall if they need to.” However, that wasn’t the primary motivation. The primary motivation was, “Oh, my God, 150,000 music teachers need our help now and this is our shining moment.” The love that we got from people was fantastic. The usage was off the charts. People were totally diving in and getting their hands dirty, and it’s worked out for us. At this point, we’ve never been busier, and I’m sure that the other folks in the industry would say the same thing.
Rachel L’Heureux: And everybody on the MusicFirst team is a musician or a music educator, so at the end of the day, we bought into this. We’re here to support music educators in any way that we possibly can, and we were in from day one and we knew we had to help.
What is your best advice for music educators right now who are panicking and trying to figure out what the heck to do as a whole about the upcoming school year?
Dr. Jim Frankel: So, my first thing — and I mean this sincerely — is don’t worry, it’s going to be okay, because everybody’s in the same boat in terms of mental health, in terms of stress, in terms of, “I’ve never done this before.” I did a webinar on Friday the 13th of March, and we had over 300 people there, and my first advice was make time for self-care. Be empathetic to the students. You have no idea what’s going on in their house, you don’t know what they’re going through. Be empathetic to the parents. Don’t get mad at these kids if they don’t do an assignment right, because they may not be able to.
I taught in the public schools as a music teacher for 15 years, and I remember during that time, I always felt like I never had enough time to get to the stuff I really wanted to work on with the students. Everything was concert-oriented. For me, the reason I left teaching was the stress of that concert.
While some people might be going, “If I can’t do band, I’m not going to be a music teacher.” I say, “Wait a minute, that stress of the concert is gone. You’re not going to have a winter concert, right? It’s over, so get that out of your head. You’re not going to do a winter concert, so what are you going to do? What can you do?” And what you can do is really engage students, make music relevant to them, and teach things that you’ve always wanted to teach that you never had time to teach. Keep them motivated, keep them practicing, keep them playing. I personally think that this can be a liberating moment for a lot of music educators to focus on things they’ve never been able to do because of this massive pressure of a concert. We have a new stress, obviously, but it’s also a new opportunity to connect with our kids.
Rachel L’Heureux: And one of the beautiful things about that for students is that they can be exposed to different aspects of music education earlier in their music education career. You now have the opportunity to expose students to musicology, to music writing, to sound design, to audio production – tons of skills that maybe these students didn’t even know that they had, or interest they didn’t know that they had, and open them up to new opportunities in their life. I think that that’s something that’s really exciting in music ed.