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Random access: do your students take their teacher home?

Compared to the classroom teacher, the private music instructor has a tremendous advantage. The private teacher typically works with one student at a time, and when the private teacher works with groups, the number of students usually is small. This allows us the opportunity to become intimately acquainted with each student's learning style and tailor our instruction accordingly. If we do our job well, we send each student home with a perfectly matched assignment and brilliantly conceived instructions for efficient, daily practice.

The unfortunate aspect of private instruction is we usually see each child just one time per week. That means most of our students' musical learning takes place outside the bounds of our direct instruction. I am willing to wager that most teachers would agree their students' practice would be demonstrably improved by expert supervision. Some kids actually receive such supervision from knowledgeable and involved parents. Many other children, however, spend a lot of practice time working inefficiently--at best--or counterproductively--at worst.

Many teachers respond to this problem by trying to beef up their weekly instruction. One strategy is to increase the lesson time if possible. In some cases, teachers insist on seeing students twice a week, or perhaps they offer each student both a private and group lesson.

Other teachers have established a technology corner in their studio. The basic idea is the teacher can teach one child, while one or more other students work independently, using computer software programs, intelligent keyboards or other tools to guide their learning. Examples include software programs that drill music fundamentals, keyboard/computer setups that provide an interactive composition environment, software programs or videotapes that immerse students in music history and even keyboard/software combinations that structure intelligent practice.

The best of these technology-based resources have repeatedly proven themselves to be productive extensions of the private lesson. Many creative teachers have found they can even charge more money by virtue of their extended offerings.

Given these successful experiences, I find myself asking this question: If these technology-based took are effective for independent work in the teacher's studio, shouldn't they be equally useful at home?

Taking the Teacher Home

Teachers who have added technology-based components to their private studio or created MIDI labs in school environments have faced two major hurdles:

* These cool teaching resources cost money.

* It takes an investment of time to learn how to setup, use and wisely employ these technological marvels.

However, while we have struggled with these issues, time has marched on. Remarkably, during the last few years, large numbers of households have acquired many tools we aspire to have in our studios. The result is we now can require many of our students to use the same tools at home that we have or want to have in our own studios. Most importantly, our students may not have to spend much more money to do so.

If we can provide our students with the best tools at home, we may find more of our instruction stays with them during their independent learning time.

Let's look at some examples that apply to all areas of performance instruction, including keyboard, instrumental and voice.


Most families now have a computer at home. In fact, many families have more than one. Often times, they even have a seemingly obsolete computer that is unused and is gathering dust somewhere. Many of the useful music software programs work on both new and old computers. It may be necessary for the family to invest only in the software program you require. The big investment in the computer already has been made.

CD and MP3 Players

The least expensive technology available in most homes is the CD player and its derivatives. CDs are playable not only in a CD player but in any modern computer.

Many kids are quite CD-savvy and expert in the art of ripping. Ripping a CD means extracting the audio tracks from the CD and saving them as sound files, such as MP3, on the computer. MP3 files can be transferred easily to small, portable MP3 players--devices available in many homes as well.

A huge amount of accompaniment material is available on CD. Examples include CDs for the various Suzuki instrumental methods, accompaniments for most major piano teaching series, the traditional Music-Minus-One library ( for instrumentalists and singers, instrumental concerti from Dowani ( and Pocket Songs ( for vocalists.

Many pedagogical CDs come with two or even three tempi: one or two for slow practice and one for concert performance.

Many benefits come from practicing with CD accompaniments, including the establishment of a rhythmic groove, clarification of rhythmic issues, increased musical expression and the general excitement of playing with an ensemble. Students who work with CD accompaniments quickly learn to eliminate the stumble spots in their pieces.

In some cases, it is helpful to be able to set other practice tempos not offered on a CD. The Superscope PSD230 Portable Variable-Speed & Pitch CD Player ( will nicely and conveniently provide these features for around $450. For even less money, require a computer-savvy student to purchase and use the $39.95 software program Amazing Slow Downer (, which will 'allow you to change independently the tempo or pitch of any CD recording. All you need is decent speakers connected to your computer and to practice in the same place as the computer.

MIDI Playback Devices

MIDI accompaniments are a useful alternative to CD accompaniments. Although MIDI files depend on a MIDI tone generator for playback (available in computers, MIDI keyboards and stand-alone MIDI players), almost any MIDI playback device will provide tempo-changing features.

MIDI accompaniments are available for the Suzuki violin series (and will be coming soon for other Suzuki strings) and most major piano methods. By searching on the Internet, you can find various MIDI accompaniments, and other related items, for singers and other instrumentalists. For example, go to and search for these words: "MIDI and accompaniment and oboe."

Many MIDI files on the Internet are free; others are commercial. In general, commercial MIDI files are not expensive. To use MIDI files, your student needs a MIDI playback device. Most computers will work just fine. Windows Media Player and Apple's iTunes both will play MIDI files. To change the tempo, set up practice loops or see the various MIDI tracks in music notation; it usually is better to use a music program that provides these features. An example would be Roland's VMT-1 Visual Music Tutor for Windows ( There are many other choices, too.

Many students actually have a MIDI keyboard with a floppy disk drive at home. In these cases, students can copy standard MIDI files to a floppy disk and pop them into the keyboard. Most keyboards provide a variety of playback controls.

A MIDI option for singers and instrumentalists that requires just a computer and microphone is MakeMusic!'s SmartMusic program ( Although it only works with music files available from the company, there is a huge library available for use on a subscription basis.

MIDI Keyboards

During the last ten years, hundreds of thousands of MIDI keyboards have been sold in this country. It should not be surprising to find some of your students actually have one at home. Depending on the keyboard's features, it may or may not be suitable for actual piano practice, but it may be useful for MIDI playback (if it has a General MIDI soundset) or for interacting with computer software.

If the keyboard is up to the standards of piano practice, your student may benefit from using it to make MIDI recordings of his or her practice and then using the keyboard's playback feature as a performance evaluation tool. The student may even be able to e-mail you a MIDI recording for your comment. (MIDI recordings are very small and easily sent as e-mail attachments.)

If you have been using any interactive piano instructional software with your student in your studio, your student should be able to use the same software at home by connecting an existing MIDI keyboard to the computer. If the family already owns the keyboard and computer, the only investment will be in the software program, the connecting cables and perhaps additional MIDI repertoire files.

Other students who work interactively with ear training, music theory or music composition software usually can take advantage of a MIDI keyboard connected to the computer.

Taking the First Steps

To get your students working with the most useful tools at home, it is important that you become comfortable using these tools in your studio. In many cases, it is important to show your students exactly what you want them to do with these devices. Obviously, you can't do that if you don't own some of this equipment yourself, or if you have never tried these things.

Once you know what you would like your students to be able to do at home, ask some probing questions about what is already available. You will be surprised to find out what many families actually have on hand.

The rest is up to you. If you already are a creative teacher, you now will have the opportunity to craft ways of providing additional interactivity and structure to your student's practice at home. Although these tools don't provide a complete replacement for you, your students will feel as though they have brought a bit of their teacher home with them.

George F. Litterst is a nationally known music educator, clinician, author, performer and music software developer. He is co-developer of the intelligent accompaniment software program Home Concert 2000, from TimeWarp Technologies.
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Title Annotation:Professional Resources
Author:Litterst, George F.
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2004
Previous Article:Polyphony: art as process.
Next Article:It's all your business: work stations: enhancing the independent studio.

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