Interactively Visualizing Music, Animating Pedagogy through Custom Multimedia Software
The ITEL project allowed me to develop interactive applications for my Jazz History course, MUSC 116. The class has forty-two students with a great diversity of musical abilities and experience. Some were majors in their final year and others were from unrelated departments with no technical music proficiency at all. Part of my instruction involves hands-on engagement with musical concepts. Students have opportunities to make music using musicological concepts presented in class. One component of the course is called "Playing Jazz." Students are grouped into "combos" of three to six based on their prior experience with music. There are three presentation/performances in which these combos prepare an original piece that uses improvisational strategies learned in the class.
The goal for my ITEL tablet project was to make applications that produced sound using custom interfaces resembling the ways that I present theoretical concepts. Using Max/MSP, a visual programming language for music and multimedia, I designed applications for presenting concepts on the projector during lecture and applications used by a small group of students who requested certain features for their own performances in class. The small group had no prior musical experience.
My guiding question was: How can the iPad interface be used to animate musicological concepts in class in a way that is accessible and interesting for a diverse group of students? I believe that musical concepts are best learned through practice. Theory that is complemented with performance allows students to approach a concept from more perspectives. When facing a performance, students have an urgent need for fluency with certain musical concepts—if they don't understand it, they can't play it. Lastly, group performance offers a group dialogue about certain concepts as students compose, rehearse, and reflect on their performances.
Evidence of impact on learning from the small group using iPads to present music was from the success of the performances themselves and from written feedback from each of them. I met with the group throughout the semester to discuss the project and had good dialogue about challenges and possibilities with the software and hardware. The students thought that it made learning the musicological concepts more fun. Interestingly, they also thought that the complexity of the software and the familiarity of the hardware (touching, pinching, swiping, etc.) evened out the ways that each could participate in the group. No student seemed more "talented" than the other. The format helped them engage equally and change roles as they prepared their performance/presentations. I also found that the group using iPads for performance did better on the quizzes than the students with no prior musical experience not using iPads—although this is too small of a sample to make a strong claim.
Seeing students get excited to create using class musicological concepts not only confirmed my interest in taking this farther, it also encouraged me to reach out to the rest of the music faculty to see if the software and hardware combination would help them to present musical concepts. I was awarded an open ITEL grant to carry this out with all of the ordinary music faculty. With help from an outside consultant/programmer, we will develop interactive applications for many of our courses. The hope is that we will make musical concepts more accessible to students—especially those students with an interest in music but no experience with an instrument. I plan to jointly publish a paper on the project with the consultant/programmer.
The challenges that I found were that the hardware and software are expensive (not all the students could afford it) and that it took for me a great deal of time to develop these applications (the programming was new to me). These should be addressed in my upcoming open ITEL grant. The benefits certainly outweigh the challenges. I am looking forward to using the iPads in more ways to help engage students in how sound is organized.