As one of the superstars of music technology education, Katie Wardrobe can make even the most complex topic seem not only simple but also exciting and interesting. With a website full of teacher-friendly resources and lessons that students love, Music Technology Editor, George Hess, spoke to her from her home in Melbourne, Australia.
George Hess: Hi Katie, you’re well-known as the guru when it comes to helping beginners. What got you involved in helping teachers get started?
Katie Wardrobe: It was basically from my own experience of just being a little bit mystified by technology. I felt like I came into it quite late and I get that from a lot of teachers. They’ll say, ‘I didn’t grow up with it so I don’t know where to start’ or ‘it’s a bit mysterious or scary’. I spent some time working for Sibelius and got thrown into the deep end of the pool doing tech support right from the beginning and that taught me a lot about how to use technology.
And after that, I realised that I wanted to know not just how to use the technology but what to do with it in the classroom. There is a huge difference between those two things. So I found that I could work out some lesson ideas and then explain them pretty well to other teachers. I went from there, running workshops and after my Sibelius job ended, I started doing it on my own.
GH: We’ve been touting the benefits of music tech for over 30 years. Why do you think it’s still considered a fringe subject?
KW: Yeah, that’s a funny one. It’s not as bad as it used to be. When I first started, there was so much resistance. Teachers were very anti-technology and said things like, ‘I’ve been teaching this way for 10 or 15 whatever years and it’s not been a problem. Why would I need to change?’ I was finding that people were burying their head in the sand about it, wanting it to go away. But governments around the world, basically forcing the integration of technology in education, made people shift. Then I started having people say, ‘OK, I don’t think I really want to do it but let me come to a workshop and see what it’s about’.
Nowadays, I don’t find this massive amount of resistance but there’s still a lot of fear of the unknown if you haven’t used it. It can be overwhelming when you get a software program and you don’t know where to start. And I think a massive problem is the lack of time that teachers have to learn new stuff. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. Lack of time.
Live looping with Ed Sheeran
GH: Maybe a better question is ‘why should they use technology?’
KW: This is a good one because I think there are so many things you can do that would not have been possible in the past without the technology. I often use film scoring as an example. You can’t do a great film scoring unit without it. You could talk about it and do research and the history and listening and that sort of thing. But for kids to compose their own film scoring projects; you can’t do that without the technology. Video game composing is another one and performance-type things that I love like live looping; totally not possible without the technology.
I just saw Ed Sheeran a month ago here in Australia and his entire show is just him on stage with a live looping pedal. It’s just so cool. So I think it’s a good thing to explore inspirational sources and look at how you can then break it down for kids.
Apps to make your life easier
GH: Do you see more teachers who are teaching music with technology or creating music with technology?
KW: I think it’s a bit of both because there are still some awesome, valid things you can do to teach music with technology from a productivity point of view or a functional point of view. I mean, all the apps that are available are so great. Do you know Tonal Energy Tuner? It’s a tuning app that does everything; it’s a tuner and metronome and it’s amazing what you can do with that in terms of teaching kids to improve their listening and their own tuning ability. And there are other things like SmartMusic which will help you assess student playing. All of that is awesome because technology will make your life a little bit easier.
For assessment, using things like Google forms or quiz software like Kahoot, which will track all of the results for you and save you doing any marking. Those things are really cool but what I get more excited about is actually composing music with the technology or performing.
GH: What do you say to the teacher who ‘isn’t good for technology’?
KW: It actually drives me crazy, particularly the phrase, ‘I’m too old to learn this now’ or ‘I’m not good at this sort of stuff’. Well, no one’s good at until you actually practise and do it and use it a lot. And I ask them, what do you say to someone, say, a 60-year-old person who comes up to you and says, ‘I really want to learn the guitar’? If someone says that to me, I would say, ‘go and get a teacher and get a guitar and learn’. It’s not too late to do that. And I don’t think technology is any different. It’s just like an instrument. You have to decide to learn it and then just go for it.
GH: Tell me how Midnight Music got started.
KW: I started doing live online courses in about, I think it was in 2012. That was like living on the edge but it was really good because I could reach a much wider audience. I had a lot of people from the States who were interested in doing courses with me and I wasn’t travelling there frequently enough. So some of the online courses really grew and that’s now become the main part of it. It’s an online community with lots of online courses. They’re not live anymore. It works better and it means that people can take them whenever it suits them. We have a big community of people that you can ask questions of and share ideas and get some help.
…simplifying technology for music teachers
GH: What are some of your favourite lessons for the teacher who is just getting started?
KW: I often use an example of teaching, say, a basic rock drum pattern to students. You could talk about the parts of the drum kit. You could then do some performance element with it, teach them how to play a basic pattern, play body percussion, classroom instruments or even a drum kit if you’ve got one handy and then they might transfer that into some software.
Groove Pizza is a great online option for this. We could recreate a drum pattern in Groove Pizza where kids can play it back and make their own variations. They could then add a rap over the top. I’ve got a free lesson plan on my website. You can use a set structure for a rap, just four bars long. You end up with a piece which they can perform live in front of the class or record in their software. They might write the notation out as well for that drum pattern. I think that’s a great way to kind of get started. Recently, I’ve put together a lesson plan which involves another free online tool called Isle of Tune and it involves singing and learning rounds, singing in parts and then you can put it together in Isle of Tune.
From GarageBand to cloud-based apps
GH: Do you have a favourite app right now?
KW: That’s such a hard question. I hate that. It’s like saying, what’s your favourite song? What’s your favourite movie or composer? There’s never just one, is there? But I have always loved Loopy HD. That’s for my own personal creativity. That’s about the only time I am creative. And GarageBand, even though it’s basic, it’s pretty awesome. What it does is pretty awesome for an app that you get included free. So that one is always a big favourite.
GH: Are you seeing a lot of interest in cloud-based apps?
KW: Yes, much more now than ever before. I think it’s growing and I think a lot of it’s driven by people who are being forced to switch to Chromebooks. The teachers used to use GarageBand or a Mixcraft, so now what? There are some great options: SoundTrap, Soundation or BandLab. But yeah, it’s people thrown into the deep end. But then it’s funny because ultimately the cloud-based things are sometimes the best solution. Even if you don’t just have Chromebooks, you might be at a school that has a combination of devices. You might have iPads at one level and some might have PCs or Macs or they might have something else at home. The cloud-based options make so much sense in that regard.
Advice for beginners
GH: Do you have any other advice for beginners?
KW: I think the thing I say most in workshops is always have a contingency. And the other big tip I can say has helped me over time is to always quickly go through the thing you’re going to do before you actually do that lesson. You might have done the lesson 17 times over six months. But if you just double check the day before, you’ll avoid what has happened to me where you open up and find the app has had a massive update that you didn’t realise and suddenly, you don’t know where anything is. So always check stuff but have that contingency too.
About the author
George Hess is an educator, guitarist, composer and author who has taught music technology, jazz and theory at leading universities for over 25 years.
Dr Hess is an Apple Distinguished Educator and award-winning teacher who serves on the board of directors for the Technology Institute for Music Educators (TI:ME) in the US. A certified Flipped Learning trainer who regularly presents at conferences and workshops around the world, he is currently Associate Professor of Music at Sunway University in Malaysia.
Header graphic: Groove Pizza screenshot