A dedicated music tech lab is a terrific way to supplement and reinforce the learning that is happening in the classroom and through ensemble work. A dedicated music tech lab allows students to:
- focus on and perfect techniques and ideas that they are working on or may be struggling with
- receive real-time feedback from their practices
- work individually or in small groups to research compositions and composers that they are currently studying
- evaluate and enhance their own musical performances
- create and develop new musical ideas
- be exposed to music and musical performances that they may not have access to outside of such an environment.
A dedicated music tech lab also opens up the possibility of creating and offering new and innovative courses that could appeal to students beyond the traditional music learner, including courses like audio engineering that could fit into a school’s or district’s STEM/STEAM program. If you are lucky – really lucky – one day an administrator or IT person will stop by your room to tell you that you are getting a computer lab and ask you where you would like it set up. In my experience, however, this is not the norm… at least at the beginning. Building or creating a dedicated music tech lab is not all that difficult, but a well-thought-out plan to present to the administration and the IT department is a must. Your plan should include:
- computing equipment you will need and the space it will reside in
- the purpose of the lab and how you and your students will be using it
- additional hardware and software that will be needed to make the lab functional.
When you approach the administration and IT to create a new music tech lab, bring a list of specifications that you need or want for the computers: desktops vs. laptops, Macs vs. Windows vs. Chromebooks, and the specific configurations you will need. Be able to share in great detail how you will be using the lab with existing classes, how it will reinforce and enhance the learning going on in class, and how you will be able to demonstrate success. Have a list of software and additional hardware you will need and how you intend to finance and maintain them.
Sometimes administrators and IT departments will be leery of creating a brand-new dedicated music tech lab – if that is the case, there are several other options that you can try. You can ask that the lab be furnished with hand-me-down equipment. Most schools replace their lab computers on a regular basis (every 3-5 years), and if they are not repurposed elsewhere, they are usually disposed of as surplus. Since most software that is used in a typical music lab does not require the fastest CPUs, the best graphics cards, or massive amounts of RAM or disk space, these hand-me-downs are an excellent option for creating your first lab – and the administration and IT departments will love the fact that they are basically FREE! If they still hesitate, float the idea that it would be an “arts lab” and that the music and visual arts students would share the facility, allowing some cross-curricular projects… that should win them over!
The best-case scenario is a self-contained music lab right in the music suite. Another option would be getting into the rotation to use one of the existing computer labs in the school. While a pain, it will demonstrate to those that make decisions that:
- it is in fact enhancing and reinforcing your students’ learning
- it is being utilized for multiple classes and in different ways
- it has the potential to add additional music classes into the program.
All of this can lead to the creation of a dedicated music or fine arts lab. Using a shared lab will mean that you will have to secure items like music keyboards, microphones, and input devices under lock and key when you are not using the lab. But in the end, the benefits will outweigh the negatives.
Having a strategy on how you plan to utilize the lab to enhance and supplement what the students are doing in the classroom is imperative to planning what hardware and software will be required.
- Will the lab be used primarily for drill and practice (theory and ear training)?
- Will the lab be used to help students practice and improve their technique?
- Will students use the lab for research, analysis, and group projects?
- Will the lab be used to create music and musical compositions?
- Will the lab be used to expose students to musical works and ideas so that they may grow in their understanding and response to new music and musical ideas?
- Will the lab be used to draw students not currently studying music into the school’s music program?
Choose one of these tracks to start with and begin implementing the use of the music tech lab into the normal routine of the class. It is perfectly fine – better, in fact – to start slowly, adding one track or idea at a time. Eventually, you will probably look back and see that you were able to add all of these functions, but I would urge you to take it slowly and make each lab experience purposeful and meaningful for the students and manageable for you.
To make this a true music technology lab you are going to need dedicated software and hardware to allow the students to explore and respond to music, refine their musical experience, create new music and musical compositions, and interface musically with the computers.
Hardware that is a must, beyond the computer itself, includes USB or MIDI input devices and digital audio interfaces. USB and MIDI input devices come in many flavors and price points; you will want to have some diversity (keyboards, guitars, strings, winds) available for students with different abilities and skills. Digital audio interfaces act as a central hub that allows the computer to access multiple devices that are plugged into and routed through it. Configuring input devices and interfaces to work seamlessly with the computer used to be a nightmare, but in this day of USB and Thunderbolt, it is really as simple as plug and play. You will also want to have some microphones available for capturing live sound. There are some great USB microphones that are an excellent addition to each station, but having some traditional microphones available – both small and large diaphragm, condenser and dynamic – would be advantageous. Finally, don’t forget the headphones!
Since each type of interaction the students will have with the computer will be different, having the correct software that the students will use to enhance and reinforce their learning and creating is imperative. Software considerations include:
Since you may be venturing into uncharted territory, having some excellent references, resources, and guides will be helpful as you think about teaching strategies and build and manage your music technology lab.
Check out Part 1 in this series which discusses incorporating new technology into the elementary classroom, and Part 2 which introduces MusicFirst, a new learning management system dedicated to the music classroom.