(Just About) Three Months With SmartMusic in High School Choral Music

Our school system is on a trimester, and our second term ended on March 8th. MakeMusic released an update to SmartMusic and Finale on December 22nd that allowed choir/vocal teachers to create assessments based on the human voice for the first time. SmartMusic had already been moving in that direction since the release of SmartMusic 2012 in the summer of 2011, which allowed for vocal sight-reading assessments with a select number of sight-reading methods. However, you could not make your own vocal sight-reading assessments or choral music assessments until the December update.

When we returned to school in January of 2012, I immediately assigned SmartMusic assignments to students, and assigned a total of 5 assignments in the weeks that followed. That may not sound like a lot of assignments, particularly when I know some of my band colleagues assign 24 (or more) assignments a term. However, most of those 24 assignments are usually out of a method book (i.e. short), and a select few are out of the instrumental repertoire (i.e. band, choir). As it stands, there are very few resources beyond some vocal sight-reading methods and “core” vocal books (e.g. 24 Italian Art Songs and Arias) that are available for choral/vocal directors. If you want to assess using other sight-reading methods, or you want to assess your literature, you have to create your own Finale files. This may seem like a lot of work, but think about it: at most, your choral music has eight parts. In the high school setting, you usually have four or less parts (e.g. SATB, SSA, TB, SA). If you only choose a certain number of measures out of a piece, it really isn’t that hard to make an assessment in choral/vocal music. If you are an instrumental director, you need to create parts for MANY more instruments. As such, choral/vocal educators may not have many resources, but it is significantly easier to create our own.

I created three sight-reading assessments, six assessments based on our literature, and I used one clapping exercise from Essential Elements 2000, Book 2. In terms of literature, I tried both slow and fast pieces, and also assigned one full piece to my students (I wrote about this earlier–it turns out that the visual report of student performance stopped after 37 measures, even though the recording kept going).

I’ve learned some things along the way that I want to share with anyone that reads this blog, and I’ve learned them about my role as a teacher using SmartMusic, and I’ve learned them about my students using SmartMusic. I’m going to address these with bullet points.

As a teacher using SmartMusic, I’ve learned…

  • None of my students were “fooling” me in terms of their ability. I had a pretty good idea of who could sight-read and who could not, and I had a pretty good idea of who knew their music and who did not, even though we do not require lessons at our school. SmartMusic simply documented what I already knew; but that is the very definition of research–you scientifically prove what you already knew.
  • As expected, students don’t sight-read very well, even if you practice the skill daily. I’ll be fighting that by moving to an all-solfege system over the next year. We will be using solfege for warm-ups, as we learn music, in sight-reading, and even during some SmartMusic testing. We’ve already started some of this process.
  • Listening to sight-reading tests (less than 8 measures) for four choirs is quite do-able, because you save so much time versus tests in person. When students test in person, they hem and haw, ask to restart, make excuses and so on. On SmartMusic, they simply sing for you. There are times that the program is recording and they are not singing, and I’ve heard some interesting comments. But I can listen to one assignment for four choirs in about two hours. There is no way I could test those students in person in two hours.
  • I’ve learned not to overlap assignments. For the end of the term, I assigned three concurrent SmartMusic assessments–one sight-reading, one from their literature, and one clapping exercise. As a result, at one point I had 350 assignments waiting to be corrected, and at that level, it’s really hard to catch up. From now on: one assignment at a time, period.
  • For the most part, SmartMusic is accurate in terms of wrong and right notes, but it can be wrong, too. Sometimes it will mark notes that are wrong as right, and those that are right as wrong, so this is where you, as a teacher, will need to listen to every assignment (another Roger Whaley viewpoint: if I ask them to record it, I will listen to it.). I know some band teachers that assign SmartMusic and only report the SmartMusic grade–I think that is okay as long as you let students know that you are not going to listen to it and will only base the grade off of SmartMusic’s assessment. And if that is the case, you should also allow students to play for you in person in the event that they can’t get SmartMusic to evaluate them properly.
  • For one of my top choir’s pieces, Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep,” I created a short assessment of an area that was problematic for the choir. By the time we hit performances, that area became a comfort zone rather than a problem area (and there were other places that I wish that I had assigned as a SmartMusic assessment). I have no doubt in my mind that the extra attention that students placed into those measures translated to a better performance for my choir.
  • Additionally, I learned that it was not very helpful to assign a full piece for assessment. A shorter “clip” of a song…in a problematic area…gives you a better idea of how students are doing on the piece.
  • Those short clips would often give me insight as to additional problems in the music that I had not heard in rehearsal. When you start hearing several students making the same “hidden” mistake, you know where to attack in your next rehearsal.
  • I’ve made a couple of errors in moving a file from Finale to SmartMusic. To be on the safe side, create the file with Finale 2012 (use the special copy commands if you are moving a file from Finale 2011 to Finale 2012…don’t just open the file in Finale 2012), and follow the steps to export as a SmartMusic file. Make sure to set the original voices (look at all of them and don’t assume anything) and be very careful about what voices are used as accompaniment.
  • There are a lot of details that SmartMusic can be told to listen for, such as a specific tempo, whether or not “My Part” is used, and so on. I’ve already grown to allow students to use “My Part” with an automatic deduction of points for a grade…some need that security blanket and are willing to live with a lower grade because of it. Use those details wisely as you assign assessments.
  • SmartMusic separates the student on the recording in both left and right channels. This is great for the poor recording where the student is hardly audible. You can crank your volume and listen to the audio of only the student. This works exceptionally well on the iPad.
  • You can make one file with all the voices being assessed, such as one choral octavo with piano as accompaniment and four voices. Students have to select the proper part, and with every assessment, someone doesn’t do so. When you make a sight reading assessment do so for every part in your choir (e.g. Soprano, Alto, Baritone). If men try recording a treble clef sight-reading assessment, things just don’t work well.
  • There’s a lot being said about formative and summative assessment…SmartMusic can be used for both.

For my students using SmartMusic, I’ve learned…

  • The majority of students wait until the very last second to complete their assignments, and get angry at you, as a teacher, if there isn’t a computer available for them to take their assessments on. This is even after being reminded daily for two weeks to finish early because of a due-date rush. Roger Whaley has suggested the possibility of giving extra-credit to students that finish early–this is something that I might look into.
  • I should add that we have seven computers available for SmartMusic at all times, with an additional two available at busy times. Only a few of my choral students have purchased SmartMusic, whereas most band students have it at home. Most students take assessments before school, during lunch, or after school. In rare emergencies, I allow them to take a test during choir, but this is an exception to the rule.
  • We continue to struggle with hardware. We are using non-SmartMusic microphones, and are using XLR microphones that are plugged into an M-Audio KeyStation 49i. This works well, but students sometimes do strange things and unplug cords, turn off switches, etc. Furthermore, the district has strange boot sequences that restrict the changes staff or students can make on a computer, so when a computer boots, it’s a gamble if the audio will work properly or not. We’ve had similar issues with SmartMusic headsets…just because the headset is plugged into a computer doesn’t mean that the computer is set up to accept that microphone input (in our case, it almost never is) So I end up making a lot of trips to practice rooms to solve mic issues–even in the same room over the period of an hour, if multiple students use the room.
  • Students lose their password all the time, and although SmartMusic has a password reset function, some students struggle with even that. I wish that I could be granted the ability to change passwords (or to look them up) for students.
  • A large number of students seem to submit assignments on which they cannot be heard. I’ve realized that I, as a teacher, have to tell them to listen to their recordings before hitting submit, and threaten a zero if a recording is submitted without any voice part represented on the recording.

What I’d like to see SmartMusic incorporate…

  • An outright rejection of any SmartMusic file that doesn’t contain a voice (or instrumental) part.
  • If a student is registered as an “Alto” that the alto part would pop up automatically when they take a choral assessment (right now, it defaults to the first part, usually Soprano).
  • The ability to create my own “Clapping” exercise with the instrument “clapping.”
  • The ability to look up passwords for students from my teacher account.
  • And as always, SmartMusic for iPad.
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