My latest experiences with SmartMusic (it’s all good)

I wanted to write a short post to verify that my choir program is still using SmartMusic as a way to assess student performance.  There are some hurdles to get through when using SmartMusic.  Here are some observations from this year:

1) Make sure that every student has a SmartMusic account BEFORE sending them to a practice room with SmartMusic.

To solve this hurdle, I took each of my choirs to a computer lab, and we went to where they either created a SmartMusic account or logged on to their old account.  I encouraged them to create a password that they could remember.  This took time out of rehearsal, but it saved time in the long run.  The only negative?  They couldn’t enroll for a class from the login–this has to be done on SmartMusic itself.  Suggestion: allow enrollment from the login.

**NOTE:  via Twitter, Paul Shimmons, from iPad and Technology in Music Education, mentioned that you can use the website to do what I want the computer-lab registration process to do (Create Login, register for a class).  That is what I will do next year!

2) Sight-Reading Pre-Tests/Post-Tests

I wanted to track the effectiveness of our focus on sight-reading throughout the year, so I created three short sight-reading tests that all my students will eventually complete (some have not yet done so).  I give students points for completing these exercises, but I do not grade them on their performance.  The biggest challenge?  Students fail to choose their part on SmartMusic (basses singing the soprano).  When I create the assignment on Finale, I create a line for each voice part.  This creates a drop-down list in SmartMusic when the assessment is taken, and students fail to choose their part.  I wish SmartMusic would automatically match the student’s preferred voice part to the assignment (they could still change it if they needed to).  At any rate, I will test the students on the same three assignments at the end of the year, and examine the growth of their sight-reading ability.

3) Post Concert Assessments

After a concert, I like to have students prove that they can sing their part.  I put all of our music into Finale, so it is relatively easy to save a copy of a Finale file and edit that file so that only a particular section remains.  I often choose one of the harder passages from one of our songs for students to test on.  Again, the biggest challenge is having students choose their voice part (see #2 above).

4) SmartMusic for Wood Shedding

I’ve also scanned most of the songs from our fall/winter musical into Finale, and have created SmartScore assignments based on songs that need particular attention.  Students are able to go into our practice rooms and drill their parts when they aren’t working with me, the choreographer, or the director.  Musical Theater is an area where SmartMusic could develop some new relationships…it seems to be a match made in heaven.  I also do similar wood-shedding assignments with my choirs when we hit a section of music that we just can’t learn in class.  I can assign it as a SmartMusic assignment, and it is amazing how their individual work in the practice room pays off in the rehearsal in those tricky areas.

5) Some Technical Issues Resolved by the New USB Vocal Headset

My biggest headache with SmartMusic in 2011-2012 was hardware related, which has nothing to do with SmartMusic.  Students would unplug cords, turn off mics, and just mess with settings.  We started buying the new vocal headsets for our computers, and we removed all the other computer hardware from the practice rooms.  These are USB headsets, which I plug into the BACK of the computer so that kids don’t have easy access.  With one exception (some student yanked cords from the back and plugged them in the front), this has been an unbelievable improvement from the old vocal headsets.  The computers see these headsets correctly and SmartMusic just works.

One of my reasons for wanting SmartMusic on the iPad is that the iPad would also take away a lot of hardware issues from students.  These new headsets are so good that I hope SmartMusic releases an iPad adapter plug for them if/when an iPad version of SmartMusic is released.

5) Future Plans: Solo Work

This year I’m finally going to require every student to prepare a solo and ensemble piece, even if they are not going to participate in solo and ensemble.  We’re going to use SmartMusic with a select number of songs (probably one of the 24 Italian Art Songs, a Folk Song, and a Spiritual) and have every student prepare and perform one of those songs on SmartMusic, creating a portfolio–and giving all of the students some choices for college auditions (many do not have a private voice teacher).

6) Frequency of Assessment

I think it is important not to overuse SmartMusic as a teacher.  I have no issue if a student wants to use SmartMusic and its resources on their own, but in terms of actual assessments, I don’t want to burn them out.  We do not require our choir students to buy SmartMusic, and we offer SmartMusic on five computers that are always open to use before school, after school, and during lunch.  We split our freshmen into a different lunch hour, so I let them take SmartMusic assessments during class.

Ultimately, my plan is to assess sight-reading twice a term, and to assess one or two excerpts of their choral literature after a concert.  I will also assign an extra assessment if there is a “wood shedding” area that I want them to work on.  Some terms have two concerts, others have one.  To date, I have assigned four or five assessments to my students.  The first three were the pre-test sight-reading assignments, and they currently have a post-concert literature assessment (My top choir has two to complete).  I will still have to assign another sight-reading assessment by the end of the term (based on the sight-reading we’ve done in class).  With the exception of the first three sight-reading assessments, everything else is graded and counts towards the student’s grade.

SmartMusic works for choir.  It works for music.  Like all things, there are some challenges when you use SmartMusic, and MakeMusic continues to work to address those challenges.  The USB Vocal Headset is a winner–I highly recommend it.  We’re also fortunate to have a great sales representative from MakeMusic who is working with our entire district as it adopted SmartMusic for our entire instrumental program this year.  I will be presenting on the topic of Assessment in Choral Music with SmartMusic at IMEA in November.  Check back after IMEA for the slides from that presentation.


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