Asking a potentially divisive question

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the AMLE 40th Annual Conference for Middle Level Education in Minneapolis, Minnesota. All of the middle school teachers in our district (four schools) went to the conference, as it is quite literally in our back yard this year. The next conference will be held in Tennessee next November.

There were hundreds of sessions and hundreds of vendors, on a scale a bit smaller than TI:ME/TMEA. Not a single session was focused on music education, and only one vendor, Yamaha, was represented for music education. The thing that concerns me about the lack of music education vendors is that many middle school administrators who would never go to a music education conference were at the AMLE Conference, so there was a bit of a missed opportunity there. A lot of educational technology vendors were also lacking. My technology vendor highlight was to see the Raspberry PI in person, and I’ll be ordering one.

I attended some technology sessions in lieu of any music education sessions, and in particular I was reminded that Common Sense Media has a ton of resources for schools going 1:1 and for parents whose children have their own devices.

By far, however, the most powerful part of the day for me came when I had a chance to sit down and have coffee with two other middle school choral music teachers who also use technology: Sue Bujold and Kim Cory, both from Minnesota (Kim, for the record, also teaches at the high school level). Sue teaches at Heritage Middle School, which was the first 1:1 middle school program in our state, and although Kim isn’t at a 1:1, she uses technology as she teaches her students in the Red Wing school district. We had a great conversation about iPads, apps, and instructional ideas, and I probably learned more from them than they did from me.

At the end of our conversation, we talked about Yamaha’s Music In Education, a general music curriculum based around keyboard instruction. Kim really likes her MIE tools, but I found myself questioning the value of group keyboard instruction in this day and age. I didn’t know much about MIE, but my goal as a music educator is to try to find ways to keep kids in music and to offer courses that appeal to their interests while still providing “traditional” music education (i.e. band, choir, and orchestra). I didn’t mean to disrespect Kim’s choice of tools, and I hope it wasn’t taken that way. So here are some additional thoughts on the matter.

What I found myself saying was that I would rather offer guitar (or even ukelele) to students as a general music option, and to teach music through guitar (not just notes/chords), versus a keyboard method. So if questioning the usefulness Yamaha MIE isn’t enough, I ask this question as well: “Does a keyboard-based general music method meet the music needs of the ‘80%’ in 2013, or would we be better served going another way?” Or better yet, for the non-music major, are keyboard skills essential? Granted, I am not a high level keyboard player, so a full-blown pianist would have another opinion, as piano playing is their hobby and life. But just because I play tuba, and I like tuba, I don’t think for a minute that every student should play it.

After our chat, I found myself wandering to the Yamaha MIE booth, and I asked all kinds of questions and listened to the entire presentation. I have not personally used the method, so my observations are limited by lack of experience. MIE is made up of a group of sixteen specially-outfitted keyboards. One keyboard becomes the master, and is linked to a computer. That master keyboard is then daisy-chained via MIDI to each of the other fifteen keyboards, which can be split into two sides (there is even a plastic cover that can go over the center keys of the keyboard), giving each student a two-octave keyboard. The master program provides content and accompaniments to each half keyboard, even allowing for assessments. The latest version of MIE also lets an iPad link to the computer, controlling many things remotely, so you can move around the room as students work. Students work off of a large spiral-bound workbook of songs that teach different concepts in music education, all based around the keyboard. The program currently costs $24,500 which included a three-day traning session for the music educator. The current system is MIE 3, and existing MIE 2 keyboards can be upgraded to MIE 3. If you are a MIE 1 school, you need to buy new equipment. The $24,500 also includes a MacBook Air and an iPad mini for the instructor to use in the MIE lab. New teachers to an existing lab can be trained for $1,800.

I find myself to be skeptical of the keyboard itself, which does not even offer MIDI via USB (which has been around for years). At the price of each individual device, it is unfathomable for Yamaha–who makes the unbelievable AvantGrande digital piano–to be selling a piano with 1990s technology at 2013 prices.

I don’t want to make anyone mad, but even after going through the MIE vendor presentation, I’m still questioning the use of a keyboard-based general music curriculum. Granted, if you have an existing MIE lab, and you love it, then by all means, keep using it. But if you are thinking about buying a lab for $24,500, then maybe there are other approaches you might want to consider. These other approaches all cost less than the MIE lab, and don’t require an entire room to be devoted to a lab. My current school had an MIE lab, and I have no idea of what happened to it (general music was killed in favor of a middle school model where every student takes band, orchestra, or choir–and those that don’t want music usually find themselves in my choir class). Here are some ideas:

1) Purchase 30 guitars at $200 each, plus $1000 of accessories (strings, string winders, etc.) and books. Attend the annual guitar education sessions in your area (look at Remember: teaching guitar does not HAVE to be “just” notes, chords, and tabs. The challenge here is to break the “traditional” music education mindset where those of us who teach band, choir, and orchestra simply don’t want to teach guitar.

2) Purchase 30 iPads at $599 each, plus a $50 in apps for each device. Teach about music through GarageBand, or even piano skills with apps like Piano DustBuster. You might want to factor in cases, too.

3) Or, even further, when they are available, purchase the iPads and then add a keyboard like the Miselu C.24 that is coming soon (it’s an iPad case that is a keyboard). The price should be less than $200 each. These keyboards–with 24 keys, almost the same as a single side of the Yamaha MIE, could then be used with the iPads for apps like GarageBand..

4) Consider a set of Zivix JamStiks to be used with the iPads, allowing you to teach guitar with the JamStiks.

Again, these are just thoughts of mine as I question a 100% keyboard-based general music curriculum. I’m not sure I would recommend the MIE approach in 2013. In my opinion–and that’s all it is–there are probably better options in 2013. If you have an existing Yamaha MIE lab, by all means, keep using it. But when MIE 4 comes out, and if you can’t upgrade…then maybe it is time to look elsewhere.

NOTE: Sue Bujold also wrote about AMLE today, and in doing so, she reminded me that various middle school music programs were featured as entertainment throughout the day.  So music did have a role in the conference–but not in sessions or in the vending area.  Maybe that is the fault of middle school music teachers not proposing sessions (I will for 2014), but still, if you wanted to find things, you had to do so outside of our area of expertise, and try to make things fit into music.

Sue makes an exceptional point that sometimes non-music teachers could learn a lot from music teachers, as we deal with situations that the average teacher does not.  Sue deals with 500 students every two days (more than double my load), by herself.  That makes an average class size of at least 50 students.  Most classroom teachers wouldn’t know what to do with 50 students for a class, or how to deal with them every-other day.  So…read Sue’s blog.  She doesn’t post often, but when she does, it is worth reading–and I hope she posts more in the days to come.


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