Questions about SmartMusic
Today I received an e-mail asking about SmartMusic. The author had a question about this statement from a presentation I made at ILMEA in 2014:
“Today, SmartMusic is a complete practice, assessment, and performance tool.” (http://www.ilmea.org/site_media/filer_public/2014/01/17/russell.pdf)
The author expressed his belief that tone, tone quality, and phrasing are more important factors to performance; and that SmartMusic only assesses pitch and rhythm.
There are two truths here:
SmartMusic–and a number of other services coming online in the “industry”, such as Weezic and Music Prodigy, ARE assessing pitch and rhythm. They give you quantitative feedback about the quantitative parts of the music creation process. But these are crucial and critical items.
I don’t know about your band, choirs, and orchestras, but the first hurdle is learning the correct notes and rhythms–and sight reading ability is at an all-time low, particularly in choral music. There are some directors who teach holistically from the start, teaching phrasing while learning notes (and dynamics, and lyrics/language). I don’t happen to be one of those directors, as that model of learning was never modeled for me at any point in my career (in professional choirs, you are expected to arrive knowing the music).
So, yes…these programs are assessing pitch and rhythm, which are essential for the music to be performed correctly.
When used properly, SmartMusic is not on its own. Students are supposed to submit their recordings to their directors, who are supposed to listen to those recordings and give feedback to their students/members. If you are using SmartMusic as a director and NOT listening to those recordings, you aren’t “closing the loop.” This is where you can give feedback–as detailed as you want–to each student about those other things, such as tone, dynamics, articulation, pronunciation, and phrasing. It is when the teacher uses SmartMusic as intended that it becomes a complete practice, assessment, and performance tool.
Back to the dialogue:
When I presented this session, SmartMusic had JUST (literally the night before) released a version of SmartMusic on the iPad that allowed you to upload your own literature to the device. Up until that point, you had to only use existing resources on the iPad. At the time, I was still trying to use SmartMusic in my teaching and was very excited about the possibilities with the app.
Those possibilities are still there, but my current teaching position doesn’t allow for the use of SmartMusic, even though every student has an iPad. Our students have iPads as a part of a project to change instruction and learning in our lowest performing schools. And while the correlation is not 100%, you can often tie performance with socioeconomic factors. My school is one of the poorest schools in our district–and we have many students in choir that cannot afford a t-shirt ($8) to wear as a concert uniform. As a result, I can’t ask students to pay $40 a year for a service they use in only choir (every-other-day), and the district certainly doesn’t have the financial resources to pay for SmartMusic for every student (we have $8 million in cuts next year). I also have no practice rooms available for the choir (practice room subscriptions). So while I feel $40 a year is a fair price–I also understand how many of my students could not possibly afford it, and that keeps me from using it.
This is why some of the other new services are of interest to me–Music Prodigy (currently $30 per year per student–still out of our price range) and Weezic (pricing and features to be determined). I would love to have a tool like SmartMusic available to all my students, to help them learn music and hold them accountable to the right pitches and rhythms–and to also give me more 1:1 time with them via those recordings and my feedback to them. They would get the immediate feedback about pitch and rhythm and my eventual feedback about other issues.
The other issue I have in my current position is that I have over 300 students, and listening to 300 recordings is not an easy task–yet some of you have many more students than I do! Some suggestions: make sure students are recording an essential element in a song (something that needs work or shows mastery of the song), make sure the selection is no longer than 30 minutes, and consider using a rubric that can give quality feedback versus personal statements to each student (which takes exponentially longer).
So…in conclusion, I do feel that SmartMusic remains the best option for a practice, assessment, and performance tool (but other programs are out there and improving at a fast rate). When used correctly by a director, SmartMusic can be a COMPLETE part of that process, involving other elements of a quality performance. And certainly–no one’s choir has ever been negatively impacted by singing the correct pitches and rhythms.