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Teaching Music with Technology: An Interview with Barbara Freedman

Posted by Lauren Richerme on Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Imagine teaching the most requested course in the school.  At Greenwich High School in Connecticut, music educator Barbara Freedman holds that honor.  She teaches four levels of music technology, the first of which over 400 students request to take each year.  Freedman told me in her own words how she teaches music technology, how she learned about music technology, and what advice she has for teachers who might be interested in teaching such classes.


Teaching Music Technology

Freedman states that approximately 95 percent of the students in her classes have not played an instrument or sung in choir, except maybe for a year or two in elementary school.  Rather than drawing students away from large ensembles, she asserts that her classes reach a group of students who would not normally enroll in music.  In her classes, Freedman explains that “students learn about music through composition” by using software such as GarageBand and Logic.

What might an assignment in one of her classes look and sound like?  Freedman explains that for the final, cumulative project in her introductory music technology course, students compose a piece in what she calls “modified sonata-allegro form.”  She states “They create a melody in D Dorian.  They take the melody and they create melodic fragments.  They take the fragments and create rhythmic augmentation and diminution of those fragments.”  Eventually, “The exposition would be the basic statement of their D melody a couple of times and hopefully colored up and flavored nicely and then the development section is an interplay between these different variation elements that they previously recorded and anything else that they’d like to add and record, and a recapitulation coming back or returning to the original melody that could be colored and flavored by the materials that they’ve used in the development section.”

That’s just the introductory course.  As students progress, Freedman explains, “Kids get more time to freely compose the more advanced that they get.”  In such courses, students “might get an assignment to take a piece of artwork and create two subjects and create melodic material or harmonic material around those subjects, and create a piece based upon the artwork.”  Freedman also incorporates classical music.  For example, “When we talk about accompaniment patterns and arpeggiation, kids listen to Beethoven’s  ‘Moonlight Sonata.’”

While it may seem like Freedman was always interested in music technology, she explained that she actually had very little experience when she was hired as a music technology teacher.  While she had done some audio engineering as a work-study student in college, she notes that when she started as a music technology teacher, “I really didn’t know anything, and the technology back then was fairly complex and complicated and it broke down a lot and we didn’t have the best equipment.”  Freedman asserts that she survived by learning from her students, adding that today’s music technology equipment is much easier to use.


Advice for Teachers

What would Freedman say to those who might want to teach a music technology course but have no experience?  She states, “The kids know the technology, the technology is actually the easy part to learn.  What I’m teaching kids is music, it’s not technology.  My motto is teach music, the technology will follow.”  Elaborating, Freedman explains that teachers can transfer their large ensemble skills to a music technology classroom.  She asserts, “If you stand in front of an orchestra or a choir or band, you know you want something louder, softer, faster, shorter, or longer, so if you think about listening to music as if you’re conducting an ensemble, think of it that way instead of being overwhelmed by the technology.”

Freedman also posits the value of obtaining some form music technology curriculum.  She reminisced about her first job as a high school general music teacher in New York.  Freedman explained “We had a curriculum and this really saved my teaching career when you’re teaching fifty kids in a class.”  Drawing on her own experiences, Freedman created a book, Teaching Music Through Composition: A Curriculum Using Technology, that comes out in January, 2013The book contains 63 lesson plans, including those listed above, as well as student assignment sheets, and video, audio, and MIDI files.

What about teachers who don’t have their own music technology lab?  Freedman states, “Most teachers already have access to technology because all schools have libraries or media centers that have computers.”  While teachers may not have enough access to such computers to create a year-long course, they can start with just a few lessons.  Freedman posits, “You don’t have to completely restructure your whole course or restructure your whole teaching style, you just simply try a unit or two out.”  She adds that Macintosh computers already come with GarageBand and that there are many free music technology programs that teachers can download for PCs.


The Rewards

Freedman notes the benefits of teaching any subject, stating, “Honestly, as a teacher, I think that teaching is a great thing and a rewarding thing, and I don’t think it really matters what subject you’re teaching.  The most rewarding part about teaching is being with the kids.”  Yet, she does assert that teaching music technology has specific rewards.  She explains that in her district, some students with an interest in music don’t participate in other music classes for financial reasons.  She explains, “Students in that lower economic demographic don’t find themselves in the band and orchestra program because mostly they can’t afford the instruments and the lessons.  So I get a lot of those kids.”

Freedman adds that many of her students are simply drawn to the combination of music, creativity, and technology.  She states, “I get a lot of kids who have other kinds of concerns and problems and they are creative in music.  They’re creative in using technology.  They love doing that.”  As a music technology educator, Freedman notes that perhaps the biggest reward comes from engaging students who may not have otherwise enrolled in a music class.   She summarizes, “I think it’s really rewarding to work with kids that we might not otherwise work with, to allow them to create what they wouldn’t necessarily have a chance to do so otherwise.”