Thursday, October 11, 2007

Missing the Beat

In today's (Oct 11) Boston Globe, there's an article entitled "Harried schools trumpet digital music teacher." It's about a music software program called SmartMusic. Unfortunately, the author (and definitely the headline writer!) misses the point of the software entirely. Strangely, I've met with a senior staff member from SmartMusic and they certainly don't push it or even come close to characterizing it as a "virtual teacher." Briefly, SmartMusic helps students develop their technical ability by recording what they play and comparing it against the on-screen print music with the student performing as alone or with computer-generated accompaniment. That is, the software gives students the printed music on screen, records what a student plays through a microphone, and tells them (and/or the teachers) the errors that they made. (There are other features to it which are pretty neat, but no need to get into it here.) I think of it as a really interesting and well-designed tool to facilitate practice.

But no music teacher would ever say that it's a virtual teacher and I think that author Keith O'Brien is clearly overstepping to even suggest that. First of all, it would argue against the necessity of instrumental music teachers, but also it negates the other aspects of creating this form of art: the value of working in an ensemble, the nuance of personal expression, etc. Clearly, music education is more than just playing right notes at the right time. (O'Brien does mention "face-to-face" time and "bonding," but the it's so much more than that!) To suggest that a computer can replace a teacher and the classroom or teaching studio experience, O'Brien denigrates the role of a music teacher and indeed the art form itself.

But prompted by this albeit flawed article, I'm drawn to two big issues.

(1) How do we assess progress in the arts? In this article, middle school teacher Bob Mealy is interested in looking at the number of technical errors of his students. Certainly technique is a huge roadblock for music students at that age, but is that how we should measure progress in the arts? And at higher levels of arts teaching where technical ability is less of a concern, is there a way to evaluate student progress when art is so subjective?

(2) How do advancements in technology help or hurt arts educators and arts education? This is definitely an interest of mine with the quickly-progressing digitally-oriented culture that we are living in now. For example, there are certainly more opportunities for amateur writers/journalists out there to experiment and hone their craft with the the proliferation of electronic media outlets, but is that good for the art of writing/journalism? Can we find really great electronic journalism, celebrate it, and aspire for it when everyone and their mothers all have blogs? (And where somebody like me--who is a sub-par writer at best!--is allowed to publish something like this into cyberspace?) In this case, are the tools of technology creating an atmosphere where there's too much art of questionable value? Is there even such a thing as too much art?

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