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Technology opens doors in Pinellas schools’ music classes

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Published:   |   Updated: October 15, 2013 at 12:17 PM

CLEARWATER — A voter-approved referendum has poured money into Pinellas County’s music budgets for nearly a decade, but this school year the money will transform the way students are taught, school administrators say.

Music teachers have completed extensive music technology training courses and are now ready to teach their students how to use state-of-the-art tools and programs that will take them beyond traditional performance. Every performing arts teacher has an iPad outfitted with recording software and other applications, and just last week schools submitted requests to get devices and iPad labs for their students.

At a time where one of the school district’s biggest talking points is career education, music students are also getting a deeper understanding of what many may have only considered a hobby, teachers say.

The more training students receive on the equipment, the better their job prospects will be.

“The referendum really allowed us to ask for brand new, professional equipment instead of being three or four years behind the industry,” said Michael Vetter, referendum project coordinator for the school district. “Now, teachers have MacBook Pros, and students are getting iPads just a few years after they’ve been introduced. Many of these music efforts wouldn’t exist without the referendum.”

One program that has made its way to many music classes this school year is SmartMusic. The computer program records students as they play exercises and songs and assesses their performances, not only showing them where they need improvement but also tracking their progress against previous sessions. The tool is invaluable for teachers, who often have 60 or more students in any given class and can’t provide one-on-one instruction, said Todd Leighton, director of percussion, digital music and theory at Tarpon Springs High School.

It also helps keep students engaged, said Jared Allen, percussion director at John Hopkins Middle and Perkins Elementary schools in St. Petersburg.

“Before, it was just a kid sitting alone in a practice room with his trumpet, playing the same thing over and over and getting frustrated [because he] can’t get the notes or the rhythm right,” Allen said. “Now, it’s like a game to them, where they try to get the highest score in the class or even just compete against themselves. That personal investment pushes their skill level to new heights.”

Largo Middle and Lakeview Fundamental Elementary schools are the first to have pilot iPad labs this year, where students can access different recording, video and composition apps. On the elementary level, students play games that help them recognize when notes go up or down in pitch and have different time value. At St. Petersburg’s Lakewood High School, students used the FaceTime app Wednesday to perform and speak with Chris Crenshaw, a trombonist with the prestigious Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York City.

In theory, composition and digital music classes, students are using the latest versions of professional music writing programs such as Logic Pro X, Garage Band, Sibelius and Finale. This school year, Leighton has worked to form a relationship with Clear Track Recording Studios in Clearwater to give students in his digital music class an opportunity to see how what they’re learning could lead to a career in a studio or elsewhere. The school district also has a new partnership with St. Petersburg College that lets students interact with instructors and college students.

Exposing students to the equipment they would work with “in the real world” as early as elementary and middle school will put them way ahead of the curve when it comes time to find a job, Leighton said.

“Digital music is a lot of fun because it’s something that’s relevant to them — all the music they listen to, like dubstep and rap, is created on a computer,” Leighton said. “Now, students can create that authentically in my studio, and for them that’s exciting because they can create something that’s meaningful to them. Now, they’re excited to come to class and realize that they’re getting the fundamentals they need to work professionally.”

The technology is not only revolutionizing the way music classes are taught but has also had a profound effect on student performance in other academic areas, Allen said. Just recently, math teachers at Johns Hopkins have begun using programs such as Smart Music as a teaching tool with struggling students. Incorporating music makes learning math fun, he said.

The referendum dollars, which were first approved in 2004, were approved for a third time by Pinellas County voters last fall to be collected for another four years. The tax brings in nearly $30 million a year, about $1 million of which goes to music education. The rest helps fund teacher salaries, art, reading and classroom technology. Last school year, $130,000 was spent on technology for performing arts programs alone, though funding varies based on yearly requests, Vetter said.

“Pinellas is very supportive of the arts community,” Vetter said. “From St. Petersburg all the way up to Tarpon Springs, it’s just one big enclave of people who really understand the importance of arts in education, as well as in your life. “When it comes up to a vote, we’ve seen it’s a real no-brainer for most people.”

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