New Technologies for the Music Classroom

By James Frankel



            Every summer, I present a session at the National Symposium of Music Instruction Technology (NSMIT) Conference, hosted this year at Illinois State University.  The conference is small, but the people who attend and present sessions have a true commitment to the effective use of technology in the music classroom.  Each year at the conference, new software titles and new MIDI devices are demonstrated, and each year, I get more and more excited by what I see.  The following is a description of four of the new technologies available for music educators to use in the classroom.




            While this company has been around for 10 years in England, it is still one of those best-kept secrets here in the United States.  SoundBeam is a device that converts physical movement into sound.  Using ultrasonic sensors, the SoundBeam system detects the speed, gate and distance of even the smallest movements you make with anything from a fingertip to your entire body.  These ultrasonic signals are converted by the SoundBeam controller into MIDI information that can then be processed by a sound module, keyboard, or sampler.  The controller itself does not make any sound, but it does allow the user to choose from one hundred different pitch sequences, each containing up to sixty-four notes.  The chosen pitch sequences are then sent via MIDI cables to a synthesizer and ultimately an amplifier so that the movement can be heard.  This might sound a bit confusing, so Iıll simplify:  (1) Plug up to 4 ultrasonic sensors into the SoundBeam.  (2) Plug the SoundBeam into a MIDI-compatible synthesizer.  (3) Plug the synthesizer into a speaker.  (4) Select the pitch sequence.  (5) Move.  Instant kinesthetic music.

The SoundBeam system was originally conceived to be used with modern dance performances in England.  It was soon realized by music educators that the system had the possibility for some powerful applications in the music classroom, specifically with special needs students.  Because the SoundBeam does not require the mover to have musical training (it only requires the ability to move ­ even an eyebrow) the opportunity for students with special needs to create their own music is very real.  Because of the MIDI capabilities of the SoundBeam controller, it can even be hooked up to a notation program so that the studentsı movements can be converted directly into musical notation.  Pretty amazing. 

During the SoundBeam demonstration at NSMIT, a video was shown that depicted special need adults and children with severely impaired motor skills making music with the SoundBeam.  The look on their faces was universally one of joy.  It should also be noted that every one of the conference attendees could at some point be seen moving their arms in front of the sensors and experimenting with the controller.  I was instantly reminded of the Theremin, the first music synthesizer that also converted movement to sound, except what came out of the speakers was much more exciting.

The cost of the SoundBeam system is expensive.  For the full system, costs without shipping are approximately $4000.00.  If you can provide your own amplification, synthesizer and cables, you can save about $1,000.00.  Although it is a bit pricey, I cannot recommend the system strongly enough.  It can be used with all students (and teachers) to provide them with an opportunity to make music in an entirely new way.


Come Children Sing!


            I am often asked when I make presentations what software is specifically geared for the vocal music setting.  While there is software that is aimed at ear training (Auralia), my response is that you adapt software to fit your needs.  Not always what vocal music teachers want to hear.  However, with this new software title, the Come Children Sing Song Library, there is now software that is specifically geared for vocal music teachers at the elementary school level.

            Mary Ellen Pinzino is a wonderful vocal music teacher with years of experience in the elementary vocal music setting.  She is the founder of the Come Children Sing Institute in Chicago, IL.  What she has done is compile over 500 of her original song compositions into a comprehensive, annotated song archive.  Each song is categorized into style, meter, mode, difficulty, tonality, and vocal range.  If a music teacher wanted to teach their vocal students a song in a specific meter, they would simply search the database for songs in that meter, and would be presented with a list of dozens of songs.  They could then refine the search with any of the other categorizations listed.  Even the most specific search (triple meter, easy difficulty, Dorian mode, art song) would yield quite a few songs to choose from.  What the teacher sees when they select a song is the manuscript of the song (to print & copy for as many students as needed) that also plays as a Standard MIDI file. The only shortcoming is that all of the songs are original works by Mary Ellen Pinzino, and there are no public domain songs included (as of this printing).  It is an amazing resource for any music teacher, and I highly recommend it.  The software is Hybrid (meaning for both PC and Macintosh).  The single station price is $149.95.  Lab packs and network versions are available.


Sibelius StarClass


            There is no doubt about it.  I am a big fan of Sibelius.  StarClass, one of the titles in Sibeliusı Education Suite, has really nothing to do with their award-winning notation program, but it has made me an even bigger fan.

StarClass is a collection of 180 high-quality lesson plans geared for the elementary school general music classroom.  They are not technology driven lesson plans, although there are suggestions on how technology can be incorporated.  The software is simply a collection of stand-alone traditional lesson plans that are packaged and enhanced using technology.  Think of StarClass as a complete music curriculum on a CD-ROM. Each lesson plan has a clear learning objective, a step-by-step procedure for the teacher to follow, music examples, sound clips, and colorful graphics.  Also included is a 99-track audio CD to use as a supplement to the lesson plans.

The plans are divided into six different topics: rhythm, pitch, dynamics and tempo, texture, form, and tone color.  Each topic has thirty lesson plans presented in a logical and sequential order.  Also included is a lesson plan for the teacher, who may be a non-music person who, in the absence of a formal music program in their building, is teaching music in their classroom.  Each lesson is aligned with the National Standards in Music, and is cross-referenced with similar lessons from different topics.   Each lesson contains activities that foster student creativity through composing and performing music. 

There really is no downside to the software.  While there is no opportunity for customizing the actual content on the CD-ROM, an experienced teacher can customize each lesson plan to suit his or her own classroom needs.  StarClass is Hybrid software and suggested retail is a very affordable $89.00.  Whether you are a first year elementary general music teacher or a veteran, this collection of lesson plans is extremely well put together, and I highly recommend it.


Sibelius Instruments


            I know, I know.  You must think that this is a shameless plug for Sibelius products.  I am not a paid endorser for the company; I just think that the Educational Suite (Auralia, Musition, Teaching Tools, Star Class, Instruments and the just released Compass) is a great set of software geared towards music educators. 

        Sibelius Instruments is an interactive CD-ROM encyclopedia of band and orchestra instruments.  It immediately reminded me of my all-time favorite piece of software, Microsoft Musical Instruments from 1994.  I still use it today in class, and I stockpile the few remaining copies there are available on eBay, as it is no longer available for Mac.  Sibelius Instruments has over 50 different in-depth profiles of various instruments.  Each profile contains a picture of the instrument, itıs history, itıs range, a high-quality sound clip of the instrument, recommended listening examples, and the role it plays in various performing ensembles.  There are over 20 different instrumental ensembles described as well.  In addition, there are a number of lesson plans with suggested student assignments, and a quiz that students can take after reviewing the contents of the software. 

            The only shortcomings that I found with this software were the actual images of the instruments, and the omission of world instruments.  Instead of photographs of each instrument, the software shows a detailed drawing.  Personally, I would prefer showing students an actual photograph.  I spoke with the people at Sibelius about the possibility of including world instruments in the future, and they seemed quite receptive to the idea.  I hope that they do, as it will make this strong resource even stronger. 

          Sibelius Instruments is also Hybrid software, and retails for an affordable $119.00.


            As always, I welcome your responses and questions about the software and hardware mentioned in this article or any technology question that you may have.  If there is other software that you would like me to review, please let me know.  Iıll do my best to get a copy and review it for you.