A music learning community comprised of teachers, students, and family members

 
Technology
George Litterst

George Litterst is a nationally known music educator, clinician, author, performer, and music software developer. A classically trained pianist, he is co-author of the intelligent accompaniment software program, Home Concert Xtreme, and the electronic music blackboard program, Classroom Maestro, from TimeWarp Technologies.

 

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Technology Editor, George Litterst
November/December, Vol. 2 #6

 

Early in her career, Christine Hermanson’s avid interest in piano pedagogy and curriculum led her to study the effects of aural and written theory skills in the development of music sight-reading ability. Searching for effective and efficient ways for her students to practice these skills in her studio, she purchased a computer and one of the first music theory software programs in 1980. She has been a leader in the application and development of music education technology since then. She obtained a B.M. degree from the University of Michigan and an MS Ed in Instructional Technology from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Every hour of every day, a piano lesson is taking place somewhere in the world and the same rudiments are being taught over and over:

Here is middle C on the piano. This is what middle C looks like on the musical staff.

This is what an eighth note looks like. Two eighth notes consume the same amount of musical time as a single quarter note.

A minor 5-finger pattern is constructed using this pattern of ascending whole and half steps: whole-half-whole-whole.

Et cetera.

Every piano method has a way of presenting these concepts and providing musical materials that enable the student to experience them. And, every teacher has a way of dealing with these issues. Although we may not all agree on the best way to teach these concepts or even the sequence for teaching them, we can probably all agree that it would be great to spend less time on them and more time on music making.

Imagine, for the moment, the possibility that you could offload much of the repetitive instruction of these concepts to an assistant. Wouldn’t that be a great idea? Imagine that the assistant was available 24/7 and that your students would have lots of fun spending time with the assistant? Sound like an unrealistic fantasy? Read on!

MusicLearningCommunity.com

The mythical assistant to whom I alluded exists on the Internet. Her name is MusicLearningCommunity.com and she resides, not surprisingly, at this address: www.musiclearningcommunity.com

MusicLearningCommunity.com is the brainchild of Chris Hermanson, a tireless music teacher who has been a technology leader for—dare I say it?—the better part of three decades. She is known to many readers as the technology pioneer who ran the MTNA Music Technology Symposium at the national conference for sixteen years between 1988 and 2004.

About six years ago, Chris decided to found her own music software company. Having worked with two commercial software ventures in the 1990s, she understood the difficulties of establishing and maintaining a successful software company, including such issues as programming, packaging, marketing, and selling. It occurred to her that she could avoid most of the traditional pitfalls and expense if she could do all the programming herself and deliver the content entirely online.

To get an idea of what I am talking about, fire up your web browser, type MusicLearningCommunity.com into the address area, and then press the Enter or Return key. This will take you to the location where the fun begins.

MusicLearningCommunity.com is a website that consists of hundreds of musical games! I kid you not. If you are not a subscriber, you can get an overview of the site and try out a few games for yourself. If you are a subscriber, you have access to the entire site.

These music games are played right in your web browser and require nothing more than a mouse to click buttons on the screen. You can freely choose to play games in any order. However, Chris conveniently provides suggested sequences that coordinate with some of the most popular piano methods. By the time you read this article, many of the games will also have an option for using a MIDI keyboard that is attached to your computer.

The subscription concept is pretty easy to understand. If you are a teacher, you can subscribe your entire studio—up to fifty students—for $19.95 per month. Your students can access the games in your studio or from home. A teacher might easily cover this fee by charging each student a fee of, say, a $1.00 per month.

In addition to the games, subscribers get access to a comprehensive music theory and ear training curriculum, a chart that correlates the games to the levels of various popular piano methods, printable certificates of Achievement and Progress, pedagogy techniques and tips, recommendations for creating student assignments, and more. The site keeps track of student activity and scores that can be viewed by the teacher. Additionally, there are other subscription packages for families whose teacher is not a subscriber and for schools.

After five years it is fair to say that Chris has had remarkable success with her venture. This made me wonder: How did this wife/mother/grandmother/teacher manage to become so successful with an Internet-based software business that is essentially run from home?

A traditional beginning

Chris began her teaching career with a somewhat typical college education back in the 1970s:

“I did my undergraduate work at the University of Michigan School of Music. I majored in piano, and I also graduated with a teaching certificate for grades K-12.”

Interestingly, her first job was in a public school where she had a very good experience.

“I will always be grateful for my first and only public school teaching experience—as a choir director and general music teacher in a junior high school with grades 7-9. I have to admit that this school and school district spoiled me for any other K-12 teaching. District-wide, music was valued as much as football—and this district won many state championships!

“My two classrooms included technology—a 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder and four listening lab booths with built-in record players and sound systems. That dates me, doesn’t it?!”

Before long, her family was on the move, and she had to leave her job. At this point, she switched to private teaching.

“When we moved across the country, I decided to start teaching piano, voice, and organ rather than applying for an institutional teaching position.”

Her first computer

Although new to the world of private piano teaching, Chris was adventurous from the start:

“We bought an Apple IIe computer for my music studio in 1980. The Apple Music Theory program had been on the market for just three weeks when my husband saw it in a computer store.We bought the computer that day, along with the additional Mountain sound boards (i.e. special circuit boards that were added to the computer) that created instrument sounds—all for $3500! I was in heaven!

“I already had a music theory and ear training station set up in my studio before we bought the computer. My students spent thirty minutes at that station before or after their lessons to do theory worksheets and ear training with cassette tapes that I had prepared for them. So, when we added the Apple IIe, the students were already used to staying for lab time.

“I guess it was a natural step for me to become immersed in computer technology. In 1976, my dad built his first computer from a kit. My husband and he drove 120 miles each week to attend a class that taught them how to program it. At the time there were no storage devices, so you had to type in the program every time you turned the computer on! When it became possible to store computer data on a cassette tape, Dad programmed a basic accounting system for his business, and my husband created a loan processing system for his work.”

Obviously the Apple IIe was a much more advanced computer than the one on which her father and husband learned to program. Still, it was primitive by today’s standards. Why would a teacher bother with such an expensive piece of gear back in the early 1980s?

“My goal then is still my goal today: To provide students with independent practice in the music literacy and ear training skills that are essential to effective sight-reading, thus providing them with the basis for a lifetime of music enjoyment as a participant, not just a spectator.

“The Apple Music Theory software had eighteen music theory drills including recognizing intervals by ear. I immediately created assignment sheets for my students to match the levels of the Florida State Music Teachers Association achievement evaluations— which included a written and an aural theory exam. My students continued to achieve high scores—but without my direct input. It saved me hours and hours of lesson and group time.”

Learning to use new technologies

Obviously, the personal computer was proving itself to be effective even at this early stage in its development. However, I had to wonder whether Chris found this new technology hard to learn.

“In hindsight I think that it was easy because I was so hungry for the next ‘new thing.’ Learning was never an obstacle.” Of course, it makes sense to think that a person who makes a career out of teaching should also be a good learner. Still, one must acknowledge the fact that many teachers have issues with learning new technologies.

“I guess when one gets involved with new technology near the beginning, the learning curve isn’t as steep when progressing to new levels. However, I have lived the term ‘on the bleeding edge of technology!’ When you’re on the front line of new technologies, you come to expect things to not work the first time!”

Quite clearly, Chris approached the new technology age with energy and commitment.

“My husband and I have owned 48 computers and countless MIDI keyboards and digital pianos. Obsolescence has been a challenge to our pocketbook!”

Her first commercial venture

With this kind of dedication to the application of new technologies to music education, it is not surprising that Chris found her way into a commercial software venture.

“In 1982 I saw an ad in a computer magazine that showed music notes displayed on a computer monitor. After a few phone calls (the pre-Google research method!) I was led to Temporal Acuity Products, Inc. (a.k.a. TAP). At that time I was preparing to do my very first session on music education technology for the Florida State MTA state convention the next year. Diane and Roger McRea, the owners of TAP, loaned me many software titles from their Micro Music Library—which I eventually purchased. I became a beta-tester for TAP and worked with several of their university professor/software authors to help them understand the needs of the K-12 music student.

“By then, I had opened my own music school that had an eightstation computer lab, which included two TAP Master rhythm reading systems and a Pitch Master sight-singing system. These were incredibly effective learning tools.

“In 1990, TAP gave me the opportunity to help develop one of the first MIDI piano teaching software systems, which we named PianoWorks. In 1993, Musicware, Inc., was formed to create a Windows keyboard learning tool. I ended up as course author of both PianoWorks and Musicware Piano. I created the courses through a proprietary authoring system that enabled me to enter content directly into the software by typing every word and notating every musical example without having to write program code! I could also play back each lesson as I created it. This was awesome and unique in the programming world!”

Regrettably, her commercial software venture was short-lived. “TAP and Musicware merged into one company. The new company closed after a couple of years. It is very difficult and expensive for a small software company to keep up with the constant changes in the Windows and Mac operating systems. Eventually Musicware succumbed to this.”

The MTNA Music Technology Symposium

Software companies, of course, need a customer base. In the case of the music education community, that customer base has been a slow one to develop. Interestingly, Chris has had a hand in developing that customer base as well by tirelessly working with teachers, introducing them to new technology and helping them to develop their personal roadmap through the new technology-based landscape.

“In 1986, MTNA asked me to present a two-hour session on music technology at the national convention in order to replace a general session offered by a clinician who had become ill. I had two weeks to prepare! Through the generosity and support of a number of music software companies, the session was a success.

“The next year, the new MTNA Executive Director called me, looking for suggestions for a seminar on music technology for the 1988 convention. Forty-five minutes later and “off the top of my head,” I had outlined my wish list that included a multi-day preconvention event and a hands-on computer/MIDI lab that would be open throughout the conference. My dream came true. The MTNA National Symposium on Music Technology launched in 1988 and trained thousands of teachers over the next sixteen years.”

Chris starts her own company

Although TAP and Musicware had disappeared, Chris continued on an entrepreneurial path of developing course materials that used modern technologies. Without a software company behind her, she realized that she was going to have to do the programming herself if she were going to realize many of her goals.

“After developing online music courses for a virtual public K-12 school and creating online training for a Fortune 500 company, I wanted to learn how to create interactive software completely on my own—without a programmer. I went to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and completed an MSEd in Instructional Technology in 2005.”

In this day and age, the typical software company needs a considerable bank account and lots of programmers in order to survive. What made Chris think that she could actually start a software venture on her own and succeed?

“Actually I’ve never thought about it in that way. I guess I believe in the theme of the movie, Field of Dreams: ‘If you build it they will come.’ My thought was that if I built something useful, it would be valued.”

Keep in mind the fact that Chris was embarking on a mission to create software without a traditional programmer. To do so, she chose an interesting development platform known as Flash, from Adobe (www.adobe.com/flashplatform). Flash makes it possible to create software programs and animations without writing traditional computer code. Most of the animations that you see on the Internet were created in Flash. To create a Flash program, one does need to think in a logical, step-by-step manner, and write instructions in English that are similar, conceptually, to programming code. Choosing Flash was a logical decision.

“I had several goals that led to that decision. (1) I wanted to create a series of interactive learning games that were colorful and animated and could be delivered online so that I could update and add to them at any time. (2) I didn’t want to have to warehouse and ship CD-ROMs! (3) Flash had become the authoring tool of choice for Internet delivery right at the time when I needed it. (4) I didn’t want to worry about constantly updating my programs for changes in computer operating systems. Fortunately, Internet browsers and the Flash Player plugin for those browsers are updated by their respective companies!

“I worked very hard to learn to create in Flash. I have a shelf-full of books! I still don’t consider myself to be a programmer. If I want an element of a game to behave in a certain way, I research the situation until I find a way to accomplish my goal.”

Although Chris created the games and even the website herself, she has enjoyed a bit of help from her sons. The oldest son, a software engineer, programmed the student management system, the score reporting system, and the database. Her middle son created the site’s graphic mascot, Terry Treble (and did so when he was just fifteen!). And, her youngest son composed and produced several of the intro and ending music pieces in the games.

Success!

Just how successful is MusicLearningCommunity.com?

“MusicLearningCommunity.com is in its fifth year. We have members all over the world with over 30,000 students in the database. Some teacher-members have reported that after having one year of lessons that included the learning games on the website, their students were at least three months ahead of where their students had been before having the learning games. That’s what keeps me going!”

With 450 Internet games online and 30,000 students in the database, one wonders what’s next for Chris Hermanson.

“Is this the same question as ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Even though I’m a grandmother now, I don’t ever plan to grow all the way up! I am actually very happy doing what I’m doing! I’m looking forward to learning more every day. I have another large project in mind that I hope to share with you someday soon.”

And I, for one, cannot wait to find out what that is!

 

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