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7 minutes reading time (1460 words)

Teaching Music in a Virtual World

On this overly-warm Autumn afternoon, I am attempting to teach a Net-Gener1 how to play Bill Boyd's "Swing-a-Ling." How do I know eight-year-old Panagiotis is a Net-Gener? Because he stuffs his iPod and earbuds into his pocket, carefully places his iPhone on the music rack, and begins to fidget the minute I put the music in front of him. He tells me he "can't remember" how the piece goes.

Pani is an intellectually, physically, and musically gifted second-year student. Even I, a Baby Boomer from the Dark Ages, have placed my iPhone on hold and have my iPad close by. Yet I am aware that Pani and I are vastly different from one another in the way we learn. I use technology to enhance my linear way of learning; Pani learns by literally immersing himself in virtual spaces.

Those of us born before 1982 learned to play the piano in a one-on-one lesson with an in-charge teacher. A page-by-page walk through the black-and-white world of John Thompson got us where we were going. We trusted our teachers to pick out the music and hoped they would give us a star or an "A" when they thought we played it well. The teacher, the librarian, or the Encyclopedia Britannica had all the answers. Net-Geners are used to seeking and retrieving information from the Internet on their own, which marks a striking contrast to those of us who grew up acquiring information more passively from authority figures.2

Today's student comes home from school, turns on the computer, opens two or three windows, listens to iTunes while texting a friend, and does his or her homework. Accounting for multitasking, the average American child between the ages of eight and eighteen packs nearly eleven hours of media usage into seven-and-a-half hours of media contact each day. These students maintain that it is not that they lack attention, it is a lack of time that compels them to multitask.

I point out to Pani that he doesn't have to "remember" how the piece goes, because he can read it. As I try to get him to focus on the music, I notice that he is itching to use his iPhone. In addition, his iPod is playing faint music from his pocket. I ask him to turn it off. As he fidgets with the device, he says, "I still can't remember the names of all those low, low notes," and reaches for his iPhone to look up the answer on a note naming app.

Instant access to information

My generation encouraged and rewarded individual knowledge stored in the head. Net-Geners know they can immediately lookup what they want to know. They prefer information delivered rapidly, prefer graphics to reading, random as opposed to sequential access to information, games to seat work, and are fascinated by new technology that works interactively. They find it easier to access information visually than they do aurally and enjoy a mixed-media approach to learning.4 

In the past if a second-year student found himself unsure of note names or intervals, I whipped out flash cards, board games and notespellers. Today, I open my iPad to a music reading app called My Note Games and place it on the music stand. Suddenly Pani is all attention. For fifteen minutes he not only identifies note names and intervals, he also plays increasingly longer and more difficult sight-reading examples. He loves the time pressure and the swirling medal that appears after each successful performance. We go back to Bill Boyd's piece. Pani still looks at it blankly until I say, "If the first phrase of that piece were displayed on the music game, how would you play it?" He gets every note right on the first try.

Bite-sized learning

Students in Pani's generation prefer learning sections of knowledge out of context and feel hemmed in by linear learning. Without my saying anything, Pani scans "Swing-a-Ling" to see if any of the other phrases in the piece are like the first one. "I want to learn this as fast as possible, because I have something to show you." This need for speed and the eagerness to get on to the next task are also typical of his generation.5 

I decide to capitalize on his impatience. After Pani has identified and played the three different types of phrases, I ask him if he can think of a visual way to show me how all the parts go together. He grabs a pencil and sketches a quick map of the piece using numbers to identify each phrase. I ask him to play each phrase in random order before I ask him to put the piece together as Bill Boyd wrote it. Pani then suggests a different order that he thinks "might sound better." For next week, I suggest he improvise his own piece in the style of "Swing-a-Ling" as well as practice the piece in its original form.

Trusting the internet

Pani is getting antsy again. He is eager to show me what he has learned on his own over the weekend: the first section of "Für Elise."He proudly plays it for me with only a few missteps. "How did you learn that?" I ask. "From YouTube," he replies.

Today's youth are more assertive information seekers, and this shapes how they approach learning. They choose which learning techniques work for them. They are less willing to absorb what is put before them and prefer to learn in an interactive environment with their peers using an inquiry-based approach.6 

Pani and two friends found a tutorial on YouTube that showed them how to play Beethoven's war horse key by key. I attempt to find it on my iPad and watch as Pani begins to lose respect for my abilities. "May I do it for you?" he asks. Younger generations often trust technology and their peers more than their teachers,7 and I don't want to go down that slippery slope. I decline his help and work hard to find the clip quickly. The video is of medium quality, but has successfully taught its material. I point out the "teacher's" poor hand position and suggest several fingering changes, which Pani cheerfully accepts.

Net-Geners have a naive trust of the information they find on the Internet. I never fail to discuss the quality of what my students discover, much like teachers in my day taught us how to read newspapers critically.

Learning is next

Now that most computerized devices are mobile, the next generation of students will be able to learn in a time, place, and pace of their own. These digitally literate learners will be always on, even more independent, and able to learn from teachers across the globe.8 It is not enough that teachers be familiar with technology and accept that learning may occur in these places; we must live within these virtual environments ourselves so we can experience the world in the same way as our students.

During the final portion of Pani's lesson I turn to one of piano teaching's oldest series: Dozen a Day by Edna Mae Burnam. These are books even Generation Z can love! Pani turns to "Brushing Your Teeth," which features sixteenth-note, one-measure patterns. Ms. Burnam was ahead of her time when it came to chunking information, and the stick-figure avatars still illustrate each technical movement perfectly. Ms. Burnam drew those figures herself, and she once told me that she sent them to the publisher to give the art department an idea of how more fleshed out pictures might look. She was horrified when they published the figures she drew.

"Hey, these are fun," Pani says. "That deep-breathing guy on the next page is really funny." Pani gathers up all his technology, loads his iPod and iPhone into his bulging backpack, hops onto his skateboard, and is off to hockey practice. I watch him text as he rides.


1 Pani is likely a member of Generation Z, the youngest generation. While definitions of generational starting points differ, Generation Z is most frequently defined as starting with those born in the early 2000s. The term "Net-Gener" is applied equally to Generation Y (also known as the Millennial Generation) and Generation Z. For one discussion of this, see Tapscott, D. (2009) Grown up Digital: How the Net-Generation isChanging Your World. New York: McGraw Hill.

2 Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown up Digital: How the Net-Generation is Changing Your World. New York: Mc-Graw Hill.

3 Rideout, V.J., Foehr, U.G., & Roberst, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of8-to 18-Year Olds. A Kaiser Family Foundation Study. Accessed 12/5/2012.

4 Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9 (5). See also Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials: Understanding the NewStudents. Educause Review: 37-45, and Tapscot (2009).

5 Howe, N., & Strauss,W. (2000). Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Vintage Books. 

6 Carlson, S. (2005). The Net Generation goes to college.The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 7. Accessed 12/5/2012 (sub-scription required).

7 Glenn, J.M. (2000). Teaching the Net Generation. Business Education Forum 54 (3), 6-14.

8 Oblinger, D. (2004). Educating the net generation. Educause keynote. Accessed June 2005 (no longer available online)

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