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For two decades we have used the old Nine Standards For Music Education to shape our classroom curriculum but over time their generalities and simplicity has been overshadowed by a national move toward a core curriculum. In many circles this in turn has lead to our old standards being seen as educationally insignificant. With the newly revised 2014 national music standards we are now at a point where we can hold our own and give validity to the importance and significance of music’s place in our school curriculum. Luckily, along with the new standards we also have a host of new technological tools that can be used to meet them in ways that not only enhance our current offerings but push us toward the ultimate goal of creating well rounded, passionate musicians.

To get to that point however requires that we first break free from the confusion and unwarranted fear that sometimes accompanies the new standards when someone reads them for the first time. There is a great misconception that the new standards are somehow harder to put into use when in truth the new standards are really quite similar to the old ones, just with a 21st century education spin applied to them. When Elizabeth Sokolowski, Division Head for Music Education at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA teaches her grad students about the new standards she does her best to point this out and set their initial feelings that the re-design is a bit overwhelming aside.

“The first thing they say is whoa there is so much more here,” says Sokolowski, “then we tell them to take a step back, look through the new standards, and discover where and how the original nine standards reside in the new framework. They’re in there, but an update to meet the student-centered vision of 21st century education was needed. This is a critical and timely update for our profession within the field of education. The biggest shift is away from discrete skills and knowledge and into the three artistic processes of creating, performing and responding; placing the emphasis on students and their measurable growth as musicians. Of course foundationally we begin with skills and knowledge (think original nine standards here!). But in this updated design we are fostering teaching and learning environments that encompass the idea of teaching the whole musician.”

She goes on to explain her thoughts regarding the processes behind the creation of the new standards. “We looked at the original nine standards, the opportunity to learn standards, and also at the current adoption of many state standards for music. With this updated design when we look at a curriculum for a K-12 program we are looking at the relevance of music in the 21st century. Are we providing programs to enable all students to achieve in music? For me the biggest thing with these standards is that they substantiate our place in education while recognizing the diversity of the different types of music ed classrooms that are flourishing in our nation’s schools. We acknowledge the importance of having a solid K-8 program that will enhance and support the ensemble strands but we also acknowledge the importance of things like mariachi, technology, guitar and ukulele, technology, rock bands, etc. as genres of music that are every bit as valid in an educational context. When we talk about job security and program growth the more ways we can connect with students through music the more our programs will grow as a result.”

Sokolowski also points out that much of the anxiety over the new standards is unfounded because the majority of the items within them are already being addressed in most schools. She suggests looking at the curricular documents for your school and first uncovering all of the ways the updated standards are being met. Then, by identifying the holes in the curricular documents, improvements and enhancements can be made.” Says Sokolowski, “Are you creating performing, and responding to music in your classrooms? If so then you are already most of the way there.”

For Richard McCready, music teacher at River Hill High School in Clarksville, MD, the creation aspect of the new standards is the most exciting and transformative part of the initiative. “I love how the new standards include creation. Musical creativity was mentioned in the earlier standards but many people just kind of avoided it. In the past we had bands, orchestras, and other ensembles whose entire curriculum consisted of just recreating music. With the new standards we are actively creating new music. Recreating is very teacher centered whereas creating music is student centered.” This philosophy may be nothing new, but McCready hopes that the new standards finally begin to push teachers to think outside of the box and get away from these outdated methods of teaching music. “I hope that we someday find ourselves in a time when we move away from being worried about what rating we are going to get at festival and instead look at what we can do in the classroom to help kids be creative. Wouldn’t it be great to have your group go out there and play a piece of music that the kids composed rather than something you pulled off the shelf? Let your students get a deeper understanding of the music by not being so focused on the performance.”

Breaking The Mold of Music Education

The majority of the fears regarding incorporating the new standards seem to stem from traditional performance based classes such as concert band, orchestra, choir, and to a lesser extent the general music classroom. The traditional model in such classes has historically tended to be very performance oriented with a much lower emphasis placed on responding to the music they are performing and often little or no development of an individual’s musical creativity outside of ensembles such as jazz band. Tim Purdum, K-5 general music teacher at Waterloo Community Schools points out that for some classrooms, “some of the challenges teachers have now are the same challenges that teachers have had since the 1994 standards. That of finding ways to incorporate creating, improvising, and responding to music within the framework of a rehearsal.”

The first thing to realize is that there is not an explicit expectation that every music class must provide rigorous opportunities in each of the four areas (creating, performing, and responding, and connecting). Says Purdum, “I feel that even though the new standards list a lot of new things for us to think about as teachers they are not intended to be balanced.” Since a student’s music education is cumulative throughout their many years in school this provides some flexibility in terms of what should be done in an individual class. “You don’t necessarily have to spend an equal amount of time on each one. All of the processes don’t have to have equal weight in every classroom because some of them will lend themselves more to one kind of class or another.”

If you analyze your classroom offerings and find that your curriculum is heavy on one area but lacking in another there are ways to fix it. Says McCready, “Any ensemble can find a way to introduce some kind of composition, and maybe they already do in a jazz band or similar context. Some teachers in music technology classrooms spend much of the year teaching composition but then often find ways to include the performance, refining, and responding elements as well.”

Purdum likewise concurs that teachers should, “look at the pieces of the standards that they don’t currently do and start by trying to find small ways to incorporate new pieces into your existing activities.” Technology, it turns out, can help a teacher incorporate these new but important pieces in many different ways that can be both fun and educationally valid.

Using Technology To Teach Music Education Standards

The well implemented use of technology, infused into common everyday classroom activities, can assist with meeting the new standards in many different ways. Adding in the use of creative music apps in the general music classroom or utilizing programs like SmartMusic to help encourage outside practice are just two of many different examples of how technology can enhance rather than encumber our curriculum. In an ensemble based classroom for example the almost ubiquitous availability of recording devices opens many doors for allowing students to select, analyze, and interpret artistic work for presentation (anchor standard #4).

In regard to that specific standard McCready says that recording technologies can be a transformative tool in the classroom. “The ability to record and listen back to a student’s performance is very important to the refining aspect of the new standards.” With digital audio and video recording capabilities built into almost every phone, tablet, and computer that we carry today using them to record rehearsals, performances, and even solo practice sessions should be a common occurrence. McCready continues by saying that, “we should regularly allow individual students to record themselves, listen to those recordings, critique them, and use that information to then refine and improve their performance based on what they heard themselves do.”

But all of that takes time, and in the majority of classrooms across our country the emphasis continues to be on performance and often focusing on the concert at the end of the term. While it may never be possible to completely break with that model due to the demands and expectations of our school and communities it is possible through technology to enhance and infuse our ensemble classes with more aspects from the new standards without having to completely change the way we do them.

With ensemble classes recording technology is the key to opening this angle into the new standards. “There is so much more we can do with a piece of music than just rehearse it and then do one concert with it,” says McCready. “There are many more opportunities in this curriculum for people to refine and reflect during the rehearsal and development phase of a piece of music. The availability of these many new kinds of music technologies can actually free up more time in the band, choir, or orchestra room, allowing teachers to get away from the rehearsal and incorporate more opportunities for creativity and reflection.”

Recording devices are not just a way to get kids to reflect on their performances, however, they are also an excellent way to allow kids to be creative and share that creativity with others. Says McCready, “Kids want to create from an early age but at some point in the process we start to introduce inhibitions. Perhaps these inhibitions are born from the constant rehearsals, sometimes leading the kids begin to think that they can’t do it.” In McCready’s classroom he does his best to break that self-conscious fear of failure and replace it with positive, pride building activities that allow students to be creative without fearing that what they are doing isn’t up to par. Whether on a band instrument, a set of Orff percussion instruments, or just using their voice McCready tries to find many opportunities for students to become creators of music rather than regurgitating the music from the page. “Sometimes I just tell the kids to take their instrument, go be creative, and come back.”

Today with the Internet and easy access to mobile communications devices music education doesn’t have to stop at the walls of the school. Technology has opened up many ways for students to continue their learning after they leave the classroom. In the area of online tools for teaching music all of our experts have attested to the utility of one tool in particular, a suite of music applications from MusicFirst. MusicFirst Online Classroom is a stand-alone online solution for K-12 music education classrooms with a suite of optional cloud-based software titles that can be seamlessly integrated into the music classroom. Says Sokolowski, “MusicFirst has an amazing array of applications for moving through these core processes of music education. Within MusicFirst teachers have the opportunity to pick and choose between applications that would be useful in their particular classroom.”

Specifically, MusicFirst packages access to dozens of well known and respected music software titles and provides them on a low cost subscription basis to schools. Aural training and music theory titles such as Auralia and Musition, recording and music creation apps such as Soundation and O-Generator, access to the Naxos Music Library, and the cross platform music notation tool Noteflight are all a part of the MusicFirst catalog. The thing that makes the MusicFirst service so significant to the music educator is the way the different apps can be used to create and collect a complete digital portfolio of a student’s musical education. Anything the student does within the apps can be saved and used for assessment purposes later on.

“Before MusicFirst the kids were always tied to a single computer in a lab at school,” says Sokolowski, “but with MusicFirst the kids can take their creativity outside the classroom and continue working with that application at home. This technology affords us the opportunity to get all of our students creating in and out of the classroom. MusicFirst has applications that are age appropriate for every level and that allow us to work through all three artistic processes.”

Unlike traditional software purchases which may cost hundreds of dollars for a site license, with MusicFirst a school pays a small amount per year per student (starting as little as $1 per student). The total cost of the service varies depending on the specific tools the teacher wishes to have available to the class.

While there are literally hundreds of different technology tools that can help a teacher infuse new parts of the national standards into their classrooms in the end it comes down to an individual teacher’s initiative and dedication to the process. Sokolowski points out that this transition need not be done solo. “Its important to network with colleagues beyond our local school community to find out how they are tackling this in their own districts.” In other words don’t be afraid to ask questions and to network with colleagues beyond your immediate community. Speak with your peers in the music education community through your local NAfME chapter or get online and join the NAfME forums. Do your best to find ways to work the concepts behind the new standards into your own teaching not as an add-on but as an integrated part of your overall music curriculum.

 Music Ed and Technology Resources

If the national standards seem too overwhelming to comprehend why not simplify things a bit? You can print out a customized set of standards that are specific to your grade level(s) and area(s) of teaching by going to the national standards website () and clicking the “Customize you own handbook” link in the lower right corner of the page.

Quickly create standards aligned lesson plans from a template using simple drop down menus with the National Core Music Standards Online Template by Tim Purdum

Need some more ideas? Check out the new book, “ Aligning Your Creative Sequence With The Core Music Standards, by Tim Purdum and available through CreateSpace.


Studio One Free

A complete digital audio workstation (DAW) with many professional level features. It provides all of the recording and editing capabilities you need for basic classroom or home use. Great for letting your students get creative and experience the fun of multitrack recording.


Why not move the tedious task of doing playing tests and other evaluations outside of the rehearsal and free up some time to do other things? Use SmartMusic to do some of the assessment tasks and it will save their recordings and scores for use in their portfolio or as proof of their hard work.


In emerging ensemble classrooms the Jamhub provides an easy way to allow small groups of students to work together at creating music. It also allows you to teach multiple bands or ensembles without disrupting the other groups in the room.

Abelton Push

A hardware based music sequencer arranged in a grid of 64 pads. Great for upper level music technology classes where serious composition and performance are an integrated part of the curriculum.


Available both as a tactile, physical table or the much less expensive iOS and Android version, the Reactable allows you to create music simply by dragging components into the field and making their sounds react to each other either by their proximity or through other factors associated with each piece.


Edmodo is already being used in schools all over the country in general ed classrooms but it works great in music classes as well. Use the social networking style features of Edmodo to let your students collaborate, interact, and share their compositions as well as a place for you to share assignments, listening materials, and videos that you want students to evaluate or respond to in some way. Students can even upload their own recordings right from their phone or tablet when they are away from school.

Spotify, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
Why listen only to your own ensembles when your students could be listening to, evaluating, and responding to the performances of others as well? Sites such as these literally have thousands of recorded performances of almost every piece of music ever written. Listen to several performances of the same piece but by different ensembles to open up more creative discussions.

Music Technology In The Standards

As the use of technology in the general education classroom has grown so to have the ways we can use it to teach musical concepts. To emphasize this point, the new standards include an entire set of requirements dedicated to those classes where technological tools have become the primary source of classroom learning. Sokolowski points out that “there are five strands in the new standards and for the first time we have acknowledged technology as a viable thread within them.” These technology standards take the same form as the other strands, working through the artistic processes as they relate to the anchor standards.

Unlike some of the other strands which encompass multiple age ranges from early elementary through high school the technology strand focuses solely on high school level learners. “The set of technology standards specifically applies to those educators that are teaching technology based music classes,” says McCready. “They are teaching music with the connection of technology, it’s not like teaching a computer science class.”

When you look closely you can see how similar the technology strand is to the others. When you compare one of the standards of the ensemble strand:

MU:Cr1.1.E.5a Compose and improvise melodic and
rhythmic ideas or motives that reflect
characteristic(s) of music or text(s) studied in

with a similar standard found in the technology strand:

MU:Cr1.1.T.Ia Generate melodic, rhythmic, and
harmonic ideas for compositions or improvisations
using digital tools

It is easy to see how the two are related, differing slightly perhaps but both centering on the same basic concept of music education.

For those teachers who are actively teaching a technology based music class the new technology strand standards offer both validation and ideas to enhance the existing classroom offerings. For those teachers who are considering starting up such a program in their school they offer an excellent road map for planning the curriculum of the class from start to finish.

This article originally appeared in NAfME's Teaching Music Magazine and is reposted here by the original author with permission from NAfME.  Requests for reprints and other questions should be directed to the NAfME website.

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