Five Questions: Jay Dorfman

An author and educator shares insights on ways technology is lowering barriers to music ed
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As DAWs, apps, and instrument interfaces evolve, they’re continuing to change music access and learning experiences. To understand how technology is shaping music education, we turned to Dr. Jay Dorfman. The author of Theory and Practice of Technology-Based Music Instruction (Oxford University Press, 2013) and professor and coordinator of Music Education at Kent State University, Dorfman has also served as president of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, and as a Sibelius Ambassador, a MusicFirst Ambassador, and an M-Audio M-Powered Educator.

What kinds of music technologies are having the most impact on music education?

The ones that are most intuitive and accessible for the broadest range of students. For example, Ableton Live, while a very deep and flexible program, lets students make music right away with little introductory work, yet the program is sophisticated enough that it can be the basis of an entire curriculum. The same is true of GarageBand. Electronic instruments and screen-based interfaces that simulate electronic instruments can lower the entry bar. Kids who invest their time learning to make music on a computer have a place in a band right beside the guitarist, bassist, and drummer.

So once barriers are removed, how can technology facilitate ongoing music learning?

An often-studied phenomenon in music education is the sustained music involvement of students who are part of their schools’ traditional ensembles. What we have seen time and again is that once students are out of high school, and access to organized music activities is severely limited, they cease participating at the same levels. Technology-based music making can be done independent of the large-group setting, so it lets students make music on their own, in their own time, at their own pace, and in settings outside of school.

We should also consider that barriers to entry in school music are quite high. In most communities, if students do not start playing an instrument at a young age—usually around fourth or fifth grade—it is all but impossible to become involved in instrumental ensembles later. There are certainly exceptions, and I think vocal music does a better job of including students later than instrumental music does. With technological music making, however, students really can get involved at any time. There is, perhaps, a financial barrier to technology-based music making, but students who are really interested seem to find a way around that.

What are some ways technology fosters interest in pursuing music technology itself?

One of the interesting things about technology-based music is that, in a way, it forges a cultural bond among kids who are interested in it. This is not entirely dissimilar to what band, orchestra, or choir students experience, but it is a different culture that may be based on a shared interest in both creativity with technology, and the technology itself. Another positive development is the number of post-secondary schools that offer programs in music technology. This may give students a direction—a goal to shoot for after high school.

You’ve talked about technology giving students creative opportunities in ways that ensemble experiences don’t; can you give an example?

As a former high school music teacher, I often think about the students in my classes who sat in the back of the clarinet section or the end of the row of trumpets. My job, for the most part, was to help them perform better, given the music that other teachers and I selected, rarely with student input. I ask myself now: In what way were those students being creative? They were participating, and most of them were putting in tremendous effort to play the best they could, but were they making musical decisions independent of my direction? Were they reconsidering, revising, and undergoing other thought processes that indicate creativity?

Then I think of my music technology students who, within appropriate constraints, were able to create work that was novel—to them, at least—and take time to refine and change their work. Of course, there are students in traditional ensembles who have the chance to do creative things, but students in technology-based music classes get those opportunities much more frequently.

So how might this type of creative opportunity shape learning about music technology as a creative tool?

We are now at a point at which technology-based music instructors have materials to draw on. There are several great books that suggest approaches, activities, and even methods of assessing students’ work. There are organizations and schools that offer professional development opportunities for teachers to learn to integrate technology into their teaching. The difficulty is that teachers often teach as they were taught, and letting go of the perspective that the teacher is the bearer of all knowledge is what stands in the way of many teachers giving their students open space to be creative. As teachers learn to do this, and as a new generation of music teachers who are more technologically savvy enters the workforce, I believe these creative opportunities for students will be dramatically increased.

This is not to say that we should replace traditional ensembles—in fact, research shows that classes in popular music and technology-based music actually increase enrollment rather than cannibalizing ensembles. We also have a responsibility to make sure that technology-based music instruction is actually helping students become better musicians. This is an area where my current research is headed.