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Harried schools trumpet digital music teacher

Technology eases pupils' boredom, directors' burden

Molly Schineller practiced her trombone at home in Sudbury using SmartMusic.
Molly Schineller practiced her trombone at home in Sudbury using SmartMusic. (Ellen Harasimowicz for the Boston Globe)

SUDBURY - Molly Schineller is only slightly taller than her shiny brass trombone and she is no expert at playing it. But the 11-year-old Sudbury girl is computer savvy and, nowadays, in music education, that is increasingly important.

"OK . . ." Schineller said one night recently, settling into a chair in her parents' home office and preparing to practice her trombone.

There was no music stand and no instructor on hand. But there was a computer program, called SmartMusic, displaying the musical score on her monitor. It accompanied her with background music, listened to her playing with the help of a microphone, pointed out her mistakes in red, and marked the notes she hit in green. Her boring old sheet music was now interactive. And with a click of a mouse, the lesson began.

It is a trend that is sweeping the suburbs, from Sudbury to Belmont, Norfolk to Uxbridge - 91 Massachusetts schools in all. In a digital age, with children carrying iPods and music directors strapped for time, SmartMusic and other computer programs have emerged as virtual teachers, changing the way young people learn music. Gone - for many, anyway - are the days of blowing a horn alone in your base ment and waiting until the next visit with the teacher to find out you have been missing the high notes all along.

Today, young musicians such as Schineller, a sixth-grader at Ephraim Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, have a computer to tell them instantaneously that they have made a mistake, relieving students of the boredom of practice and music directors of the burden of meeting with every pupil one on one.

Music educators caution that the software is a complement - not a replacement - for hands-on instruction. But still, not everyone has embraced the change. Less-affluent districts are unable to afford SmartMusic, given the cost of the computers necessary to run it. The loss of one-on-one time with students has eliminated some of the face-to-face bonding that students and music teachers have historically shared. And some parents, raised in the analog age, have met the change with skepticism. When Lynne Pellegrino, a Sudbury parent whose son plays the trumpet, first heard of the program last year, she said one question came to mind. "How can a computer program help him?"

Here is how it works: Schools subscribe to the SmartMusic software for $100 per year. Students, paying $25 for their own subscriptions, download the program onto their home computers. Teachers send assignments home electronically. Students then practice their instruments with the software, which shows them which notes they hit, which notes they miss, and the fingering for any note in the sheet music. The computer keeps the beat and even provides accompanying music. And when they are done, the students send the assignment electronically back to the teacher, who can tell how long they practiced and how well they did.

"I liken it to a video game," said John McLellan, an instrumental music instructor at W. L. Chenery Middle School in Belmont, where students have been using SmartMusic for three years. "It's very much like a kid sitting at home and trying to beat a level in a video game. They have to learn how to play to satisfy a computer that does not have any bias for them or against them, and they have to buckle down and get it done."

The program, created by MakeMusic Inc., based in Minnesota, has become something of a staple for many music educators since it was launched in 2002. In Belmont, McLellan said he has used roughly $20,000 in grant money from the Foundation for Belmont Education to create private, sound-proofed SmartMusic booths at school and other SmartMusic upgrades. Subscriptions to the program nationally are up almost tenfold in the last five years - from 6,200 people in 2002 to 60,000 this year - according to the company. And local teachers who subscribe to the program say the software is a huge help, giving them a chance to assess students on their own time, rather than after school or not at all because there is not enough time.

"The band has 75 kids in the sixth grade. If I were to sit there and say, 'Play that for me,' to all 75 kids, I'd lose all my teaching time," said Bob Mealey, the band director at Curtis Middle School in Sudbury, who tested the software last year before requiring fifth- and sixth-graders to use it this fall. "What this allows me to do is sit in front of my TV, watch the Patriots, assess the students, and I don't lose all of my teaching time."

But even the biggest fans of the program acknowledge there are limitations to what it can do.

"It's possible - I'm not saying it happens a lot - but it's possible to focus so much on the technology that you lose sight of the music. That's just a potential danger," said Mike Blakeslee, deputy executive director of the National Association for Music Education. "The gee-whiz factor is great. It draws kids in. But in the end you still need to get through the same subject matter."

The program can determine whether a student is playing in pitch and in time, but it cannot decipher tone quality, whether there is too much fuzz in the sound, or if a student is playing too loudly or softly. And above all, educators say, SmartMusic is not a substitute for hands-on instruction or live collaborations with others.

"I always tell students, 'If you have a problem, it's time to turn it off, address the problem, and then turn it back on,' " said Matt Marvuglio, the dean of professional performance at the Berklee College of Music, where all students have access to SmartMusic. "Because you get fascinated - 'Oh, I need to start my piece and play along.' It's almost like turning on the TV sometimes. What are you doing? Turn off the TV and do your homework."

It is just a machine, not a collaboration, said Peter Tileston, the music director at King Philip Regional High School in Norfolk, where Tileston used SmartMusic, rather than a live accompanist, during a chamber concert last spring.

The experiment did not exactly succeed. Tileston said the students on stage could not hear the computer-generated music. But he still likes the technology, and skeptical parents have come around as well. Pellegrino, who did not sign up her son to use SmartMusic when it was optional in Sudbury last year, has enrolled him this fall and now realizes that SmartMusic can help her son, A. J., better than she can.

It is a fact of life in the Schineller house as well, where the father, Bill, and mother, Suzanne, failed to master the clarinet and the recorder, respectively, in their youth. Now, although they still hardly know their B flats from their G sharps, they can see exactly what Molly is playing.

"Fourteen out of 16," Molly Schineller said recently, reading her score out loud after playing nine measures required for homework.

"Ooh," her dad replied. "Why don't you do another take, Moll?"

Molly Schineller, with her trombone in one hand and computer mouse in the other, took a deep breath and went back to work.

Keith O'Brien can be reached at kobrien@globe.com.

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