By Tracy Williamson
Welcome to Room D138
Room D138 at Gorham Middle School is not your average music classroom. Steel drums, guitars, buckets, and choral music lines one half of the room, while the other side houses computers, laptop charging stations, headphones, USB mics, and MIDI keyboards.
Students with varying musical backgrounds burst into this room every day, eager to create fun, dynamic music. They combine traditional instruments and voices with cutting-edge music technology through collaborative student-driven projects.
Record Deal: Collaborating on International Album
I first learned about Project S.U.S.T.A.I.N.—Students Using Soundtrap To Accomplish International Necessity – after coming across a Facebook post. Grades 6-12 technology teacher, Ben Kelly was asking music teachers to join him in creating a collaborative international album to support the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) by contributing one or more tracks. I immediately saw the bigger picture of how this project could offer a dynamic venue for students to work together regardless of time and place on a project that could have real-world implications.
Hook, line, sinker. I signed onto this exciting new project for my students.
Changing Policy, Changing Technology
Over the past 15 years, I have built a solid middle school general music curriculum that integrates efficient, high-quality student technology use. Through a one-to-one device partnership with the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, each student was issued a MacBook loaded with GarageBand, a digital audio workstation, which previously formed the cornerstone of my technology-based music curriculum.
I learned a valuable lesson last school year—the technology we use in schools can change quickly at the whim of the school budget.
In 2016, we introduced the use of Chromebooks, a change that led me to search for a new Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), a platform that allows users to create music electronically that would offer even more flexibility. That’s when I discovered Soundtrap, the first-of-its-kind web-based, cross-platform, collaborative music-recording studio, which would allow me to continue teaching my curriculum across multiple devices.
Best Laid Plans
By September 2017, I had a group of 7th- and 8th-grade students signed onto Project S.U.S.T.A.I.N. Each brought a variety of different musical interests that ranged from opera training, a passion for pop singing, virtual instrument experience, and electronic composition.
During our first meeting, students were introduced to the Sustainable Development Goals that the United Nations has set forth as a call to action for all countries to strive to improve the overall health of our people and planet.
Students starting by using Google Classroom to upload songwriting resources, gather information on the SDGs, brainstorming lyrics, and creating a chart in which they identified personal strengths that each would bring to the project. By the time we completed these steps, they had created three Soundtrap project templates in which all students were collaborators and were ready to start creating! Or, so we thought.
The Missing Puzzle Piece
Like many new projects, we did not get through it without our share of challenges. In fact, by the beginning of December the students had accomplished very little. Despite having a group of extremely talented and passionate music students, they were having trouble committing time to the project outside of school.
The solution came in the form of designating a 20-minute block during the school day as a regular weekly meeting period, which we later identified as the missing step needed for the project to truly take off. During this time, the students decided to focus their efforts on writing a single song. After many discussions and brainstorming sessions to define the goal of the project—and what people can do to create more efficient and cost-effective energy—they began writing lyrics and outlining the form of the song.
Working in Sync
Once they were ready to start recording, I carved out a couple of hours on a Friday afternoon for everyone to meet. They produced the music using MIDI keyboards, headset microphones, and other resources. We began with the students meeting together to coordinate their musical goals, and then splitting off into separate spaces to work.
By leveraging Soundtrap’s collaborative workspace and text chat capabilities, the students were able to work in separate groups, each devoted to recording distinct sections of the track at the same time. While some recorded melodies, others worked on bass guitar parts, with a third group developing chords and MIDI string sounds. Every time a student saved his or her work, the others received a notification and were able to sync their parts together. Their overall progress was monitored on a big screen and sound system in the music room. By May, just five months after implementing planning meetings, the students had successfully completed their song!
Throughout the project, students were creative, collaborative, and resourceful, as they discovered a variety of ways to use Soundtrap and the other digital tools at their disposal. Moving forward, I plan to use the lessons we learned through this process to inform my work with this year’s students. For those teachers who are interested in joining me on this journey, here are some strategies for success:
My students were thrilled when their song was included on Ben Kelly’s Project S.U.S.T.A.I.N. album. They also proudly presented their work at a district-level Gifted and Talented Visual and Performing Arts showcase in early May.
Indeed, this EdTech-driven project proved to be a highly engaging way to motivate students to not only improve their music creation skills but also connect their work to important global issues that resonate far beyond the walls of the school.
About Tracy Williamson
Tracy Wheeler Williamson is General Music Teacher, Choral Director, and Steel Band Director at Gorham Middle School in Gorham, Maine. She is an Apple certified teacher, certified Soundtrap Educator and Expert and is working on her Google Educator certification. Tracy holds a Bachelor of Music degree in Flute Performance from Boston University and a M.M. in Music Education and Flute Performance from Boston Conservatory. Connect with Tracy on Twitter @GorhamMS_Music.