Keyboard Lab Benefits Students

Link between theory and performance strengthened through new keyboard labs

New tech-driven labs within the College of Music allow music students to play, sing, and improvise their theory homework at the keyboard, offering them a hands-on way to experience the material and strengthening their understanding of the relationship between theory and performance.

“There is only so much class time. With 40 students and one piano in the classroom, the logistics of hearing each person's keyboard work and providing feedback can be challenging,” says Assistant Professor of Music Theory Michael Callahan. “Technology offers me a way to hear every student every week.”

Callahan's students complete weekly keyboard assignments outside class in one of two Music Theory Learning Labs. Each of the 10 stations includes an electronic piano, computer, headphones, and vocal microphone. SmartMusic software guides practice and enables students to submit recorded “snapshots” of their playing and singing to an online drop box where Callahan listens and provides immediate feedback.

The open-ended assignments, Callahan says, require students to develop a creative solution rather than simply to find a single correct answer.

“It's a rich learning environment,” he explains. “Students interact with the software to customize their practice session, and then submit their best work.”

Callahan was able to expand the labs from two stations to 10 after receiving funding from a Lilly Teaching Fellowship, a grant from MSU's Humanities and Arts Research Program (HARP), and a Teaching and Learning Environment grant. The additional capacity, he says, makes it possible to integrate creative music making into all of his courses. About 70 students use the keyboard labs each week.

“The opportunities afforded by this technology have fundamentally changed how I design courses and how I teach,” says Callahan. “When students work at an instrument rather than on paper, they use their ears, their creativity, and their instincts as performers—not just their eyes.”

Callahan is presenting nationally and internationally on this curricular innovation, as well as conducting formal research on its impact on student skills, knowledge, and attitudes.

“It’s about application and integration,” says Callahan. “My intent is to engage different aspects of students’ musicianship and to show them how these aspects relate to and inform each other. I want music to come alive for them.”

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