We always knew that our child would be learning music, even before we had one. I was a music scholarship student who studied at a Conservatorium during senior highschool* and Steve plays drums and bass. So Willem started piano quite young, and learned on and off for years. However it was with not that much success – he liked to muck around on the keyboard but the idea of practicing was an anathema. At boarding school he started to learn trumpet but again – making noise was great, practicing was not. And despite trying to explain that practice was the path to developing the ability to do the fun stuff, Wim never really made the connection.
I have tried my very best not to push him or freak out about any of this. I didn’t start properly learning an instrument until I was in Year 8 at school** and I knew that if Wim wanted to learn music he could always start later. I say I tried, because I was not always able to stop myself thinking we should make him learn something, but overall I managed 🙂
And now, through a bit of a circuitous route, Wim is learning an instrument, along with music theory, aural skills and music production. Here’s how we are doing it.
Musition and Auralia
I looked around for courses to teach music theory for a long time. We sporadically worked on some workbooks – my theory knowledge was always okay enough to help Willem out – but most of our efforts were a bit half-hearted, especially once we no longer had a piano and it became a purely book-based endeavour.
We tried some apps and online programs, and eventually I settled on Musition. This is a program designed more for classroom music instruction, but it works really well for individual learners as well. And through Musition I found Auralia, which teaches aural skills. And I was sold.
These are seriously powerful programs with an overwhelming number of options. After a lot of exploring and playing around, I now have them set on our computer simply for a single student log-in – Wim opens up the program and it is exactly where he is up to. We are following the ‘general’ Ear Training and Music Training courses, but other options include programs linked to the Trinity Guildhall and AP* courses, a Band course and also a Jazz course that I am considering doing when we are finished the general courses. For those following a US style highschool program – there is more than enough material here to claim credit for a subject in Music Theory or Aural skills alone.
Best of all once you have it set up it is very easy for the student to use. You don’t need an instrument, just a computer keyboard if that is all you have. The assessments are all done in the program with instant feedback, and there is an understandable range of tests and progression, as well as sections to practice anything you want to do extra work on. I went in to this thinking that I could work alongside Wim to help him but except for going through key signatures with him to reiterate some material (this seems to be one thing that didn’t stick for him) he has done most of it on his own.
I will admit that these packages are not cheap (we bought the home version) but if you consider that they will last over a number of years, and the cost of a private tutor if you were to go that direction for learning, I think it is a good investment. If you prefer to go with apps instead and use an iOS device, various elements of Auralia and Musition are available as stand-alone apps and work offline.
Wim discovered Garage Band. The basic version we had on the computer was fun, and he had a good time making funny sounds and little tunes, but soon he was feeling limited with just a computer keyboard. So he took his savings a bought a small midi keyboard – and was on his way to writing songs, making tones for my iPhone and general fun. Soon we were looking for some training on how to make the most of GarageBand. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of courses out there ranging from the free to the professional (and professionally-priced). I eventually settled on Lynda.com. I had used Lynda previously for other types of training, and one thing I like about the site is that your monthly fee covers every course they have on offer. There is a free 10 day trial if you haven’t used it before so you have time to check it out before committing.
With his purchase of the midi-keyboard Wim got a free three month membership of Skoove, an online piano teaching program.
When one of the first tunes he learned to play was ‘Our House’ Wim was hooked. This is not a course for those who want to learn ‘serious’ piano, but it does, through small steps and using popular tunes, teach basic keyboard and music reading skills. As well as an extensive series of beginner’s lessons there are also courses based around Blues & Boogie-Woogie, Christmas, Keyboard skills for Producers, Accompaniment, and improvising on Pop songs.
Our use of Skoove has not been hassle free – we had serious technical problems when we first started (which we eventually solved by moving from Firefox to Chrome) but the customer service with Skoove is amazing – quick, responsive, helpful and eager to get you on track.
However there was another problem – Wim’s 32-key keyboard was just too small for most of the lessons on Skoove once he started using two hands. Very quickly he was limited to what lessons were useful. So, as an early birthday present we bought a larger keyboard, which is now installed in his bedroom. However the computer is not in Wim’s room so he has to use the Skoove app on the ipad rather than the online version to follow his lessons. Luckily I opted to order a keyboard with speaker output (a lot of midi keyboards only have output through a computer or some other means) as we found out that the iPad app will only take input through the microphone, not a cable. But it works – Wim also likes singing the tunes and Skoove picks that up too!
* I did start my undergraduate degree with a double major in music, but by the time I graduated it was a double major in history.
** I did learn record during primary school, and taught myself how to read treble clef, but it was not until I started highschool that I started ‘proper’ lessons, starting with the clarinet.