Top Musicality Tools and Tech, with Katie Wardrobe

Today we’re talking with Katie Wardrobe, the founder of Midnight Music – a site we’ve followed for several years because it is the go-to place to learn about cool new music tools and websites and insights on how they can be used in music education.

Katie runs hands-on workshops, presents regularly at conferences in Australia and overseas and she offers online training and support to music teachers all over the world through her music technology professional development online community – the Midnight Music Community.

She is also the author of Studio Sessions, a keyboard and technology program for middle school students and the host of the weekly Music Tech Teacher podcast.

One thing we’ve always admired is how Katie is always able to find interesting and creative ways to use new music websites and apps for real practical teaching purposes. We loved having the chance to pick Katie’s brains on how to best use music tech in education, as well as learning a bit more about her own background and what led to her having such a creativity-focused perspective on technology in music education.

In this conversation we talk about:

  • How growing up as the daughter of two music teacher parents impacted her early music education, and whether she believes it was nature or nurture that led to her becoming a music teacher herself.
  • Her opinion on whether easy music-making technology reduces (or even removes) the need for spending time learning music in the traditional way.
  • Her top suggestions for free online tools you can use today to develop your musicality in fun and interesting ways.

This conversation is packed with useful ideas for self-taught musicians and music teachers alike, and you’re going to come away with at least one (but probably several) cool new ideas for using technology in your musicality training.

Listen to the episode:

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Christopher: Welcome to the show, Katie. Thank you for joining us today.

Katie: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.

Christopher: So I’d love to start out by hearing a bit about how you got started in music. When did you first start learning and what did that look like for you?

Katie: I’ve had a really very musical background because both of my parents are music types, so they are, they’re actually, you know, both of them are 73, I think, at this stage, and they are still teaching even though they’re both in theory retired, I think they just can’t give it up, but I grew up with lots of music, you know, all around me all the time and they’re both conductors and accompanists and do a lot of playing and singing and, you know, instruments and whatever, but I started learning piano formally at the age of five and then took up other instruments along the way, which was really good, but we really had a lot of singing around, you know, from a really early age and me and my brother used to get dragged along to choir rehearsals, actually, as kids, but my parents were both involved and we’d just have to sit in a corner playing, you know, with Matchbox cars and Legos and stuff like that while they did that. And so it was like a full immersion, I think, from a really early age.

Christopher: Mm-hm. I know a few families like that where both parents are professional classical musicians of one kind or another or music teachers and it does seem like there’s a real correlation with the kids going into music in a serious way, too. Do you think it’s a nature or a nurture thing? Is it because you had that genetic background that you were inevitably going to go into music, or was it that full immersion that did it, do you think?

Katie: I really think it’s the immersion thing, I mean, a lot of people say to me, “Oh, it’s –” you know, I mean, I guess that they say, “Oh, of course you would have ended up being a musician,” and my brother, as well, and I mean, I think that’s true to some degree because we were so surrounded by it when we were growing up, but I really do think it was simply our exposure to it, I mean, if some other kid had come along with us and you know, been around at the same time and had music all of the time, I really think that they would have ended up in the same way and we were never forced to go into music. It was just — but it was just there and it was such a big part of our lives, so I think we were always going to both be musicians, me and my brother, and, yeah, I do think it’s, I think it’s more the nurture thing. (Laughs) I was trying to think. Which one is it, nurture rather than nature. Yeah.

Christopher: (Laughs) Mm-hm. And so you started piano at age five. What did the next five or ten years look like for you for learning music?

Katie: Piano was great. I really loved doing piano and I felt it from an early age, you know? My piano teacher would play the next few pieces that I could choose from to learn and each year I thought, “Wow, I’m gonna sound so good when I can play that one,” and, even, you know, I was even thinking that it, you know, I was six or seven and probably the pieces were so simple, but I was so excited because they were by really famous people like Mozart and Beethoven and so on, and then, after that, I did learn cello just for a little bit for about a year when I was in grade five, I think, but I really did not like my cello teacher so I gave that up, which was a bit sad. If I had kept going it would have been a really great thing. But, so that was, you know, primary school age, and then later on picked up — I started playing woodwind instruments, really, so I learned oboe and later on bassoon.

I secretly learned bassoon for a bit. My oboe teacher didn’t know that because I had access to instruments at the school, I took a bassoon home, you know, thought, “I’ll just have a go,” and so I got that because of, you know, access through my parents because they were both teaching at the school that my brother and I were attending and took the bassoon home for a bit and my oboe teacher said, “Hm, something’s not quite right. Your embouchure, you know, it’s not so good,” and I think he kind of realized I was secretly playing the bassoon and he said, “You have to make a choice, one or the other.” (Laughs) But it wasn’t so good.

Christopher: That’s tremendous. What musical rebellion, to take up the bassoon in secret.

Katie: And the reason I took it up was because the only bassoon player at the school actually left and leaving the school with no bassoon players and there was two oboe players, me and this other guy, and so I thought, “You know, I want to be the only one in the school doing something,” so I took bassoon up at that time.

Christopher: So it sounds like it was quite a traditional, formal style of music education. Was there anything else that was more formal or instinctive or relaxed for you, in terms of exploring your musicality?

Katie: I think the singing part of everything was a really great way to learn and play and that sort of thing. I mean, we were singing from an early age, you know. I mentioned that both parents were involved with choirs and that sort of thing and, you know, we were brought up with a very classical music background and totally about music reading, really, and so we — you know, me and my brother — were good at reading music and sight reading and that sort of thing, but that was that part of it, but we started playing, you know, on our own and I think it’s that, you know, improvising and having a go at stuff that became a really good part of things, and, yeah, the singing part, though, I think was just really great.
Me and my brother used to play at home even on the piano and kind of muck around a lot. I think that was a messy part of just exploring musicality. We used to play, at the time it was — what’s that Richard Marx — is it a Richard Marx song, “Wherever You Go”? (Sings) Wherever you go, whatever you do,” — that one — “I will be right here waiting.” That song. I used to play that one the piano. It’s very easy to play and my brother used to come along and he would play it, as well. He wasn’t even a pianist, but he would play it a semi-tone apart from where I was playing it on the piano, so he would put his hands, kind of, over the top of mine or an octave higher on the other keys, like, the white keys instead of the black keys, sort of like this, and we used to play it like that, and my mum would be cooking in the kitchen and just screaming at us, “Please, stop. Make it stop! Make it stop!”

But we did a lot of experimenting, me and my brother, and I think that was a great part of actually, just, learning music and getting better at things, because we just explored stuff. We just had fun with it and I taught him piano even though he was not — he’s a drummer, and so he plays piano — at the time, he was playing piano with his two first fingers, kind of like drumsticks, and he was amazing at doing trills and things. He would do, like, a drum roll, which was a trill, on the piano. Crazy stuff, but that’s how we did a lot of playing and learning at that time, and, yeah, we just had a lot of fun with it, I think.

Christopher: Hm. That’s wonderful. I think you were lucky to have a sibling like that, because I think a lot of children who had the kind of education you had in terms of your official education don’t necessary find that opportunity to explore that other side of things.

Katie: Yeah. Yeah. I really think that’s, sort of, big part of it, is just, kind of, mucking around and having him there all the time to do that. I mean, both my parents were obviously there and, you know, we made music together. One really early memory, actually, is of us recording. I was born in England, so my family’s from England, as well, and we recorded a, like, a version of “Happy Birthday” for my aunt in England, and we recorded it in four-part harmony, so my brother was only about five at the time and he sang the melody and I sang the alto part because I could hold the alto part and Mum and Dad sang the tenor and bass parts and we recorded it and sent it off. I really wish I had a copy of that recording. I think it went on a cassette tape at the time I was six.

Christopher: And were there any big discoveries for you as you did that exploration with your brother? Were there any, kind of, insights or breakthroughs that helped you turn into the musician you are today, who I would think of as a very creative and expressive kind of musician or music teacher?

Katie: Yeah. I think I always still consider — it’s that very stereotypical issue of being brought up a classical musician and reading music a lot and not improvising as much. I’ve actually realized over time that my brother was heading more into, kind of, jazz music and he learned, you know, fairly early on, you know, at ten years he learned, kind of, like, scales, like the blues scale, and he could play them quite fluently, even on the piano, which wasn’t his instrument — very annoying — and he kind of based a lot of what he was doing on that and moved more into that improvisation-type style, which I found a real struggle, you know, a real struggle. I’m pretty good, actually, at playing from a chord chart. I can improvise in that way. I can play from a chord chart quite easily and make up, you know, whatever on the piano to go along with the song and that’s really good, but, just, sort of, that free, improvising, like, “Hey, do a solo for the next eight bars,” that sort of thing (Sings) “Oooo,” freaked me out.

I would, like, pre-organize it, work it out ahead of time, but he could really easily do that, so I kind of realized that that was probably a good way to go, and both of my parents were just not quite into that jazz improvisation stuff. I felt like it was a forbidden type of music when I was growing up, even though they never said that. I’m sure they would have not minded at all if I’d gone down that road, but later on I developed this love for jazz and I think it was — you know, I wish I’d settled down a bit earlier and been able to improvise and to kind of get the gist of that thing, you know, being fluent in all those different scales and modes would have actually helped a lot, so yeah. So it’s something I’m kind of working a bit more on now, which is a good thing.

Christopher: And outside of the kind of instrument technique and lessons and passing exams that you were presumably doing, what were you able to learn or teach yourself that let you follow your brother a bit or let you feel a bit more free and creative and play by ear or do that side of things?

Katie: I think just playing at home by yourself and, you know, just having that time. I used to love it when everybody went out of the house and I had a couple of hours by myself at home, because I think I felt a bit self-conscious mucking around in front of other people and I wanted the freedom to do that without anyone around, so I spent a lot of time transcribing songs that I liked to hear on the radio, so, you know, I’ll show my age here, but growing up, you know, in the late 70’s and 80’s, you know, it was Billy Joel and Elton John and listening to those people and just, kind of, thinking, “Oh, I really want to play that Billy Joel song,” so I would actually listen a lot to the recordings and just sit at the piano and work them out and in those days, you didn’t have, really, access to recordings like you do now. So you either had to go and buy the entire album, which was expensive, or the single, but I knew if I had a single version of it, you know, to buy, or you’d do what most of us did, which was listen to the radio with the cassette tape poised to record at any time and as soon as the song came on you’d just hit the button and record the song and keep the copy on your cassette tape, and so I did a lot of that and just played along with songs and worked them out and I think I realized from an early age that because I’d grown up in that sort of environment I could work out the notes and work out the chords of the song and that was so much fun. I still love doing that, even today. I’ve done a lot of transcribing for people, like professional transcribing jobs writing down, you know, what I hear and putting it in notation so that other people can play with it. I always found that really fun, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that developed my, you know, musical ear, really. And, yeah, just mucking around with it and seeing if I could work out what to do and how to do it and how that person was doing it on the recording. So much fun!

Christopher: Hm. I think for a lot of musicians who are trained in the note-reading, classical way, that kind of transcription challenge can be a bit overwhelming, because they feel like any note is possible. Was there anything that helped you get better at it quicker or that kind of made it more approachable for you, given that you had that kind of training in your background?

Katie: Yes. Yes, totally. I think it’s the realization that you’re in a key — so let’s say you’re in G major — and so instantly, you kind of, most of the time, and it’s not true for everything for the entire song all of the time, but, you know, if you’re in a key like G major you kind of go, “Well, those are the notes that are most likely that are going to be in song, in the melody, for instance, and also those are the most likely chords. You know, if you get quite familiar with the tonic chord of G major, it’s G major, and then, you know, the five chord is D major and so on, you know, especially pop music or jazz, you know, it’s fairly predictable in that the chords have begun to be based on those things. So I used to treat it like a puzzle, like a process of elimination, and if there was a chord that I couldn’t work out I would go, “Well, in G major I’ve probably got these main ones at my disposal,” and so I’d do all the ones that I could hear really easily and then I’d fill in the gaps with that and that realization, you know, that everything’s based around that tonic key, for the most part, and, of course, there are so many exceptions to this part, you know, for a lot of music it really is based around that tonic key. It’s just so great, and I had this realization in my, I think my teens, where with sight-singing and playing and so on that that whole system of using roman numerals and, you know, I grew up learning some solfa as well, so, you know, do, and so, and using that system of basing everything around the tonic just made so much sense to me, and I don’t understand the people who use the fixed do system, you know, in solfa, where C is do no matter what key you’re in, just doesn’t make sense. I feel like they’re missing out on this awesome system of, you know, analyzing music and it’s just so much easier when you know that system and it doesn’t matter whether you’re using solfa or numbers, it’s all the same. You’re just labeling it with different things, but to know that the one chord is this and the five chord is this and the four chord, and so on, that just — it was like this massive light bulb moment, I think, growing up and I felt like that’s the way — for me, that was the way I could sight sing quite easily. So if people put music in front of me, I could actually fairly easily sing it straightaway even if I didn’t know the song, because I would relate everything to the tonic and the, you know, if the main note of the scales sounds a certain way in that key and then the five sounds a certain way, and so I could sort of pick out the notes that way. And it’s not an instant process, but at the time, you know, you find you get better and better at it if you keep practicing, so that’s a good thing.

Christopher: I love hearing you describe that, because I can relate to it so much and for me, unfortunately, it was a much later discovery and, you know, these days at Musical U that’s very much the approach we use. We have movable do solfa for the relative pitch of notes and then we do the —

Katie: Oh. Phew!

Christopher: — yeah. We do the roman numeral chord system for the one, four, five, and six, and it’s just, it’s astonishing to me even today how much that’s missing from the tradition classical music education and…

Katie: Yeah.

Christopher: …you know, I still find it hard to believe that I’ve managed to get through ten or fifteen years of instrument lessons and getting very good at reading music and passing exams without anyone really getting that across to me that, you know, this is why the key matters and this is why these chords go together, and, you know, if you are gonna try and transcribe something it’s not any-note-is-possible. You can, you know, infer an enormous amount just from the key…

Katie: Yeah.

Christopher: …like you described.

Katie: Yeah. I don’t understand, either. I had the same experience. Nobody really talked about any of that, growing up, and it was sort of tiny bits of that information along the way but it was never connected and no one, yeah, no one presented it as a thing, and, just, that, you know, that solfa thing, you know, growing up, I had some Kodaly training and to me that’s one of their strong points, is that they do relate everything to the key, and you find that, like, I find that certain chords in a key have qualities about them, so there’s a certain feeling about the five chord, because it wants to go back to the one, you know, and there’s a certain feeling about the four chord or the two chord, and that’s kind of harder or longer to pick up, but the more you listen and the more you think about those things, it’s much easier to work out. And you know when you’re listening to a song and if you’re towards the end of a phrase, you know you’re not on the tonic yet. What’s the next likely chord that it’s likely going to be just before the tonic? And it’s usually, like, the five chord and, you know, once you know those things it really is a process of elimination, you know, I find when transcribing.
The other thing I’ve found with transcribing is a lot of the transcribing I was doing, because I was singing, I really, I was in an acapella group or two or three and there were hardly any arrangements for more popular songs at the time. You just could not buy them. So I started doing them myself and transcribing recordings of acapella groups that I found who were doing more popular music and so when transcribing, you know, I would listen to the person singing the top part and the middle part and the bottom part. It’s often in four or five parts, and so you kind of end up peeking out each line as you go and listening through to that one line, but I found that even if there was a section where I couldn’t really work out what the chord was or what all of the notes were at that time, I would go, “Well, I can definitely hear this note in the top, and I can definitely hear this note in the base,” and once you’ve got two notes it’s much easier to fill in the gaps and go, “Well, the other two notes can only be this, this, or this,” and it’s that process of elimination that’s really — that was a really good realization from that point on.

Christopher: Mm-hm. That is one of my favorite activities in the world, is listening to acapella music…

Katie: Me, too.

Christopher: …or barber shop and just trying to really tune in to the different voices. I think it’s a phenomenal exercise for waking up your ears and developing your appreciation of that kind of thing, you know, what is the progression, what types of chords are being used and where is the melody at a given time?

Katie: Yeah, absolutely, and I think, you know, you and I have talked about this in the past, but, you know, listening and listening with a purpose is always a really, really good thing and just peeking at different parts. I still do it on the radio now, you know, driving with my kids and my kids are aged 11 and 12, and even they do it, too. You know, my eldest son, I look over at him one day and he’s miming some piano part, which I hadn’t even really picked up consciously, myself in some song that we were listening to and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I can hear that, too. Yes,” you know, and he, obviously, he’s actively listening to certain parts, too, and I just think that that’s a great exercise and sometimes if I’m hearing the same song a lot, you know, you get bored with the same songs, and so if you are forced to listen to something over and over, I do, I pick out, “Okay, let’s do the guitar part this time,” or “Let’s try and hone in on the base part and focus.” I always think of it as kind of like focusing, like, a camera lens, focusing my ears on a certain thing and, yeah, it becomes much easier over time.

Christopher: That has been my saving grace, lately. My daughter is about two and is very much in the mode of needing the same song again and again and there’s only so many times you can hear the theme to Princess Sofia before you start needing something else to tune your ear to.

Katie: Do you do what I do, which is sing harmony parts and things? I make up harmony parts to go with the melody. (Laughs)

Christopher: Definitely a good option. So I’d love to unpack that a little bit because I think what you touched on there is one of these things that if you see a musician do it or you talk about, you know, “Can you hear that amazing bass riff,” or, you know, when they mention something you are oblivious to, it’s easy to say, “Oh, they just have amazing ears,” or “They’re a better musician than me,” but, clearly, this was something you’ve worked on and that you actively bother to do. Can you tell me more about that and what someone listening can think about if they’re intrigued to kind of dig into music with their ear in this way?

Katie: Yeah. Yeah, and I do think it’s a learned thing. I think it’s, and I think for me, it’s often remembering to do it, you know. You can, you can just, like, all day long, you know, hear different music, you know, when you’re walking around and driving and, you know, with a friend and in the shopping center that, you know, you can really — if you can consciously remember to try and listen, you know, a different way, just with active ears or whatever you want to term it. I actually had — my brother was seeing a girl for a while and she around me and my dad and my brother a lot and she said to us at one point, “I feel like I’m missing out because you guys seem to listen and hear music in such a different way to me,” and we all said, “No, no. We’re not — you’re not missing out at all. We just happen to listen to it in a different way to the way you do.” So we started saying to her, you know, “Can you hear that little twanging sound at this point?” and “That’s the guitar.” And so she started to pick out different parts, as well. That, for me is, you know, I think one of the best things altogether, and just picking out — consciously picking out — a part and you can sort of say, “Okay, there’s a capo part in this song,” and just have a listen to that and follow it all the way through and sometimes you’ll lose it. Sometimes they may not even be playing through the whole song, and you’re like, “Where did it go?” but I think just listening to it and doing that as a regular thing and you know, I make a point of it in the car trips and that sort of thing. I don’t even drive that much. I keep bringing car trips up, but it’s the time where I have music on in this — we have a certain amount of songs between and here and the boys’ school where I drop them off and we know that the trip is being bad, the traffic’s busy if we get through five songs instead of four. We’re like, “Okay, it’s a bad day.” But we go through and we each take turns in choosing songs, which is nice. Eminem’s featuring heavily for my eldest son, so there’s not a lot of musical interest in that the lyrics are amazing and it’s all about the lyrics and the rap, obviously, but the musical part, you know, that’s what I hone in on and actually — this is an aside, but — I still remember a few weeks ago saying to my son, “Oh, man, this song’s so repetitive,” and he just looked at me in horror and said, “How could you say that?” and I realized that it’s because of the way I was listening to it. It was mainly listening to the musical backing, which was completely repetitive. It’s the same eight bars for three and a half minutes, and, you know, for him, he was listening to the lyrics and the rap, and I thought, “That’s what his ears are tuned to, at this point in time,” and he loves, you know, the expressiveness of the lyrics, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, I really need to take a step back and, you know, look at myself and actually do that, where I listen to something different in each song.”

So yeah, I like to do that. I like to pick out chord sequences in songs, so I’ll listen and try and say the chord names along with the song as I’m listening, so, “This is chord one to chord five to chord four to chord five to chord one,” and so on and so I’m listening and I think that’s really good practice if you want to get into transcribing things or working out what the baseline is for a song or working out what the chords are if you’re a guitarist and, yeah, it’s such a great thing to do.

Christopher: Yeah, I think there have been some really interesting brain studies in the last decade where they use MRI and FMRI machines to try and figure out, do musicians hear music differently? And one of the major findings has been, yes, you know, if you have some musical training you hear music essentially with the left side of your brain, the analytical side, where your average layperson in the street, it wakes up the right side of the their brain and they’re just appreciating it as a casual listener and when I heard that, it made so much sense, because I’d spent so much time doing what you’ve just described, you know, actively analyzing and, you know, that makes it sound very boring and dry. It’s not at all. It’s kind of like an amazing adventure playground that you get to explore, but it is that part of the brain that’s trying to figure things out and trying to pay attention and listen for detail and I think that you don’t need that much musical training to wake up your brain in that way…

Katie: No, not at all.

Christopher: …and I love those examples you give in the car of, you know, you don’t need an instrument, you don’t need a computer or a tablet, you can just listen and give yourself those little challenges or ideas for what you could listen for next.

Katie: Yeah, absolutely.

Christopher: Are there any others that you’ve found useful, any other activities you tend to do when you’re just trying to listen actively?

Katie: I think even, just even practicing, like, often when I say, you know, to other people, I listen and pick out chord sequences in songs but that sounds overwhelming and it would be if you were just starting out and even just picking out, if you have an instrument handy, you know, so maybe not while you’re driving in the car, but if you have an instrument handy or even or your phone with an app that can help you identify a specific tone and pitch, just even identifying what the tonic, the key of the song is, that can just be a really good exercise. I know lots of people struggle with that when they start out and I’ve seen lots of discussions on, like, online forums and comments on Youtube videos, and people saying, “How do you work out what key the song is in?” and then someone, you know, the person who’s made the videos, they’re trying to explain it, and I mean, there’s different approaches, but you can always think, what’s the note that you’re drawn back to all the time or what does it end on or start on? That’s often a good clue. It’s not always that, you know, every time, but that’s a good place to start and that was one of the things that was included in the exam system that I did growing up, I did — for Australia we have the AMEB’s, so Australian Music Examinations Board, and a lot of us do those exams over time and they have a little ear training section which is like an add-on at the end of your exam. After you’ve played your pieces you’ll have to do some ear training exercises with the examiner. They’ll test you on a few things and a lot of teachers don’t emphasize that part of the learning for the student who’s going to take the exam, which I think is a big issue at times because a lot of students go into the exam and then freeze at that part because they haven’t had that practice all along but one of their things is, you know, in the early days they’d play a little piano thing, it might be just like four bars, and they’d stop just before the last note and then you’d have to sing the very final note, which is — usually that’s the key of the song, the tonic note, and even just doing that is a really good exercise when you’re starting out, but, yep, saying the chords out loud in the car is a good thing if you can. The hard thing, I guess, is that you can’t really check it while you’re driving, but, anyway, that’s one thing, and just choosing a little short rhythm.

I think one of the things I’ve found growing up with transcribing is people can often pick out pitches more easily or more quickly. They pick up that part of the process more quickly than the rhythm and I think the rhythm, the rhythm to me is, like, I love the rhythmic aspect of transcribing and writing down, you know, what I’m hearing and that’s always the thing I do first, so — and not a lot of people would teach this, you know — if you want to notate something you just write the rhythm first. The pitches are kind of easier to fill the gaps afterwards and so I will often pick out just a little rhythm for practice and write that down and then just compare it to the original song and if you are not able to kind of work out and compare the two and work out whether what you’ve done is accurate, if you can put it into a notation program, that’s a really good way of what I call “proof listening” — someone else came up with that term, it’s not an original one of mine — but if you put it into a notation program and play it back, the notation program, you can really easily at that point say, “Oh, yeah, that sounds the same as the rhythm I wanted to transcribe,” or “That sounds completely different and I’ve got it utterly wrong.” So it’s a really great way to just do that quick comparison.

So I often do, like, you know, just one bar or two bars of music and if you do that fairly regularly it’s — oh, you just get, yeah, just get much more into it.

Christopher: Very cool. So we’ve hit on there what is I think unquestionably your main expertise. You host the Music Tech Teacher podcast and at Midnight Music you very much specialize in how to leverage technology to make teaching and learning music easier and more fun and really make the most of it. It’s a slightly controversial topic, I think, and maybe that comes from this traditional system that a lot of teachers are resistant to change or apprehensive about introducing these new tools, but to me, at the heart of it there’s a really big question as to whether technology is enabling better music learning or actually removing the need for music learning. If we take something like that example of notating a rhythm, if there are apps that make it easy to figure that out or to, you know, autogenerate a rhythm for you, is there still a need to learn the skill of doing it yourself? Where do you stand on that?

Katie: Yeah. I totally think there is still a need to do it yourself. I think that there’s a couple of different things. There’s — you know, when you are using something like Garageband, which his a local library and so on, you know, people are like, “Well, why would you bother learning how to compose? You can just drag a whole stack of loops in and use that,” and you can, but if you’ve ever done it, you can make something that sounds really, really bad very easily and you still need to know about a good form, you know, how to set up a good song with form. You still need to know how harmonies work with one another, because you can pick loops in the loop library which do not match at all, and if you’ve ever done this with a group of students, you know, particularly, so, let’s say, teenagers, they will drag in as much as possible at all times and therefore — and it’s good to let them do that, because then they listen and they go, “This sounds really crap, and it does not sound like the Top 40’s song that I really wanted it to be,” and then they have to learn that a good song does not have six drum parts, you know. A good song probably just has one drum part and maybe some other percussion on the other track, but really it’s very limited and using lots of different chords in one song is probably not gonna make it sound good but using a limited number is gonna make it sound better in how the melody flows and stuff, so I think you really do need to do that. And the one thing that people say to me over and over again, and this is, you know, specifically to do with ear training, is along the lines of that transcribing thing. So, you know, there’s software now where in theory you can open up a recording, a wave form, or an MP3 and enter some software and that it will churn out notation for you. Now, there’s a number of software companies that do this, and it is getting better over time, but it still does not give you this amazing result, you know, the technology is just not there, particularly if you’re wanting to transcribe multiple tracks, multiple parts, you know. Generally speaking, it’s like, it can do sometimes a single melody, a single line. So people have dreams. I often get asked, you know, “Is there technology that will allow me to bring in”, you know, name the Top 40’s of the moment, “and it will spit out parts for me to give to my band members to play?” and the answer is, no. It won’t, and if it does, they’re probably going to be incorrect, and so you’re going to need to go through with your good ear training skills and go through and correct things, anyway, and, you know, I just think that’s my substitute for those ear training skills and the compositional kind of skills, as well. So using the software, I mean, there are, I think there are some aspects of software which help you and maybe take away the need for a teacher at all times.

I mean, I love ear training software where you need to be drilled, you know, it’s all about practice and doing it frequently, so you need to be drilled on certain themes. So a rhythmic examples, you know, for one thing, you might need to listen to many rhythmic examples and notate them or tap along with them or keep the beat with the rhythm, or something like that, and to have someone sitting there with you for three hours, you know, a week, it would be nice, but you’re not gonna always get to do that, so having software can do that for you, it’s brilliant, I mean, it’s great. So in that way, the teacher is a little bit redundant because the software can drill for you all of those exercises but that’s a good use of the software. I’m sure most teachers would be happy to be made redundant in that instance and not have to play examples all day for people. So I’ve loved that over time the ability for anyone, students, adults, to do ear training on the go, you know, with the, like, with the technology today you can on your iPad or your phone or your laptop have software that will allow you to practice those things. It’s amazing. It’s so great.

I had a teacher a friend who before the days of apps, of iPhones and iPads, kids that she was teaching had iPods at the time so they had something that they could listen to while they were on the train or the bus and she made for them, she recorded a whole stack of ear training exercises, so intervals, for instance, and she, in the exercise, she would, I think, play the interval a couple of times and then leave a gap on the recording for them to guess what it was, and then she would say the name of it, so they could compare their answer and she said that the improvement in their grades in that year, the first year that she did it, was amazing, like, it just, it really increased their success levels and it was because they could do it any time. They could sit on the train on the way to school and do it or on the way home and, yeah. And she said it was such a better use of their time and then after that of course, apps came along, which just do all that for you, which is great and so the teacher doesn’t have to set up their own recordings anymore. Such a great thing that’s come along.

Christopher: Mm. That’s a really cool example I think. To me, you can just about make the case that maybe in the future people won’t need to learn to play an instrument and there are increasing options for replacing that instrument skill but I’m 100% in agreement that the one part you’re always going to need is your ear and your ability to evaluate, is this good or bad? Is the thing I’ve just created what I wanted to create, and to even, you know, when were talking about active listening, there, to even conjure up in your mind what it is you’re trying to create requires a certain level of analysis and understanding of music that you can then bring out through an instrument or a through a tool or through software, whatever it may be.

Katie: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, and I think also that just that knowledge of, you know, even if you’re trying to write songs knowing what the rules are and which you can then break down the track, but if you learn those kind of rules in the first place, it just makes your process a lot easier and then you can be much more creative with it afterwards and, yeah, I think that’s a really good way, you know, again, students, when they are in software they’ll do that thing where they use lots of chords and lots of things, and often that’s a little bit too much and when you take a few things out it becomes better, but you need to kind of know why you’re doing that or how to do that and if you’ve learned that background of chord progressions and, you know, useful rhythms, even with rhythms, things like filling in the gaps when you’re creating a rhythm yourself, like I often use those, you know, like an online sequencer which allows you to build up a drum pattern, for instance, and you’ll have a track for the bass, drum, the key drum, one for the snare and one for the high hat, and if you know that, you know, if the kick drum is on one and you put the snare two and four, pretty much, then you can go crazy after that and add stuff in, but not too crazy, so at that point I often fill in the gaps, so I look at — if you’re using one of those step sequencers which has little boxes that you turn sounds on and off in, which are just fabulous, I often go and fill in the gaps and that makes it a really good sounding rhythm without you needing to know whether it’s crotchets or quavers that you’re playing, even what beat things are on, but if you put a couple of things in place and then after that fill in the gaps and, you know, try and make it sound a little bit interesting, you can do that quite easily and come up with something cool and make your beats and all that sort of stuff.

I’ve had to adjust my terminology over the years, you know. I used to, like, “No, a beat is not the entire rhythmic pattern, it’s just the beat.” Now I’ve come to, “Okay, the beat, it’s now, like, okay, that’s the whole rhythmic pattern,” you know? The terminology these days, I’ve had to let it go.

I was speaking to, on my own podcast, Richard McCready, who’s a teacher in the States, and we were comparing, you know, we sounded like old people, like, we’re comparing terms that we’ve had to like, let go over time because they’ve become commonplace. Acapella is another one. You know, when you’re talking about remix stems (phonetic), you know, if you want to get separate tracks for a song and then you’re gonna put them together in your own way to create a remix — and lots of people do this, DJ’s and stuff, if you are ever looking for the unaccompanied vocal track, it’s just the pure vocals on its own, it started off being called, “the acapella,” as in, the unaccompanied vocal and then it got shortened to “pells” and so if you go to song websites and you click on the menu which is pells, that’s the way you’re going to find unaccompanied vocal tracks. (Laughs) Just let it go. Let it go.

Christopher: So that’s a perfect example. I do have them being referred to as the a capella for a track but I have not come across that vocabulary of pells.

Katie: Pells. Yeah. CcMixter. You got to do the ccMixter website.

Christopher: Oh yeah?

Katie: Yeah, and it’s remix stems on there and it’s pells. It’s in the menu, I think.

Christopher: But that’s a perfect example of what I’ve always admired so much about Midnight Music is, you’re always at the cutting edge and you are always totally tuned in to what the latest tools are and what the latest technology opportunities are. I’d love if you could just share a few examples of what you would recommend our listeners check out in terms of, you know, taking advantage of online tools to develop their own musicality.

Katie: Yeah, and it’s funny because, you know, lots of people say, “Oh, it changes so often, you know, all the time, and how do you keep up with it?” and it does and I actually don’t, I don’t make a massive effort to seek out new information. It kind of comes to me, because, you know, I’m in Facebook groups or whatever it is and often I’m not the person breaking the news and I just wait for it to come. Someone will post something at some time and then I — but I do make a note of it mentally and go, “Right. I’ve got to look that up or check it out,” and that sort of thing, but over the years I’ve found really a lot of the things that I use and that I recommend people use have not changed that much. It’s the same websites or the same software and yes, they get updated over time, but I still go back to the same ones that I’ve been using for eight years now, and they are still around and a few new things have come on board in that time, but the things that I love are just often really simple, so there’s one called Groove Pizza. It’s the department of, you know, music department, education department at NYU have some fantastic things that they are doing and they’re building free online music tools for, particularly for teachers and students to use, but they’re great for everyone, so one of theirs is called Groove Pizza and it’s one of these online drum sequencer tools, and it doesn’t test you on anything but it’s a great place for you to build up a drum pattern and I love these for just either exploring rhythm yourself — it’s a great way to do it. So you can do that thing where you build up a pattern with a kick drum and a snare drum and it’s only got three parts so you’re limited, which is good, but I love to suggest to people, use that as your accompaniment for when you’re playing scales, you know? Just put a really basic drum pattern on and instead of playing scales or modes along to a metronome, which is tick, tock, tick, tock all the time, you can have some funky rhythm going and so I often suggest that and you can make the tempo really slow and then, you know, increase it over time and you can even export those little drum patterns from that website. You get an MP3 and — or a wave file — and therefore you can save them somewhere. You could save them on your laptop or put them on to your device and take them with you. There’s lots of apps that will do that, too, but, just, really simple things. There’s a really simple — and it’s kind of all my silly — there’s a simple website you can go to. It’s called Got Rhythm?. I think it’s part of a, like, a concert booking venue website. I think they just made this little tool.

Essentially, it gives you something rhythmic to tap your spacebar along to and at some point the backing drops out so there’s nothing at all and you need to keep the same beat going and then it brings in the backing again and it says, “Okay. You can stop now,” and it gives you a score on how accurate your beat-keeping was in the time that, you know, that it wasn’t there for you to play along with and that’s kind of cool. You instantly get a score like 738. And so, straightaway, you just want to get a better score, so you go back and you do it again and that — it’s a quick thing to do, but just to practice keeping a steady beat even when you’re not playing along to a metronome or looking at a conductor, that’s a really great thing to do.

And there’s a few other tools. I mean, there’s a number of ear training tools out there. There’s, I mean, so many nowadays and I really find the free ones aren’t the best option, you know, you — I find it that the ones which you pay a little bit of money for you’re gonna get much better results from those, because there’s so much more flexibility and you can pick and choose and set up your own exercises and customize them a lot, so, I really love Aurelia software, it’s fantastic for ear training, and the online Theta Music, I never say their name quite right, but Theta Music’s great, too. You sit online, log in, and again, they’ve got some for free, but then you can pay for extra and, you know, you’re gonna get a better experience keeping track of what you do and that sort of thing, and stuff like that, and note naming even. There’s lots of note naming apps out there.

I’ve been a big fan of one called Staff Wars over the years. It’s a great one for kids and adults as well. It’s got this Star Wars space theme going on and a note flies in across the stave and you have to identify it before it reaches the treble clef or the base clef or tenor clef and if you do identify it correctly it gets shot by your spaceship so it’s kind of cool, and they even have a playing version, like one where you play your instrument to identify the note. So the first one that I mentioned, you press a key on your keyboard to say this is an A or an F, but the second one you can play your instrument and it picks up your instrument through the microphone of your device and if you play a G and it’s a G, the spaceship shoots the G for you, so that’s really cool, lots of fun. But, yeah, there’s a few others, as well, but those are, you know, amongst the ones that I keep going back to over time and they’re around, you know, still around.

Christopher: Fantastic. Those are really fun suggestions and we’ll put links to all of those in the show notes. That was just a little taste of the full range of things you recommend and provide tutorials for on Midnight Music, your website. I believe you have an Ultimate Free Music Tech Resources Guide available. Is that right?

Katie: Yes. Which I’ll link to, as well. Yeah, lots of those ones that I’ve just mentioned are in there, too, so that, you know, I work with teachers most of the time, so the focus of what I do is professional development for teachers in using technology with students and so I was collecting kind of free websites and things over time and then I thought, “Gee, I’ve got quite a lot. I might put them into some kind of PDF,” and so I did that and then the PDF’s grown — I think I did the first one back in 2012 or ’11 or something and so pretty much every year I’ve just updated it and a few things have died off. Free websites send to die off more readily than, you know, apps where people are putting money in and investing in developing them properly — not properly, but, you know, continually investing in them, but the free ones, a lot of the free ones, like I said, are around, they’ve been around since those very early days and they are still in that guide and I’ll add new things as long as they come to, you know, across my laptop desk and just add them in each year and remove anything that’s died off then. But that’s grown quite a lot, now, so. Yeah, so, useful for anyone, teacher or not teacher. It’s a really good, sort of, list of things that you can use, there, which are all free.

Christopher: Awesome, and I know we do have a lot of teachers in our audience who I imagine are feeling both inspired and maybe even a little intimidated, listening to this conversation and realizing all of the opportunity that’s out there to leverage technology but, you know, aside from that list of resources, not necessary knowing where to start or how to incorporate this stuff into their teaching, you have an online community to help people just like that, the Midnight Music community. Can you tell us about what’s going on in there?

Katie: Yeah, and I think that you mentioned knowing what to do with it. That’s often the biggest question. So you know, lots of people, so, teachers that I deal with, they often have thrust upon them a device that they’re using with their students, so, you know, “Hey, teacher, we’re getting iPads next year,” and they’re kind of like, “Oh. Okay,” and in my early days of doing these, you know, I started off really running workshops for people and doing, sort of, software training and that sort of thing. It became very apparent that it was the, not how to use the software, it was more about what to do with it with the students that was the bigger question, you know? You can pretty easily find software, straight up software tutorials for anything online and Youtube and so on, or read the manual if anyone actually reads the manual apart from me. I do actually read the manual a lot of the time, but it was more about, “Yeah, I can work at how to use the software, but what is the idea, you know, that I’m gonna do with the kids?” and how to do it in a classroom and make it meaningful and useful and you don’t want to shoehorn technology for the sake of it, you know, you want to make it just a natural progression or my theory is to only use it if it’s actually helping what you’re teaching, and if it’s not, don’t use it. Like, just don’t use it at all. If it’s better for you to play and sing to demonstrate that the concept that you want the kids to learn, then do that, instead. But often I find you can pretty much, you know, often weave it in naturally into what you’re teaching and so my theory is always, you know, the singing and the playing usually comes first, but then you might want the kids to become more conscious about the clapping game that you’ve just done with them and therefore they might kind of work out, “Well, where did the beats fall?” and “Where does the rhythm fall in a bar?” and so you might take that rhythm and get them to sort of consciously work it out, and this is where that conscious listening comes in. And then they might transfer that into that Groove Pizza online drum sequencing tool that I mentioned earlier. So I do this, actually, exercise in one of my workshops. We do the boom-snap-clap clapping game, which is a simple clapping game with just three sounds in it and then we work out, “Okay, so how many sounds are there? Where do they fall, and in which order?” and then we go to Groove Pizza and we recreate the boom-snap-clap rhythm in there and that’s quite nice and easy to do and then, you know, the next progression might be to compose to go with that so a melody or perhaps to write a rap that goes over the top of the backing that you’ve just created. So I love this idea of weaving things in naturally as you go and I think when I started there was a lot of ostriches and teachers who were like, “I’m sure if I just ignore this technology thing it will go away,” and in the early days when I was writing workshops there was access to technology but it wasn’t a massive part of the curriculum but now it’s a mandated part of the curriculum, you know, teachers actually kind of have to include it, so they were often looking for ways to do that and I’ve seen a big shift in the attitude towards technology. I think a lot of people have realized that yes, it actually can help and it can enhance what you do and there are some great things you can do with technology that you can not do without it and so, you know, in that way, it’s a really good thing, but like I said, if it’s not working and it’s not gonna help, then don’t use it, but, yeah.

So my online community is essentially, the thing I set up, I started off running workshops and then progressed into online courses at one point and I ended up with a whole stack of different online courses and in the end I thought, “This is really hard, because my audience is so split between Australia and the States, and, you know, other places in Europe. To run an online course at a specific time that works for everyone just, it wasn’t, you know, an easy thing to do, and our school years are also at opposite ends, so here in Australia it’s towards the end of our school year. We’re about to hit summer, we’re finishing up for the year and in the States, for instance, you know, you’re kind of halfway through that school year, so to run workshops or online courses that would work for everyone just, it was a hard thing. So I ended up having this online community and putting everything in there. You can access it at any time and it’s such a better setup for me and everybody else, as well and so that’s what we do. We talk about lesson plan ideas and there are software tutorials in there, too but that’s always the focus is, what’s the thing you’re teaching? Is it songwriting or the blues or, you know, some rhythmic sort of thing. Are you teaching how to do drum patterns, and so on and so that’s the big focus and it’s lots of fun.

Christopher: Amazing. I think that’s such a valuable problem to be solving. I’m really glad that you are out there helping music teachers in this way, because I feel their pain. I know how frustrating it can be when they, as you say, have the iPad thrust on them or they can just see how cool it could be to leverage technology but without someone to kind of walk them through some examples and explain as you just did, you know, it can be a part of your syllabus, part of your lesson plan, not the be-all, end-all suddenly switch to technology. I think that’s such a wonderful thing to be doing.

Katie: Yeah, and it’s great. I mean, you see things — often I’m inspired by things I see online. So live looping is, like, this passionate area. I don’t get time to do it very much, but, you know, it’s the thing where you’ll see like, Ed Sheeran does this a lot. His — I think his latest tour, you know, show that he’s taking around the world is basically just him on stage and he can do that and have a full-sounding backing behind him because he’s using a live looping pedal and he, you know, he’ll play a little guitar riff and that’s recorded and plays back over and over and over, and then he’ll layer on another part on top of that and then he’ll layer another part on and something might be a rhythmic part and he builds up this amazing backing, just him onstage, and lots of people are doing this live looping thing. And then he can sing the song, turn parts on and off as needed during the song and be his own one-man band and I love this. There’s an iPad app which allows you to do this really easily instead of spending $300 or $400 on a guitar looping pedal, which is great. There’s an app called Loopy which I love and it’s been featured on the Jimmy Fallon Late Show quite a lot. So in seeing things like that in action, I’m kind of, like “Oh, kids would love to do that, I’m sure,” and so therefore I ended up creating, a, you know, video tutorial for the teachers on how they could incorporate this with students at all levels and on a really basic level but then the kids that are really into it can take it a lot further as well and yeah, so I’m often inspired by the multi-tracking acapella videos on YouTube, as well. I’ll often get asked, “How would I do that with my kids, ” you know? Those ones where you’re watching and you can see the same person singing eight different parts or nine parts on the screen and you can see them in different boxes in the video and, you know, doing that sort of thing. That’s gonna be one of my upcoming tutorials, is how you could do this with students, you know, on a simple level. It’s not that easy to do that one, but, you could do it, I’m sure.

Christopher: Very cool. Well, I love the insights you’ve shared today, both for the musician in the car waking up their ears, listening along, to the music teacher who is trying to do very specific technology-oriented tasks, and I would highly recommend, whether you’re listening to this as a musician, a self-taught musician, maybe, or you’re a music teacher, definitely head to, where you will find all that Katie publishes as well as information on that community you mentioned. Thank you so much, Katie, for joining us today.

Katie: Thanks for having me. Great to talk to you, Christopher.

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