— You might play games with your kids at home. But would you send your kids to school to play video games?
You might if the teacher were Eileen Jahn, who teaches music at the St. Philip’s Academy in Newark, N.J. She’s one of 60 music educators around the country that have begun to integrate “Wii Music” into their regular curriculum.
Oh, don’t fret — Jahn isn’t ducking out to the Starbucks while the Wii teaches harmony to a roomful of third-graders. Rather, she’s using the quirky music game to introduce and reinforce material, such as matching and differentiating different pitches. And the kids?
“They are giddy with excitement when they walk into the room and see the Wii set up,” Jahn wrote in an e-mail. “Their aural skills are improving with every lesson, and they have developed rhythmic and improvisational skills as well.”
That’s music (ahem) to Nintendo’s ears. The powerhouse game company approached the National Music Education Association (or MENC) in late October — around about the same time that “Wii Music” hit store shelves — to see how the software might work in a classroom setting.
It’s working great for Helen Krofchick, a music teacher at Doby’s Mill Elementary School in Lugoff, S.C. She got the Wii and “Wii Music” in late November, and she’s already thrilled with the way her students are responding to it.
“It don’t know if (‘Wii Music’) was ever intended to be used in an educational setting, but I really appreciate that MENC and Nintendo got this collaboration together,” she says.
Nintendo’s Marc Franklin says that when MENC, the world’s largest music education organization, first saw the product demonstrated, they were very excited about the potential it had, both for the organization, and for the classroom.
“Once you see the product and you see the performance aspect of it, and people interacting with it, it clicks,” he says.
Although sales for “Wii Music” have been good — more than 865,000 units through Dec. 31, according to the NPD Group — the game wasn’t a runaway blockbuster for the company, like “Wii Fit,” or a critical smash, like “Super Mario Galaxy.” In fact, when you read the reviews, you get the sense that the free-form music game might be, well, a bit misunderstood. GameSpot, which awarded “Wii Music” a 6.5 (out of 10) rating, dismissed it as “not really a game.”
But reviews from cranky gamers don’t matter a bit to Kevin Marlatt, executive director of San Francisco’s Blue Bear School of Music, which partnered directly with Nintendo to get the Wii and “Wii Music” into the after-school programs it provides in classrooms around the city.
“I’ve read a lot of reviews about ‘Wii Music,’ and I think there’s a lot more depth to this program than people have initially given it credit for,” he says.
“Wii Music” doesn’t ask players to match beats, like “Guitar Hero” or “Rock Band.” Using the Wii Remote and Nunchuk controller, players can experiment with more than 60 different virtual instruments ranging from bagpipes to ukulele. They can play mini-games such as "Handbell Harmony" and "Pitch Perfect." And they can jam or improvise as part of an ensemble.
That’s the one feature that really hooked Krofchick, who says that younger kids can often be reluctant to improvise musically.
“Children spend a lot of their classroom time following specific directions — what to read, what to do — and very little time … actually expressing themselves in the arts,” she says. “Some can be shy to come forward and actually sort of jump in and try something.
“But if anything is presented to a child in the form of a game, it’s going to be much more student-friendly or kid-friendly,” she says. “For some reason, there doesn’t seem to be a fear there.”
Jahn, from the St. Philip’s Academy, recounts a story about a particular second-grade student who had been reluctant to participate in music class all year. “She would come in every day with an attitude that said, ‘I’d rather be anywhere but here,’” she says. “I tried everything in the book to get her involved, yet she was persistent.”
Then Jahn started using the "Pitch Perfect" mini-game in class, which asks players to distinguish different sounds. That’s when the light bulb came on, says Jahn. The student grew interested watching the other students play, and eventually, couldn’t wait to take her turn and earn points for her team.
“Since class that day, I have seen improvement in this student’s effort and attitude,” says Jahn. “She participates much more than she did, now even when we are not using the game.
“Something clicked that day for her, and although I can’t pinpoint exactly what it was, I know that a student who once told me, ‘I don’t like any kind of music’ now has a smile on her face when she comes to class.”