Sorry Kermit, It Really Is Easy Bein’ Green

By Brad Thew, WMEA Vice President, Southwest District

How do you engage your students in focused practice? How do you effectively evaluate that practice? And how do you share a student’s progress with their parents? This is a significant list of activities that are both necessary and valuable for maintaining a strong music classroom. We all work to engage students to practice, and practice well. We want to be able to measure that work in a way that provides meaning to the students and data for the teacher. We also need to be engaging the parents in this process. The parents do a lot of heavy lifting for our programs. They encourage their children to practice, help them remember what they need in class any given day, bring them to concerts and are their child’s biggest cheerleaders.

Green_ScreenFor the past three years, the Viroqua Bands have been using green screen technology to engage students, staff and parents in projects that link students to focused practice, staff to meaningful evaluation and parents to value our music program and encourage their children at a level we have not experienced in the past. These green screen projects revolve around a “Video Postcard” that students create, film and send to their parents or other significant adult in their lives. Our video postcards have evolved from a quick exercise in the lesson book to music performances of video postcards for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Veterans Day and even Christmas.

Green-screen technology, also known as chroma key, has been around for over 80 years and had its beginnings at RKO Radio Pictures. The process involves filming or taking a photo of the principal subject against a background of a single color. This color needs to be of a very narrow range, usually blue or green because these colors are furthest from our skin tone. The portion of the video or picture that match the pre-selected background color are replaced by an alternate background video or photo. This process is called “keying” or “keying out.” We see this process before our eyes every night when we watch the weather on television. The meteorologist stands in front of a chroma-key set and gives the forecast, while their video and photos of the weather are “keyed” into the video feed.

When the Viroqua Bands began the process of green screening, we had a Mac computer, the Apple Photo Booth program and a bright green sheet of cloth we purchased at a local big-box store. Those early video postcards were fun for the students to create and even more enjoyable for the parents. Parents still rave about their children’s postcards and how the entire family continues to enjoy them. Those early attempts were clunky and did not allow for video editing, or individual creativity beyond the setup of the video and the background. Today with the onset of more chroma key apps, we are able to do much more. We can change the background within a single video multiple times, we can lay our video over another video, we can link other web-based resources to our videos and we can even film live in a professional-looking virtual news set (that isn’t really there).

These changes are part of the growth of green screen technology and its use in more and more schools. Viroqua uses two different apps in our video postcard projects. The easiest to use and the most popular app with the students is “Green Screen by Do Ink ($2.99 at the App Store). Most of our sixth grade students become quite proficient in just one use. This allows the students to be self-directed learners and coaches. This app allows for the use of different colors of chroma keys makes the layering of video, background and animations very simple. From a single iPad, you can find your backgrounds, create your videos and animations, layer it all together and share out your finished project in one seamless app on one single device.

DSCF0112This fall we began using Touchcast Studio (free at the App Store and currently in beta testing for the Android platform) by Touchcast. This is one of the most amazing and powerful video apps we have ever used. The basic idea is the same as any green screen app, however with Touchcast Studio, you can add video and web links called “vaps” into your video. You place these vaps within the broadcast/video and when the viewer sees them they can click on the vap and they are taken to the link you have embedded! You can pause the video and explore the vap and then go back and continue the video. This seamless switching between contexts is a great tool for students working on a CMP project or any culminating project.

So how does your school or music organization begin the process of developing a green screen project? The first step is to decide if this is the right tool for your program’s tool box. We have found this project to be very effective in engaging students in high levels of autonomy, mastery and purpose. These three elements are key to creating high levels of student motivation that can be lacking in most of our day to day assignments and activities. Students want to play their music perfectly for these video postcards, because they are creating these videos for loved family members, students want to reach a level of musical excellence that excite us as their educators. So if you decide you want to use this technology, what is the next step? Ask around your school and see if staff members already have the hardware to make green screen video. If your school does not have the materials for green screen video production you can get set up for less than $120. If your school has an iPad that you can use, you will need to purchase an app (Green Screen from Do Ink for $2 or Touchcast for free), a green screen and some lighting (available on Amazon for just $115.00) and a dedicated space to make your videos.

Now it is up to you! Help your students to be more thoughtful musicians, help your parents know what is happening in the music room, and help collect data on how your students are progressing in their growth as musicians. Begin your green screen voyage today!

If you would like to discuss this process in more detail, or would like to share thoughts and plans, feel free to contact me. I would love to help in any way I can.