Growing up in Ireland, Richard McCready's top two subjects in school were music and computer science. Those loves followed him to the United States, and to Howard County's Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge, where he started teaching music in 2001.
While there, McCready received a grant to buy six computers for the school's music lab. He had the students compose music using the program GarageBand, and as the county put more computers in school labs, he began writing lessons for other middle school music teachers. Eventually, composing music with GarageBand became part of the middle school music curriculum.
Then, McCready said, the River Hill director of bands, Joseph Fischer, "looked into the future" and realized the important role technology was playing in music and music instruction. With support from River Hill Music Boosters and The Cleaning Authority of Columbia, and with McCready's help, Fischer began offering music technology as a course in 2007.
The course was such a success that McCready joined the staff at River Hill the following year teaching music technology.
River Hill was the first county high school to have a modern music lab and in 2011 the school system expanded the program to other high schools. Last year, with the help of grant money, music labs were outfitted in every high school except Atholton, which will have a lab after current renovations are completed.
"They're all running the same software (ProTools), the same curriculum," McCready said. "There's software for music theory classes, guitar and piano classes, and we have everything we need to support that curriculum."
Recently, McCready, 45, was honored with the Technology Institute for Music Educators 2013 Mike Kovins TI:ME Teacher of the Year Award for his teaching and for the program he helped develop. He accepted the award Feb. 15 at the TI:ME national conference in San Antonio.
McCready, who has been playing music nearly all of his life, has a wide-ranging repertoire: piano, organ, guitar, harp, tuba and voice. With degrees from England and Ireland's Sullivan Upper School, Royal Northern College of Music and Manchester Polytechnic's Didsbury College of Education, McCready also has a Master of Music degree in tuba performance and a Master of Music in vocal performance from Towson University.
A first-time nominee and recipient, McCready said he first joined TI:ME nine years ago because he was excited to see an organization recognizing creativity and hard work in his burgeoning field. In addition to that, he said, he idolizes past winners, who he considers to be members of music technology's "Hall of Fame."
"It's an honor," said McCready, who also serves as the school system's resource teacher for music technology. "And the award is voted on by previous winners, and they're the ones who know our work and what it takes to do this, and the need to be creative every single day in what we do. ... This is a subject where the actual media changes all the time, and we have to constantly reinvent what we do."
The computer as an instrument
McCready, who has been teaching music since 1990, said that up until the middle of the 20th century, even if a musician didn't have a full-time job playing their instrument, there still were plenty of opportunities to play "on the side" with a regional or town band.
The continual advent of technology, however, has both decreased the demand for live musical performances and upped the stakes for those musicians. Many bands and orchestras at the high school level, for example, require an audition, pre-test or pre-requisite for admission, closing the door to many young musicians who want to explore different aspects of their craft.
And until recently, the only paths to pursue music in college were studying music performance or education, further limiting options for young musicians.
That's where McCready and the growth of the music technology field come in.
"This is where we catch the kids who have been denied an education because they're not in band, or choir, or the orchestra for whatever reason," McCready said, sitting in his River Hill classroom, filled with computers loaded with the latest recording software, and students in his Advanced Music Technology class. "We have this whole performance thing dominating American music education ... But here we have kids learning technological skills with musicianship, composition, theory, all through the computer. Instead of a clarinet being their instrument, the computer is their instrument."
Furthermore, many colleges are now offering majors in music technology, business and therapy, as well as songwriting and composition. Students in McCready's class also see their lessons as preparation for a career — the software used by the music technology class, ProTools, is an industry standard, McCready said, which means his students can be prepared for any number of jobs in the recording and music industries.
"Everything you hear on your iPod, it's done through (ProTools)," said River Hill junior Steve Kenney, 16. "For me, learning this is a backup plan: I want to write and perform my own music. Even doing that, I want to be able to connect with engineers, be able to know the terms and how things work."
The desire to create
Unlike some other music courses in county high schools, there are no pre-requisites or pre-tests to take a music technology class, McCready said. The biggest reason for that, McCready said, is that it's not fair to test a student on something he or she hasn't been taught.
"My job is to teach them music," said the Columbia resident. "I want every kid to have the same chance, and the only pre-requisite should be that you want to make music."
His students like it that way.
"Music is for everyone, said Austin Kline, a 17-year-old senior. "(For this class) you don't have to have a background in music, and that's awesome — I'm not a music student."
Some students don't play instruments at all, while others said they did but weren't very good at it.
"Instruments were a hard concept for me," said Casey Marciniak, 16, a junior. "It wasn't a good experience, and I had a hard time learning. When I came to this class, it wasn't the case. I didn't need a music background. You learn as you go, and you learn by composition. ... When you come in, you don't have to know anything — and you shouldn't have to — about making music."
Ultimately, McCready said, his students just want to be there.
"Kids want to do this," he said. "They want to be able to create music. The desire to create is huge in the human being — Little kids start picking up instruments and they don't want to suddenly learn a piece by Chopin. They want to start making their own sounds and we need to channel that in the right direction so kids know creativity is something to be honored and to be valued."