Going Forward: Online and In Person Music Making

This article will be speculative of what’s to come and reflective on the past year including the transition from in person to remote/hybrid lessons, classes, ensembles, and other music making activities.

This has been written with US perspective, in the NY/NJ area where the handling of the current global pandemic may differ from what some readers may have experienced thus far.


Lessons and Classes

Early March 2020 shutdowns ceased the majority of in person music lessons in the US flowing into a period of transition as teachers and their students had to work to figure out unfamiliar terrain such as audio/video recording equipment, video call platforms, internet stability, etc. Most experienced the growing pains of this strange time, and as a result there was a lot of flexibility in the first several months of the pandemic as everyone was navigating new territory.

However, university students had this much more cut and dry. If you were enrolled into a university, lessons are typically mandatory for students, and so they know what to expect. Outside of this formality were students in independently owned music schools, independent studios both locally-based and ones run online.

At their core these groups were impacted similarly to university lessons with the exception of the independent online studios that ran prior to the pandemic. Of course, there were some waves for this latter group with the influx of demand for remote lessons.

Most teachers can agree that teaching students, especially brand new or transfer students, remotely is one major hurdle. The shift from being in the same room as the student: being able to full assess what they are doing (as well as picking up on nonverbal cues), having a sense of control when it comes to distractions/environment, being able to make real time adjustments, and significantly less anxiety (most notably related to technology, especially poor internet connection). To then having to rely on the student having enough support at home to get set up; that the student has a relatively quiet and distraction/anxiety-free place they can work; getting the student’s attention for a significant portion of the lesson while also keeping up student morale; and on top of that being able to see and hear the student well enough to be of any help.

For university students who are self-sufficient or intrinsically motivated this is a less daunting task, but with extrinsically motivated or young or less mature students this being exponentially more challenging.

I’ve seen some teachers do outside or drive-by lessons with young or new students; maintaining social distancing, and sometimes separation by a screen/glass shield. This, of course, was easier during the warmer months, and now with flu-season and generally colder weather this is a less viable option.

Some teachers have tried using online creator’s videos to supplement information for still young, but more motivated students.

The overall take away is that the transition from in person to remote (or hybrid) lessons is really about release of control. As the teacher you have no control over the technology or internet stability of your students, you don’t have control of the distractions in their space, and you can’t get their attention as easily as you would be able to if you were in the room with them. Each student will have a varying level of control over their own situation – depending on their age and level of sufficiency. And on both sides there needs to be some empathy, when a large portion of the world isn’t able to experience live music the priority of lessons shouldn’t be music making it should be about the human connection. The music can follow.


Ensembles

Similar to lessons, music ensembles also ceased in early to mid-March. In my own experience, I did not have another ensemble experience until the Fall semester, there was so much chaos that they got pushed to the back burner and this really messed with my mental wellbeing – as someone who relies on that connection with other people to create music.

For some musicians – such as string players – opportunities to play live were much more available than they were for wind players. For obvious reasons, string players are able to wear masks and still play. Of course, I did see a few ensembles with wind players outside, distanced to play together, but these were mostly brass only ensembles (as woodwinds are significantly more fragile/sensitive to the outdoors). My own university used a parking garage to record both the choirs, band, and strings in this past Fall 2020 semester x.

Many people turned to online platforms to replicate the same type of ensembles and/or music that they would otherwise. Commonly (even pre-pandemic) you might see people on social media doing covers of pieces they like using apps like Acapella or just a video editing software and putting all the videos together to make a one-person (or sometimes several people) into a remote ensemble. Or they may use DAWs like Soundtrap, BandLab, or GarageBand to record trap to edit together.

I really have no idea when people will feel safe enough to assemble inside for ensembles. And this poses challenges for public school music ensembles in which the students heavily rely on the rehearsal time in order to prepare their own part and learn about the music as they are still developing the skills to be able to read and interpret music, and have enough maturity to be accountable to do so. For my own track as an educator I would strongly recommend making the music making experience less rigid/formal; set aside the standard of excellence and superiority. I’ve seen some schools forgo any type of concert schedule this year, instead focusing on technique and fundamentals.

I disagree with this decision because I feel that the students (who typically already dislike technique work) are going to EXTRA not like it when they have nothing to counteract it. Think about the students (there’s always a handful) who act out in there other classes, but then come to music class – whether that’s guitar club, music technology or just regular old band – and they get to just escape for however long that block period is. Instead, in this hypothetical situation, this type of student is being giving this gritty, mentally taxing work and we have no context for how their life has shifted since the start of the pandemic: what’s going on at home, is there stress and anxiety? Do they have siblings that are competing for technology, attention, etc? Are they giving care to younger siblings or even older family members? Of course we have standards and objectives that need to be followed for these ensembles, however, the material does not need to so rigid.

I would argue that the most important to skill during this time are the students ears. Perhaps you ask them to cover a song they like – they could do it on their instrument (for the class), an instrument they have at home, or with a DAW/MIDI software and you give guidelines for this type of ‘project’ that align with the standards and objectives you need to meet, but the students have so much more flexibility and will be honing the same skill while feeling like their choice matters.

It becomes very stressful – that same release of control – if we expect 9 and 10 year olds to teach themselves (even with the aid of adults at home) unfamiliar instruments. Teach them the skills they need – the two ears they have will be the best tool they need going forward for whatever musical path life takes them – and don’t worry that ‘they won’t be prepared for next year’ because no one will be. Patience. Flexibility. Prioritize.

Other Remarks

I can not emphasize this enough for the university folk who have been primarily classically trained… that is not the only path. Obviously.

Embrace the unknown, that this time as an informal professional development. What do you students listen to? Video game music? Rap? Movie soundtracks? Pop/J-Pop/K-Pop? Etc? Use this time now to immerse yourself in unfamiliar sounds and learn from them. Ask them to observe and actively listen; especially now with the unlimited access we have to music online you this to your advantage.

Take this time to learn about your students’ musical experiences outside the classroom. Do they make music at home? Do they have people in their house that play music? Community building is also essential – especially in public schools, cultivating and maintaining support for the arts is more important now than ever we need our art form to remain relevant for future generations to continue onwards.


How has the transition from in person to online impacted you this year?

Any additional ideas for lessons, classes, ensembles, etc going forward? Let me know in the comments!

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