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!

Prescreening and audition season is just around the corner.

My last November as an undergraduate student preparing for my graduate prescreenings was a complete blackout of stress and crying. As a high school student preparing for undergraduate auditions I was utterly baffled as to how anything worked and whether or not I was sufficiently prepared. Here is some advice to help keep you on track this audition season:

The organizational requirements…

  • What are the audition fees?
  • Is there a prescreening required (are there rounds)?
  • Can it be in person or can it be a tape?
  • What are the audition dates (is it during the week or weekend)?

Planning how many schools you apply to – planning your budget for school fees AND audition fees. Keep in mind that usually the school of music has a separate fee from the university you are applying to – don’t stretch yourself too thin.

Know if there is just one round of auditions or if you are required to send in a prescreening. If there is… do you need to have an accompanist? Is there specific repertoire for prescreening? Do you have or need to get equipment for a high quality prescreening (nowadays phones are pretty good, but you might want to invest in a good microphone to present your playing in the best light. Here is one mic recommendation (Zoom iQ6) that is compatible with iOS.

Do you need to plan to travel? If the school is out of state/international are you eligible to send in a tape? With COVID schools are more likely to accept tapes than live auditions so you may be able to forgo unnecessary travel. Also with planning look ahead at your schedule – what are the specific dates for your instrument? Clear your schedule 3-4 months in advance to avoid issues during audition season.


The music requirements…

  • Is your instrument in good shape?
  • What scales do you need prepared?
  • What repertoire do you need prepared?*
  • *Two contrasting pieces or movements is a very commonly asked requirement. Clarify with the faculty at the school you are applying or your teacher what would be appropriate.

The first thing you should consider before preparing for auditions is the condition of your instrument. You do not want to have your instrument break down or put off a much needed service during audition season. Get it taken care of BEFORE you start preparing (at least 3 months) before your auditions so that you have one less thing to worry about!

Ask the faculty (if not abundantly clear on the audition list) what scales you will be required to play. What kind of articulation? Is there a preference for tempo and rhythm (band style v. straight eighths)?

Again ask the faculty if you have any confusion about the repertoire listed. Is there a specific edition asked for?


Mental preparation

  • Remember: The faculty are not looking for someone who is perfect, they are looking for someone they can TEACH. If you make a few mistakes that is fine, it’s how you handle them and respond to feedback that is so much more important!!
  • Practice tip: Work on starting pieces/excerpts once you feel like you’ve got a piece down. If you are able to get yourself centered, comfortable with the opening of pieces it will help maintain stability throughout. If you are nervous starting a piece, you may start to snowball.
  • Practice tip: Closer to the audition date (1 month or so) practice with the increased heart rate, high energy. Go run up/down the stairs; do jumping jacks; etc. before you run a piece to help acclimate to the way your body responds under stress.
  • Plan out your day of the audition so that you know what to expect. Will there be exams (theory/ear training)? Will you have an interview? Knowing what to expect can help alleviate some of the audition day anxiety.

What tips do you have for college auditions? Share them in the comments below!

7 months into this ever evolving pandemic teachers continue to search for stability and familiarity in their classrooms. Both veteran and new teachers alike are on a new – unfamiliar – playing field where there are far more questions than answers. Outside of the public school teaching scene, being an instrumental studio teacher is just as uncertain. There is a lot that gets lost without being able to be in the same room with students. Many families and even teachers have tried to make accommodations to replicate in-person lessons, but these past months have been completely new terrain as everyone has different levels of comfort and concerns when it comes to their healthy and safety.

The purpose of this article will be ideas regarding instruction methods, ways to keep students present, and foster positive classroom relationships with students and studios.


1. Encourage time away from screens.

  • Students are spending the majority of their days in front of computers – whether or not they are physically attending schools. In their free time they may be adding to their screen time; therefore, it is important to reinforce activities that either don’t involve technology or are low tech.
  • If there is a way to have the student listen to you (rather than be sat in front of a computer) and be physically doing something or exploring the space around them.
    • For example, you could send your student colored construction paper to represent musical notes and have them practice improvising songs by assigning notes to colors. Rearrange the order of the color papers and see what types of combinations you both come up with.
  • If you are comfortable meeting somewhat in person, drive up/outside duets or chamber music, are nice change of pace in these isolating times.

2. Spend more time on establishing that safe classroom environment than forcing them to work.

  • Let the students lead the discussions. Prompt them with questions that will get them talking; if you have to start with a game to ease them into the lesson.
    • Some games I have seen are “This or That” similar to “Would You Rather” or you can ask them to pick an object/toy in the room that represents them or they find interesting.

3. Encourage activities or listening that can occur away from the instrument.

  • Recently, I have been taking Suzuki courses where daily activities are used to relate to instrument playing. Mental practice for older students – having them do simple analysis (noticing what the accompaniment is doing or outlining the dynamic arch) or for younger students, doing a coloring exercise while listening to music can be another way to get students away from screens and engaging with the lesson materials.

4. Be a cheerleader for the student.

  • Reinforce what the student does well, even if it is a small step.
  • You may never know exactly what is going on that can impact a student’s work or motivation; maintaining a safe and positive classroom environment can help with this. However, sometimes students still won’t feel comfortable sharing and that’s okay, you don’t need to have your student be an open book. Observe when the student starts to close off, and note their limits to start working within their comfort zone.

5. Be mindful of how you phrase criticism

  • While constructive criticism is completely necessary for improvement – ask yourself if there is a better way to communicate what you want the student to do:
    • For example, instead of saying “Don’t rush”… Have the student play it slow (half tempo), and ask them what they notice compared to how they played it before.
      • This can be effective because you are walking them through good practice techniques: slowing down muddy passages (and you can direct the student to gradually bump up the tempo). Then, prompting the student to lead the discussion with their own observations.

6. Don’t be upset if you get off track or you don’t accomplish as much as you planned.

  • The saying “it’s not the destination, but the journey” applies here – during these times you will most likely not see the progress you were expecting for a number of reasons. That’s okay.

How are you engaging your online students? Let me know in the comments below.