Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 1

It’s hard to imagine how someone could remotely teach an interactive music class like an orchestra or band, but given the current situation, with Seattle being the epicenter of the Coronavirus, this is now my new reality as an instrumental music instructor. This week starts our three-week (or until further notice) experience teaching and learning in a digital space. The concept of remote teaching isn’t new;  in fact, in music, students and instructors have been connecting digitally for decades and in real time. However, with less than a week’s notice, I had to think about, and then quickly become, a virtual orchestra and band instructor.

Fortunately, today marks the start of a new term and all that comes with starting over. Somethings are familiar, like the online portals for assignments and grades. Attendance is taken and I still have to manage the class the same way I would as if I were physically in the same room with students. I’m finding out that by already having set the expectations at the beginning of the year in my physical classroom, students are naturally carrying these over into the digital learning space.

Although there was a lot of prep to get this virtual teaching endeavor going, I think picking out the right tools and setting up both my physical space and digital environment will pay off. In the weeks to come I’ll try my best to document what tools worked for me and what tweaks I end up making along the way.

Day 1 down…more to come.

My Old Notebooks

I usually carry a notebook in my backpack. It’s become a habit for me to just pull it out and jot down what’s on my mind or notes from a meeting, chord progressions, tone rows…anything I need to put on paper.  Sometimes I may even take a moment to review a notebook from its first page, so it functions as a journal as well. Dates may or may not be written in the notebook, the end of a thought might not be articulated due to some sort of distraction. In any case, I am fascinated by past me and those thoughts.

Recently I went looking through one of my old notebooks and found one of my melted thought-cicles on one of its pages. I referenced a picture of me and my dad. At the time he was diagnosed with cancer and I was in town to visit him. I can’t remember the reason for this particular picture or what were we staring at, but my notes about that moment seem more contemplative and vulnerable.

I lost him 6 months after that picture was taken, and I miss him. My guess is that my old notebooks are time machines because that particular entry took me right back to the moment that picture was taken, and I am lucky to have both to help me grieve.

 

My Experience With Classical Music This December

As a trumpeter within the symphonic musical sphere, I don’t always get to look into the audience and notice the demographics of the patrons. A few years ago I started to take stock of the audiences I get the opportunity to perform in front of in December. I wrote about this in a post called Color and Classical Music In December and thought it was just the nature of where I live (the Pacific Northwest) and the genre of music I’m asked to play.

Little has changed in my pattern of performance. I still get to play chamber music with big and small ensembles and larger works with symphonic orchestras. For example, I had the opportunity to play selections from J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, a mass by Palestrina, a few Tchaikovsky Nutcrackers, a brass quintet concert/sing-a-long, Christmas music for large brass ensemble and organ and of course a Messiah to boot.

Diversity is not as often in the audience as I would expect, however, we are coming out in support of these programs. The change for me is in the colleagues I get to perform with. I’m glad to see more Black, Latinx and Asian American soloists singing with the choirs I get to play with. I enjoy looking into the orchestras and chorus and making eye contact with other people of color and receiving a warm smile.

Having grown up on the east coast, I took for granted the diversity I saw at every rehearsal and in every classroom, I sat in.  Now in my 40’s, I’m glad to the changes where I now live.

Surprising to me still

When I think about things that upset me, I’m often surprised about the things that get me amped up and blood boiling. There are the usual thing like humans mistreating one another or lack of empathy toward suffering. You know…war, famine, wastefulness, bigotry, bullying, unnecessary shaming, miss using bacon to make other foods taste good, and on and on.

Those seem obvious and need not be mentioned, dealing with stupid humans and all of our feelings is part of the deal. However, I am caught off guard when I think I am in control of a process and find myself (and or the people I work with) are adversely affected. The fear for me is that the work we do will be judged not by our best effort, but by the shortcomings of the environment around us.

Teaching in the ARTS feels that way sometimes. We often need to overcome a situation or innovate around an obstacle. Some are within your control and you can deal with those issues. Logistics of getting equipment from one place to another, moving bodies from one place to another, learning to perform and have students feel the safety of a group of people working together to create something, are things I feel I can affect.

Dealing with issues for which you see coming and can’t control, is a set of muscles I need to strengthen. To my surprise, this infuriates me. Try as much as I do, sometimes I just can’t hide it. I need to learn this skill….eventually I’ll learn.

This might work out

I recently changed the curriculum of one of my classes to be a more project-based class. My want and desires are to give students an opportunity to dig deeper into a musical subject. As to not make my classes all about performance. It seems as if the only context given for learning about the history and theory related to piece is solely to prepare a student’s ability to connect with what they are performing. That approach worked great for my higher-level performers, and it didn’t reach students who were still learning (or relearning) the fingerings on their instrument. That is a subject for another day.

The class looks more like this, I pick a subject or an artist and we do the following things.

  • Make Connections
  • Respond to Art
  • Create
  • Perform

Since I look at this as a cycle, I tend to do these when the class is ready to do them. Often I’ll introduce a piece of music as a listening assignment, we typically learn a melody related to the subject shortly after. Students are given assignments that are grade and given time to research the subject, (i.e go listen to music and learn something time).

About midway through the term, students come up with proposals for a project. Many of them are ambitious, but eventually, I keep them grounded.

By the end, students present their research about the subject. Some choose to put together a performance in groups, others choose to create a piece of visual art representing the subject. Some even put together a slide show with a particular point of view.

So far so good. Students have created some of the following:

Comic Strip

A children’s book

Created a short film (very short film)

Written and or performed in a one-act play

Like I said this may just work out.

 

 

Class Activity

I don’t usually past about class activities, however, I am making this exception because I’m enjoying the fruit of the activity. On the first day of school, I asked my students to create a playlist of tune to represent how they would like their school year to go. As I tend to do, I put together a playlist of my own as an example to give students a little insight into who I am as a person and some of my musical taste.

Here is my list:

  • Golden by Jill Scott from Beautifully Human cause that’s how I want to feel this year.
  • South Bronx by Boogie Down Productions from Criminal Minded, because that’s where I’m from, and I’m proud of that fact.
  • Mi PC by Juan Luis Guerra from Ni Es Lo Mismo Ni Es Igual, cause I’m Dominican and his music reminds me of these roots as well.
  • Cold Sweat by James Brown & His Famous Flames from Cold Sweat, need no explanation…it’s Jame Brown!
  • Doctone by Branford Marsalis from the album Requiem, mainly because it reminds me of being a graduate student. I was constantly afraid of being discovered as a fraud and when I was most doubtful of myself this record was the soundtrack to finding my center and getting myself together during that time.
  • Giant Steps by John Coltrane from the album Giant Steps, because it’s an amazing piece of art and it’s what I want for my students. I want them to make significant moves toward their goal this year.
  • The End by the Airways was a tune introduced to me by a student, and it reminds me that I learn as much from them as they from me.

Some of the tunes picked by my students were cool, here are a few of them:

Hope you enjoy these tunes, I just added them to a class playlist and revisit them with students in a few weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes.