I didn’t feel the need to keep a day by day accounting of the album covers I chose like in the previous post, however, I think I will mention the combination of day 2 and day 3, and why they struck me as significant. Significant in part because they were both introductions to several aspects of music for me. Coincidentally both of these albums found their way to me around the same time.
In the case of the Low End Theory; yes it was a big deal for me culturally because I was a teenager growing up in NYC, and I was starting to form my own opinions about Hip-hop. From my teenage point of view, I started down an explorations of sounds from this album which enviably led to a greater appreciation of jazz. Which is not difficult to hear in tracks like “We Got The Jazz”. I didn’t see it then, but the intersectionality of both of these forms of music is why I still listen to both genres today.
The other album covers is about the first brass quintet in saw live. The American Brass Quintet often performed recitals around NYC. My trumpet teacher at the time insisted her studio go to Lincoln Center to listen, learn, and enjoy. I remember hearing Ewald, an arrangement of Elizabethan music, Eric Ewazen, and perhaps some Gunther Schuller.
In any case, I became an instant fan of the group and soon after saving up some cash to buy their album. I can point to that concert as the inception of my love for brass chamber music, and my obsession with brass quintet literature.
On a typical day I feel like I get to move around a fair amount. With conducting ensembles and moving around campus, I might even say I am very active. On occasion I might get a work out before my day starts. However, since the coronavirus era of teaching started, my movements have been more confined. I move from my bedroom, to the garage to the room in my house which serves as my virtual workstation. A bathroom break every once and again. With the occasional trip to the kitchen for coffee and meals.
My eyes get tired, so I can do several things to help with that part of my virtual experience. My ears get fatigued from wearing headphones for too many hours, so I change my audio situation from cans to speakers now and again. However, the part that is surprising to me, is that my back and legs are sore. To no ones surprise a comfortable chair is an important items needed for this much virtual teaching while sitting. Along with the options of standing or walking while teaching sometimes, might in fact be necessities for this type of work.
II guess moving forward, I’ll have to get specific about changing my routine and perhaps investing in a recliner….for teaching purposes of course.
Live sound in a virtual space:
Now that things are settling into what seem more and more a regular routine, I started to ask some fundamental questions about the user experience within my virtual platform.
- How is the sound of my voice received by my students?
- When I speak or demonstrate on my instruments, what exactly are my students hearing through their speakers, earbuds or headphones?
After recording myself using the USB microphone mentioned in a previous post, I figured out the mic I am currently using works better for speaking into and not prolonged playing into through my digital classroom. For recordings a Soundtrap track or a live performance situation in Microsoft Teams, an audio interface with another microphone really works better for the those circumstances.
In my case, plugging in a Scarlett 2i2 and using an MXL 770 condenser mic worked wonders for controlling the sound I wanted my students to hear, as I demonstrate in virtual classrooms. However, when ever I need to speak, the USB-mic works much better for me. Switching back and forth was just a toggle of a button in Teams and each situation felt better to my ears.
It’s been three weeks of teaching band and orchestra in a digital space, and I still working out the kinks.
Duet with myself:
Today starts the 3rd week of the spring term. Some things feel normal and routine, as mentioned in the previous post and other things feel new. One of the actives I enjoy doing with students is active listening of music. This typically involves listening to a piece of music or two with students and then asking students questions about the piece(s) of music we listened to.
What is the instrumentation or orchestration of this piece?
Tell me about the meter of this piece?
And one of my favorites, Does this sound like anything you’ve heard before?
The discussions can go in many directions, and I enjoy the different lanes of exploration when we do. But today I start an alternative aspect to the usual set of questions to my students.
Since the beginning our venture into our virtual classrooms this month, my students have spent a significant amount of time recording themselves and listening back. The reactions from some has been totally surprising to me. I’ve consistently hear comments like “I can’t believe I sound like that” and “is that what I sound like”. Part of the issue for some students is not understanding how to get the cleanest sound from their microphones. The other issue is, really listening to oneself can be a jarring and humbling experience. Especially when you have been taught to listen to and become part of the sound around you. Which to my ears as their teacher, also means that I have been very focused on creating a group sound and not giving enough attention to the sound of my individual students.
To help my students learn to listen to themselves and be active in the evolution of their own sound, I’ve asked students to start using apps like Soundtrap to record duets with themselves. With the goal of having students learn to really listen to themselves, and know what they want from their own voice. With this in mind I think eventually I’ll add assignments for students to play all voice parts to chorales. As both a study for their sound and as a theory assignment. If the coronavirus ear of teaching continues, we may even have an entire exhibition of student original works for analog instruments and computer.
When considering the word “teams”, one inevitably starts to think about groups of people who work together. Until a few days ago, if you were to do a search of “teams”, using any internet search browser you’d likely get a bunch of sports related articles or sports related images. Now that we are hitting the 3rd week of working and teaching remotely because of covid-19, “Teams” as in Microsoft Teams is the only result seen on the first page when doing a web based search.
I am fortunate to work so close to Redmond Washington, where Microsoft is headquartered. My good fortunes also means, I get to work at a place which has a relationship with the this multinational tech giant. And I gotta hand it to them, Teams for educators works great. My school went from teaching on our campus to teaching remotely almost seamlessly. Decisions were made, plans were sent and shortly after we were up and running.
As an orchestra and band teacher, it’s been a great tool and a fantastic way of delivering instruction. As mentioned in a previous post, figuring out how to utilize the private channels in Teams as virtual practice rooms has been a game changer. Having students set up in small groups in these channels where they can talk to one another, listen to each other and help each others, make the idea that our class is a community a reality.
Tools for the job:
As mentioned in a previous post, I want to take the time to talk about specific tools used in my day to day virtual classrooms. First, I feel the need to mention that the hardware and software I use are just my preference of tools, and these are the one which I am comfortable using. Certainly there are more gadgets and gizmos out there, and I’d love the opportunity to work with many of them.
Today I’ll tell you about the hardware I find most crucial for my virtual teaching of music. On my desk currently is a MacBook Pro, with a Arturia MiniLab mkII, and a Samson “Satellite” USB Broadcast Microphone. The mic is a dual 16mm condenser mic with several settings. Omnidirectional, unidirectional (cardioid), and bidirectional which is more of a figure-8 pattern. After trying several setting the first week, I’ve settled on the omnidirectional patter. Since I am teaching in a small room, this pattern seems to captures more of my room, so I can walk away from my camera to demonstrate or take part in an activity and still be heard by my students.
The MiniLab mkII, is a midi keyboard and comes with a suite of easy to use digital instruments. So far the most useful one has been Analog Lab. It has, what seem to be thousands of piano and keyboard settings. I can tell you more about the software in a later post, the midi keyboard itself is sturdy and quite solid. It doesn’t move around on my desk and all the controls are easy to access. You will need an adapter or a dongle if your computer only has USB Type-C ports, as it uses a standard USB cord.
The MacBook Pro has been the workhorse of my real-life classroom and my virtual classroom. I don’t know much about the 2.7 GHz Quad-Core Intel Core i7 processor in the machine, all I know is that it works and it is fast enough for me to teach and run a boat load of apps and tools that help me teach music.
There you have it, those things and a bluetooth set of headphones by Beats is what I am currently using. If I make a change, I’ll let you know.
vs. and Performance based curriculum:
Over the years I’ve gone back and forth between teaching a project based curriculum versus a performance based curriculum. At least for me, taking a deep dive in performance meant having students work on a challenging pieces of music and pulling curriculum from the practical application and the process of learning music for a performance. By contrast, when I’ve set a term or unit as project based learning, I give students a larger concept and have them create based on the theme. For these projects, I tell student “the answer is yes (for what every they want to propose doing), but do you have enough time to do and do it well?”.
With both options I tend to think backwards from a presentation to the introduction. The question “What would it look like if…?”, pops up often when I do this kind of thinking. It’s part of my process for teaching music in the school I am currently teaching.
Since we are in this moment working in virtual spaces, it’s only fitting to have students operate and be creative artist in these spaces as well. But with the uncertainty to an end for our remote learning environment, it seems fitting to combine the project and the performance based curriculum to test the limits of both within these spaces.
Currently I am toying with the idea of having students do both, by taking them step by step through a design cycle in which they learn to use digital tools (DAW), that serve our performance needs as an ensemble. This seems like the only choice if students are to continue to be performers on their instruments. Especially in the event we get to meet in person back in our rehearsal space and have a few week to put together a performance. I’m certain it seems unreasonable, but that’s where I’m at as a music teacher whose class is based around a public performance and presentation.
In making this decision for my classes, I have moved into a space where I need to bring several elements of music education together sooner that usual for me. For example, their performance assessments will be tied to theory assignments. The assessments will need to be recored and submitted online. In the past I would have student do all this work in person and do it all one step at a time. When I do it this way, it seems that piecing those elements together, berfore a performance (about 3 or 4 weeks), is a good way for the bulk of my students to gain a deeper understanding for both process and product. For many of my students that is usually the “aha moment”. The point where all those random exercises and assignment line up in their minds, and, it seemed as if it was logically constructed all along to the process of making music.
Perhaps this is my “aha moment”, as we continue working in this unprecedented time and space.
Today was full of meetings (non-instructional time) and grading assignments. However, my last class of the day offered signs of encouragement. I met with the beginning band students and we started working with their instruments in an interactive space provided by the company which publishes the text books my students use. The sign up process took a bit of time, but eventually most of my students got on to the system and were using it successfully.
The class met with me in a general channel for a group activity around posture and the importance of breathing for performance with wind instruments. After completing a short assignment, students were given instructions in our class channel to sign up for the interactive space from their text book. Upon getting most of the students signed up successfully, they then transitioned into their perspective virtual practice rooms. The assignment within this virtual room was to practice, and optionally, record and upload their individual performance of the exercises.
Some students did manage to record their practice sessions. However, the heartwarming part was when I entered one of the virtual practice rooms to find a student sharing their screen and leading the rest of the group through the exercises. This experienced player demonstrated leadership beyond my instruction, and made me proud of all of my students as we adapt to this new normal.
In the words of the notable thought entrepreneur, “Today was a good day.” – Ice Cube
The Good, The Bad, and The Surprising:
After a few days of meeting with classes and individually with students, I’m finding the work happening in this virtual space is providing great opportunities to work with students one on one. Setting aside time to chat with my advises has been really helpful. Meeting with a few of the stronger musicians together in my orchestra, and listening to them play through etudes has been good for the indiviualiezd instruction I can’t offer students in class settings with an entire orchestra in the room.
However, today after meeting with my beginning band, my biggest fear about the delay in communication was confirmed. Realtime action over this system is not possible with the software tools I am currently running. Breathing exercises and stretches are communicated well enough through the digital systems. Anything involving realtime playing with a group did not work. Working with visual aids worked well on computers, some students had trouble with access on their tablets and smart phones. However, when we used the in-app whiteboard and other in-app visual aids, student interactions seem about the same as in person. I wrote on the white board and asked students one at a time to mark up the answers then sent them to another resource that covers the same material.
The next step is to have students record themselves playing the exercises a few at a time, then upload that as a graded assignment. I am fortunate students and I have access to an interactive classroom, and an audio digital workstation, where student can record themselves playing exercises and send it directly to me. To my surprise one students put a drum track to their major scales assignment.