Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 6

Project based 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.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 5

Breakthrough Day:

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

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 3

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.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 2

Today I want to talk about my set up for online classes. As you might imagine, space is at a premium, considering the usual amount of space most music teachers need to instruct large ensembles on a regular basis. I typically work out of several locations when I’m on campus (my office, my classroom and sometimes our performing hall). I happen to share office space with a great group of teachers from other disciplines. We spend a lot of time talking interdisciplinary pedagogy so that we can collaborate and offer students a different perspective and deeper understanding of a subject. More on that in another post…

Yesterday, and today, was about running the nuts and bolts of our classroom norms; syllabus, important dates and an assignment. Lots of me “talking at students” with occasional questions from them seeking clarification. One bright spot, and a different aspect of the online experience, was having students describe their workspace at home with the group. Our seven o’clock am class felt more vibrant (than usual) with everyone digitally sharing their new and unique experience; we were showing individual selfies, and at the same time, we were very much a group of connected learners.  

Today, especially, showed me that my music students were as uncertain as I was about the technical tools needed for this digital school work environment. For example, I showed them a view of my physical space so that they could see what I like to keep within my reach when I work and practice. My tools include a trumpet, metronome, tuners, music stand, sets of books I need to use for classes, wireless headphones, mouse, keyboard, midi-keyboard, usb condenser mic, physical notebook, pencils, computer monitor, two laptops, two lamps, and of course, my smart phone (and smart watch – I know…).  I may have also had a sleeping poodle behind my chair, but with my earphones and mic, dog snores were undetected.

Stay tuned for a breakdown of the digital tools needed to make this remote music teaching/learning engine run and hum.

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.