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 4

Virtual Practice Rooms & Unintended Benefits

Today is starting to feel like things are getting into a rhythm. The first classes were a lot of “me” talking at kids and waiting for their responses, after a day of that I need to shorten the response time by students. Using the text section of our meeting was a handy tool especially for larger groups of students. It was like being on the receiving end of an intense text messaging conversation. The timing of your reactions was tantamount to your survival. With all that said, I know that the format for my largest class will need to change an individual project based class, as it seems we will be teaching and learning in our virtual classrooms till the end of April according to the latest news feeds.

The successes of the day come with the intermediate and beginning music classes. The classes were structured in smaller modules with two assignment tasks per class period. In my case, 85 minute class periods. Other teachers at my school structured their time this manner and seemed to have favorable results. I did the same with the idea that we would start our class period with some movement together (stretches or breathing exercisers) then moving to a topic related to our class theme. The academic work or the class assignment began at around the 20 minute mark of the session. Students then had a specific amount of time to work and come back to the virtual classroom, we then reviewed some of the materials, then move to the next task which involves students moving into virtual practice rooms. To work with their instruments (personal practice time), however, I popped in and out of the practice rooms and listen to their practice sessions.  

There were rooms with 3 or 4 students in each of the virtual practice space. The advantage of having these smaller meetings offered students an opportunity to have discussions about potential chamber music rep to practice or to help each other out with practice tips. This was an unintended benefit, however, I was glad to see it evolve before my eyes.

 

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.

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.

Music and Words

Last month my school had an assembly celebrating the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Every year I think about how my school celebrates MLK. In years past, when I taught at a small independent elementary and middle school, we kept it to many of his highlights and events.  Students learned about nonviolent protest, marches and other key figures of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Most of it was done to not upset young students or parents.

In that setting, I would use my lesson plans and classes as a space to explore more of the civil rights movement. Since I teach music, I could use several avenues or artist to explain the artistic reactions to many of the injustices that came as a result of Jim Crow laws or segregation. However, it still felt like I was just addressing the surface of this subject.

Now I teach at an independent middle school and high school so I can dive a bit deeper and have students explore more. It helps that students are also studying the civil rights movement and are becoming social-activists. But still, as a new faculty member, I don’t want to upset the apple cart and do too much too soon. So when the opportunity came up to include music in the MLK assembly, I jumped at the chance.

At first, the planners of the assembly didn’t want the school orchestra to play. It would have been a lot of moving parts with a for a fifty-minute program. Eventually, we compromised and had a string quartet playing arrangements of Lift Every Voice and Sing and We Shall Overcome. In between the two pieces, an excerpt of the speech Dr. King gave in 1966 came over the theater speakers. Toward the end of his speech, we started the play our version of We Shall Overcome.

This moment may be the turning point in how I address teaching MLK and the civil rights movement. This proved to be a powerful moment for the audience and set the tone for the assembly.

Things Students Say and Drizzical

After watching my colleague work herself silly conducting, planning and teaching the all-school musical, I came to a stark realization. The end of the school year can make us feel crazy like everything is closing up on all of us, students, teachers, and administrators. I’ve been especially loopy lately and so have my advisory students.

In a conversation with them today, we discussed some of our favorite musical genres and the artist we associated with those genres. For example, I mentioned classical music with Missy Mizzoli and Igor Stravinsky, jazz music with Charles Mingus, rap music with J Cole. At least those are the folks I’m listening to these days.

One of my students said they love broadway-musicals and they also love Drake. Another student took that and said, “I guess you’ll love it if Drake made a Broadway-musical….oh, oh it would be a Drizzical.”

And then we all laughed. But seriously…Drake, what’s up with that Drizzical?

Interesting Week of Thoughts

When I share something that is linked somehow to popular culture, it’s often because “I am late to the party”, but still want to participate. In this case I may still be late to this party, however, I can’t shake how I felt after watching Black Panther.

My insights won’t offer anything new to the conversation, but I am very appreciative of having another platform to jump from when discussing certain topics with my students. We talked about the music and the imagery of the film. We talked about the significance of the cast and why representation is important. We even got to discuss (or at least I mentioned) they ways in which we view our parents and our roles with them as we get older and start to understand the world differently.

Ideas around representation and imagery of people of color were front and centered in my thoughts as students, a colleague and I watched parts of JAZZ by Ken Burns. Some of the images and ideas were shocking or disturbing to students, however, the discussions were honest and informative. Making sense of these connections in my own mind has been fun. I like being a teacher during weeks like this.

The things students do

The past four weeks have been quite difficult for me. I had to take a significant amount of time away from my day job as a middle school music teacher to care for my father. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about that as I continue to cope with losing him. However with all that has happened, my students remind me (yet again) why I am a teacher, by creating this message for me.

They did manage to include music we have been studying and a song I made them research earlier in the school year. Great way of connecting our curriculum. Nice job Soundview Class of 2017.