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 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.

Persistent Ear-Worm

Over the summer I find myself going between the dropping off my kid at summer camps, helping the family with home-related projects, working/ continuing to learn how to care for my house, writing/ arranging music and (of course) practicing my instrument. Summer is a convenient time to make significant progress on some of these things.

With that in mind, I took to expanding some of what I do on my trumpet. If you spend time practicing an instrument, typically one plays exercises in a pattern. In my case, scale patterns. In order to switch things up, I thought it would be a good idea to rehash some of the jazz improvisation patterns I did so long ago as a student.

After working on transcriptions of Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Fats Navarro, and Clifford Brown, I started working on scale and arpeggio patterns related to Giant Steps by John Coltrane. As a classical guy, I tend to use chord changes in several ways.

First as a way of staying flexible through the different registers on the trumpet.

Second, it’s great for ear training because it reminds me that I need to hear the music before I play it.

Third, when breaking down some chord patterns, you can use them to practice alternate fingering. I often practice a small section and try to find natural lip slurs. Kind of like doing Clark #3 with mainly lip slurs like playing G major with a 1-3 fingering at the start.

However, Giant Steps is a different animal. First I can’t get the tune out of my head, and I can’t get Coltrane’s playing out of my ear as well. His navigation of those harmonies is mesmerizing. After listening to it for a period of time, I started to dream in these chord patterns. It’s an incredible piece of music and art.

 

 

More From Composition Game – Glass’ish

In August I posted a short composition I put together as part of a pilot program connecting me with an artist mentor. Somehow between then and now I didn’t get around to posting some of the other sketches. I mean to remedy that with this post.

A friend thought the minimalist gestures sounded a little like Philip Glass. I’ll take that, I like Glass…a lot.

The Composition Game

I was recently asked to participate in a pilot program connecting me with an artist of the same discipline to work with me and coach me achieve an important next step in my career. My peer mentor and I talked about using music composition as a way of stretching out to meet some artistic goals. The other goal was to get me to work around my writer’s block.

The game was to set aside an hour every day for the month of July to compose and explore ideas. There is no restriction about what I need to write, nor barriers to whom I was writing music for. The only stipulation was to set aside time to write music. By the end of the month, I would share with my coach about my process and some of the work created.

There was no stipulation that I would share any of this work publically, but I guess I need to put something out into the world. In any case here is one of the drafts I came up with. (forgive the MIDI sounds) This piece could still be orchestrated for any number of ensembles.

All of the pieces I started during this game used a 12 tone matrix. I gave myself this obstacle as a structure to help foster ideas.

 

Identity and Representation

Little over a month ago I ran into a former student at a performance. As we caught up with one another, he mentioned conversations or topics we had explored a few times years ago. We discussed the idea of what it feels like when you feel like you don’t really, fully, belong where you are. Certain interests, that make us unique, can make us stand out, and sometimes, feel alone.  These interests may authentically line up with who you are as a person in the present, but at the same time, the expectation of who you are or should be professionally, or as a representation of a gender, culture, or race, is in conflict with your authentic self.

The example of this mix match in identity for me is being a Dominican man from the Bronx, who plays the trumpet, and specifically specializes in classical music. When I’m in NYC, I’m Dominican. When I’m in the DR, I’m American. Everywhere else in America, I’m African American, or for short, black (I’m also bald :)). The good news is that I am okay with all of these labels. In fact, I hold them as badges of honor. I can be all of these things at once while being a musician, and more importantly, being myself. Of course, there are expectations and responsibilities that come with these labels. Being a musician, who looks like me, comes with its own set of assumptions; for example, I hear, “you must play jazz or meringue, or salsa music” or, “you have a Doctorate in music?”, or, “really, you went to Yale?  Oh, for music.”  I love jazz, blues, and Latin music, but lately, if you were to pull the Bose headphones off of my ears, you’d find me listening to South African house music, rap, and John Dowland.  Not quite what one typically would expect.  Okay, maybe the rap music.

My former student, now my friend and colleague, teaches in a place where few people look like him; I can relate. He doesn’t see many folks who have the same intense love for music that he does, but yet he continues to find ways of connecting people, and helping his community see past typical stereotypes. He’s young, so I hope he keeps a positive attitude and stays resilient.  More than ever, we need teachers like him to teach in places where the teacher stands out from the typical normal.  That’s how we learn.