Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 9

Teams:

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.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 8

Community and Service:

As part of my curriculum I spend time exploring the idea of musicians as part of a group of communities. It’s important enough to me, that I try to include work regarding music, community and service in every unit I teach. Some of the question I pose to students are; What roles do we play within our communities and what services we provide as musicians? Over the weekend I started to think more about ways we can work toward providing a service within our communities.

The obvious thing to do during this unprecedented time, is to create performance project using digital tools. This is not a new concept, nor is it unusual for my students to work collaboratively in virtual spaces and share their work with other students. The difference is, now I am insisting my students use a digital audio workstation to complete and turn in their assignments.

Thanks to the work of my counterpart, Soundtrap is the application we are working with at my school. My colleague is the choir teacher and also teaches a class called Understanding Music. She first used Soundtrap as a tool to help students understand structure, form and composition through creating/producing digital music. The site added another dimension to her students experience with music in general. Since it worked so well with students who were not in her performance based class, she thought to use it with here choir. As it turned out, she figured out it was a great tool for sending guide track to her students and listening to individual performers in her choirs. Giving her the opportunity to give specific instruction to members of her ensemble.

Now I’m in on the fun. I ask my students to record their performance assessments on Soundtrap and invite me to their projects. Once I have graded their recordings, I start to add drum loops and effects to their project and send it back to them. By modeling in this way the cappabities of this website, my hope is that students will start creating more project and inviting one another to participate in this space. Perhaps this is how musicians can build community and provide a service during the covid19 era.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 7

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. 

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.