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.

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.

Surprising to me still

When I think about things that upset me, I’m often surprised about the things that get me amped up and blood boiling. There are the usual thing like humans mistreating one another or lack of empathy toward suffering. You know…war, famine, wastefulness, bigotry, bullying, unnecessary shaming, miss using bacon to make other foods taste good, and on and on.

Those seem obvious and need not be mentioned, dealing with stupid humans and all of our feelings is part of the deal. However, I am caught off guard when I think I am in control of a process and find myself (and or the people I work with) are adversely affected. The fear for me is that the work we do will be judged not by our best effort, but by the shortcomings of the environment around us.

Teaching in the ARTS feels that way sometimes. We often need to overcome a situation or innovate around an obstacle. Some are within your control and you can deal with those issues. Logistics of getting equipment from one place to another, moving bodies from one place to another, learning to perform and have students feel the safety of a group of people working together to create something, are things I feel I can affect.

Dealing with issues for which you see coming and can’t control, is a set of muscles I need to strengthen. To my surprise, this infuriates me. Try as much as I do, sometimes I just can’t hide it. I need to learn this skill….eventually I’ll learn.

This might work out

I recently changed the curriculum of one of my classes to be a more project-based class. My want and desires are to give students an opportunity to dig deeper into a musical subject. As to not make my classes all about performance. It seems as if the only context given for learning about the history and theory related to piece is solely to prepare a student’s ability to connect with what they are performing. That approach worked great for my higher-level performers, and it didn’t reach students who were still learning (or relearning) the fingerings on their instrument. That is a subject for another day.

The class looks more like this, I pick a subject or an artist and we do the following things.

  • Make Connections
  • Respond to Art
  • Create
  • Perform

Since I look at this as a cycle, I tend to do these when the class is ready to do them. Often I’ll introduce a piece of music as a listening assignment, we typically learn a melody related to the subject shortly after. Students are given assignments that are grade and given time to research the subject, (i.e go listen to music and learn something time).

About midway through the term, students come up with proposals for a project. Many of them are ambitious, but eventually, I keep them grounded.

By the end, students present their research about the subject. Some choose to put together a performance in groups, others choose to create a piece of visual art representing the subject. Some even put together a slide show with a particular point of view.

So far so good. Students have created some of the following:

Comic Strip

A children’s book

Created a short film (very short film)

Written and or performed in a one-act play

Like I said this may just work out.