Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 15

Close One and Cheers:

Like most Friday’s before a break from school occurs, thing are bound to go wrong. Sometimes it’s students behaving unruly or planned events that disrupt the day, like a class parties. You never know what might come up of these days. Today my “WTF” moment happened due to poor bandwidth.

Now that my kid is also doing school from home, for the foreseeable future and my partner is also working from home, I believe we have met the limits to our wifi home connection. The three of us were working our network as hard as we could. After suffering through several classes with poor connections, where both my kid and I were wondering what was going wrong with our computers. A few dropped meetings later, and then having to reconnect to virtual classroom I worked in all month,  it dawned on me that we have never done this at the same time in our home.

We quickly jumped into our prospective computer’s Task Manager & Activity Monitor to figured out what which apps and extensions needed to be running and which did not. This really helped and made it easier to get through our meetings in without disruptions. Soon I’ll need to contact our provider to ask for either more tips or an increase in bandwidth. When I take into consideration that we will be working like this for at least another month, making sure our network can support us, is crucial. 

Just when I started to think I was getting the hang of my virtual classrooms, and got too feeling like this is normal. The universe reminded me not to get cocky, and that I am lucky to have the privilege of work from home and still teach music. I’m glad it all worked out, lesson learned.

Now that this week is over, and my school is in spring break, I feel like I can take a moment to reflect on the past three weeks of remote music teaching. However, I’m tired and want to sit and pour myself a sip of scotch. With that tumbler I’d like to toast all the teachers and parents who pulled resources together to provide an educative experience of our kids and students. Who knows, perhaps I’ll have two drinks… 

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 14

Tired:

On a typical day I feel like I get to move around a fair amount. With conducting ensembles and moving around campus, I might even say I am very active. On occasion I might get a work out before my day starts. However, since the coronavirus era of teaching started, my movements have been more confined. I move from my bedroom, to the garage to the room in my house which serves as my virtual workstation. A bathroom break every once and again. With the occasional trip to the kitchen for coffee and meals.

My eyes get tired, so I can do several things to help with that part of my virtual experience. My ears get fatigued from wearing headphones for too many hours, so I change my audio situation from cans to speakers now and again. However, the part that is surprising to me, is that my back and legs are sore. To no ones surprise a comfortable chair is an important items needed for this much virtual teaching while sitting. Along with the options of standing or walking while teaching sometimes, might in fact be necessities for this type of work.

II guess moving forward, I’ll have to get specific about changing my routine and perhaps investing in a recliner….for teaching purposes of course.

Teaching Orchestra and Band in a Digital Space: Day 12

Three Great Moments In One Virtual School Day

Today I had several experiences with students and colleagues which are cause for acknowledgement, appreciation and gratitude.

Teaching Assistant

Before the term started, one of my students in the advanced orchestra approached me about being a teaching assistant.  Currently, the school doesn’t have a policy regarding this, nor a mechanism for how to evaluate and grade in this type of scenario. Knowing that the term would start in a virtual setting, I assumed the student would politely ask-out of this experience, but instead, this student wants to help younger players learn, and what teacher would get in the way of that?  I’ve quickly discovered that having a TA is quite the luxury, especially as I work with the Intro to Orchestral Strings class. My TA has been fantastic with the less experienced students by proactively offering to work with students in the virtual practice rooms, and then also occasionally leading some sessions in the general lessons as well.  Leadership like this is impressive, appreciated, and a breath of fresh air.

Discussion with Colleagues

The second great moment today happened as part of a conversation involving differentiated instruction. The discussion at first seemed typical for our team, where we started to talk about these things as if we were still working in a standard classroom and the coronavirus did not disrupt the foundation of our existence. However, when we started to discuss the way in which we were meeting students needs through a variety of differentiated virtual assignments, (designed to help with a diverse pool of learners), the conversation offered more food for our artistic pedagogical appetites. It got so involved and intense that I felt re-energized about my current role as virtual educator, and gave me a renewed sense of purpose as I dove in to afternoon classes.

Student Slaying Assignment

The assignment was part of an exploration of the Blues, in both form and chord progression. Student were asked to play an exercise involving dominant 7 chords over a blues progression in the key of C. Afterwards, they were asked to improvise a solo using the elements we had covered the past two weeks. Those elements included the use of the blues scale, minor pentatonic scale and major triads. A large part of this class involves listening to the music we are studying and then discussing the elements observed, such as “vocal inflection”.  Today, one of my violin students, flat out SLAYED the exercise and the their improvised chorus of this blues progression.  Vocal inflection was definitely demonstrated, observed and appreciated.

 

Some days I love my job.  Today was one of those days.

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.