Due to COVID-19, music teachers are tasked with moving their classes online. This process is especially intimidating for ensemble directors. Yes, our face-to-face collaborative rehearsals and performances are what we do and is the heart of becoming a musician. We all know that musical ensembles provide the opportunity for both musical and social growth, fosters teamwork, and connects us to our traditions and culture. This setting is to be valued and cherished. Once things return to normal, we will resume making music and developing musicians in this manner. In the meantime, it is necessary to think about the musical ensemble in a different way. How might the goals of developing individual and group musicianship be accomplished in the virtual world? We need to think creatively while focusing on authentic and relevant outcomes.
Utilizing the Artistic Processes
One way to think about this is to consider the Artistic Process as defined by the National Association for Music Education (NAfME); Creating, Performing, and Responding. These processes highlight how musicians do their work. Aligning our virtual classroom to these processes provides a framework to design and assess meaningful projects. Our projects and assessments must flow authentically out of the day-to-day musical learning. Also, for students to have buy-in, they need to see the value of what we are doing and not think of the projects as “busy work.” One of the best ways to do this is to address the situation head on by explaining why we are asking them to complete these tasks and providing timely feedback. Students want to know we are invested in their growth as musicians.
To help you reimagine the possibilities. I have listed below a few projects you might use or adapt to engage your ensembles in these artistic processes.
A wonderful way to begin the creative process and improve audiation is to have students play by ear. Focusing on “sound to symbol” imitates the way we learn languages and can help students develop new aural and rhythmic skills. Students can work with a variety of familiar melodies individually by recording their performances or work collaboratively through a video conferencing app such as Zoom or Google Hangout. Students can add to these performances by adding guitars, vocals, or technology-based instruments. Using these can benefit students were not able to bring school-owned instruments home. One adaptation for more advanced students is to have them learn a folk or pop song by ear and then transpose them to multiple keys. Younger students can engage in this process in puzzle format by filling in portions of songs through video responses or numeric, solfege, or iconic notation.
Students can also experience the artistic process of creating through improvisation. For example, students can engage in call-and-response with the teacher through videos or a synchronous jam session. Many video platforms are now allowing up to 100 people online at a time. Working with improvisation can also be facilitated through SmartMusic, which offers charts and backing tracks. SmartMusic, which is free during this time period to teachers and students, also has many jazz method books and jazz duets, called Power of Two, where a student can practice with either part or the rhythm section alone.
Group composition can be accomplished online, as well. A simple way to do this is to have students create sound tracks to illustrate a children’s book. An example book that works very well for group composition is The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything by Linda Williams. Through this type of group composition, each student can compose the sound effects or a motive for a character or event on their instrument. The students’ work can be recorded via an app such as Acapella, which allows the students to contribute while hearing others perform; you can also mix the audio post production using a program such as GarageBand.
Performing is an essential part of developing musicianship. There are several ways to encourage your students to continue to engage in this process. Having students individually record portions of ensemble music asynchronously is a well-known process that many ensemble directors have been using for years. It is also great for motivation because students can re-record their music as many times as they want. This can also be done using SmartMusic, as this platform allows students to get immediate feedback. Several great features of SmartMusic that support student practice habits are the ability to click on any note to see fingerings, slowing down the tempo, and creating practice loops. You can also send out a rhythm of the day from the rhythm exercises and have students clap or play these rhythms, as well as use the rhythms for improvising or composing.
Performing can also be done synchronously, as we have seen many virtual ensembles and chamber music groups engaging in lately on social media. This can be done through the Acapella app or having the tracks combined by you as the director or a tech-savvy colleague. Guiding students through the recording process by suggesting microphone placement, reminding them to record with headphones while listening to a click track, or listening to the music in their earphones while recording is important.
Another performance avenue that is becoming very common is to create porch concerts or concerts for relatives. Students can call/Skype grandparents or elderly neighbors to give a virtual recital or even livestream to a nursing home! Have students create a program for their concerts, which helps students learn the traditional ways to create programs, research composers, and discover the history behind their pieces.
An important aspect of developing as a musician is learning how to practice efficiently. To meet this goal, you can have students record themselves practicing a particularly difficult part of their repertoire over a number of days. Each time they record, have them describe their goals for that day, the strategies they used to improve, and write a self-reflection on their progress. Students can also do this as a peer assessment project using criteria you determine or your state’s solo and ensemble scoring sheets.
The artistic process of responding addresses how we analyze, interpret, and react to music on an effective level. Many orchestras and military bands are providing their past concerts online for free. This includes the Berlin Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the US Army Band. These groups provide great models of characteristic tone, good phrasing, articulation, and ensemble technique. Students can watch these performances and respond via blogs, google forms, or your school’s learning management system. You can also use a program like EdPuzzle to imbed questions for students to answer into any online videos or videos you make yourself. These assessments help you provide feedback and know that the students are engaging with the videos.
Students can also go to a website of a composer or YouTube and compare the music they are performing with other compositions by that composer. After, they can create a Venn diagram of similarities and differences of the composition. Students can further research online a myriad of things, such as program notes for current pieces they are working on or suggest music for you to perform in the upcoming year.
As we work through these uncharted waters of remote learning, there are many creative ways to continue to help our students develop through the artistic processes of their individual and group musicianship. Remote learning is a new challenge in connecting to our students to help them build a relationship with music. The connection between the conductor and the ensemble is a key element of performing ensembles that ought not to be abandoned during this time. Working with our students whether synchronous or asynchronous, and engaging in dialogues around projects will inherently connect them to their peers and directors. They will be happy to see each other, and you will too.
Our students value music as a form of expression, a place of belongingness, and identity, which is needed now more than ever. For many, the large ensemble is their family. Our ensemble classrooms are where students feel safe and successful, and we need to continue to foster this, especially during uncertain and unusual times. Even though our rehearsal halls are empty music will continue to thrive until our next downbeat.