C-Learning, not E-Learning

Wednesday, 27 May 2020



Some e-musings by David Law.

We most-certainly find ourselves in unprecedented times. There is nothing normal about today - even now, as this is being read - and there will be nothing normal about many months, perhaps even years, to come. We, as ensemble directors, have been presented with a new set of challenges and, despite some initial disappointment, many of us find our rigour for conducting rehearsals ignited because we have been presented with a completely new set of obstacles to overcome. Admittedly, this concept is a bit #glasshalffull but also #positiveteachersarepositiveinfluencers, aren’t they.

Perhaps the most challenging and confronting obstacle to consider is also the most obvious question: “How do I teach ensembles online?” Before we can answer that, we need to stop and think about what is at the very heart of our podium work. In the online space, where almost everything is topsy-turvy, we need to retain the core of our ensemble teaching. Elements that have had to take a temporary back-seat include hearing and reacting to tutti and individual playing, face-to-face musician interaction, and ensemble balance, blend and tone. This is the very heart of ensemble playing and our work on the podium each week … or is it? Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

If we, as band directors, are truly doing our jobs properly, the very ‘core’ of what we do is most-likely the community-building that takes place during rehearsals; the joy of working together, celebrating the small miracles that happen each rehearsal, overcoming group obstacles, communicating through story-telling, and trusting each other (conductor and players alike) enough to share personal feelings and experiences. All of this enriches the musical rehearsal and performance whilst laying a foundation for a life-long love of ensemble music-making. C is for Community. This is C-Learning.

So, how do we embrace C-learning and what can we actually do that is of value in the C-space?

The Front Row

Unlike a normal rehearsal, everyone now has a front-row seat in your rehearsals. There is no more hiding behind music stands in the back row! It is crucial to remember that in the online space, this added level of closeness can actually be a path towards certain pastoral opportunities within the rehearsal. Have a list of your players handy, so that you can directly speak to everyone throughout the rehearsal – contrary to initial thoughts, it is still possible to involve everyone. If your group is small enough, consider marking the roll at the start of rehearsal. Take the time to greet everyone. Yes, this takes a bit of effort, but everyone will feel valued. Self-worth within the ensemble is key to C-Learning. Whilst this may seem obvious too, remember to start your online questions with someone’s name, allowing them the opportunity to turn on their microphone and answer without slowing down the rehearsal. It’s these little things that leave your ensemble members feeling that you are talking directly to them (you are). In return, they will be willing to explore concepts and follow instructions in the privacy of their own personal space that they may not feel as comfortable completing in the same room as their peers. For example, experimenting with new playing techniques and advanced concepts (regardless of level) can be quite confronting for some musicians but, at home, an opportunity exists to be able to make mistakes, attempt activities multiple times, and be free of peer-criticism.

Consider:

  • Introducing jazz scales and improvisation techniques. Provide a backing track, and encourage your players to record a solo.
  • Recording a piano reduction. Ask your players to record their parts as if they were playing a solo work. Encourage rich and detailed musicianship.
  • Introducing advanced techniques – bowing styles, complicated rhythmic structures, double-tonguing, range builders – and allow time for private implementation and experimentation.

Finally, you can ask your students to submit videos of their work at home, and there are plenty of free online resources that allow this to take place with ease and privacy. This naturally leads us to one of contemporary teaching’s biggest challenges …

Making Friends with Technology

Excuse the frankness, but you need to be realistic about what you can achieve. Are you working hard? Yes. Do you need to work way harder? No. Don’t try and mix a 72-track video/audio student project with editing software you have never used before in one day. This takes much longer than you realise. (Did I make this mistake? Absolutely, I did.) BE REALISTIC. Have you seen @pubchoir on Instagram? 3500+ voices. Amazing. Impossible for you to do in one day, even a weekend, so forget about it. Stick to what you believe is achievable and be proud of this. Work smarter, not harder.

Alternatively, web-based platforms, such as Flipgrid.com, allow for your students to submit private recordings of themselves that you can easily view at once, in one place. You can set multiple and specific parameters which provide you with the opportunity to check-in on your musicians, set assessment and, if you still really want to make that complicated multi-track video, you can download everything from here, too. This is so much easier than looking in your email, in Dropbox, in Google Drive, in school drives, on the school network, on that USB over there, on that other USB over there, under the couch, and who knows where else your beginner student has dumped that video of #90 Variations on a Familiar Theme…oh my word - send help! Use one system. Work smarter, not harder.

Consider:

  • Setting weekly, achievable, homework tasks that can be easily uploaded. This may include catch-up or extension work, too. Be sure to include a due-date or time-frame to assist with accountability.
  • Asking your students to record several different examples of newly-discovered extended techniques.
  • Encourage your students to record examples of their daily warm-ups.
  • Have your students show you a difficult section of their part, explain the processes they’ve used to overcome it, and then play it for you.

Of course, YouTube is your best techno-friend and can help you upgrade your online lesson to …

The Masterclass

Even though our best life exists on the podium, it is most-likely that we are not doing enough active listening in our rehearsals. We are privileged to have access to numerous online video/audio resources (like YouTube) that can be easily shared and intelligently discussed in a Masterclass format. Together, guide your students through a professional recording of a piece you are learning, follow this with an amateur recording, and subsequently encourage an in-depth discussion about what was and wasn’t successful. A ‘lightbulb moment’ will occur when your students realise that they are, in fact, teaching each other how the piece should be played. Most pieces are available for listening online and, in every instance, there is something to learn; however, it must be purposeful and well-structured listening to be fully engaging and rewarding. Think of some great leading questions to throw around the online ‘Masterclassroom’.

Consider:

  • Listening to a piece whilst screen-sharing the score. Assist your students to follow along – some may have never seen/followed a score before.
  • Viewing some of the world’s finest band and orchestras as they perform ‘the classics’ for your ensemble. This may lead your students to discover some of the great composers and masterworks on their own. Have a viewing party (with popcorn, of course!)
  • Discussing ensemble-enriching concepts such as tutti tone colour and balance, music history, compositional devices, etc.
  • Analysing the original version of an arrangement or orchestration that you might be currently rehearsing.

Upon reflection, isn’t it the overcoming of obstacles that led us to become passionate music educators in the first place? Studying music has never been easy, and our own musical lives have evolved as we have progressed from one challenge to another. Nurturing the next generation of musicians as they navigate online learning is simply the next challenge, so don’t forget to embrace this new path with joy and determination … and some quality C-Learning!

David Law is the Head of Performance Music at Redeemer Lutheran College, Conductor of the Queensland Youth Orchestra Wind Ensemble, and Musical Director and Conductor of the Queensland Wind Orchestra.