From integrating video-based performances to learning new composition apps, teaching students virtually has forced music educators to learn and share new ways to reach students.
Learning to make music is a complete mind and body activity. Whether they’re teaching how to play a musical instrument or how to sing, teachers rely on learners’ physical cues to make progress — cues that are often masked by watching someone on a screen or listening through a microphone. As a music educator, I would hazard that few school music teachers would choose to teach their students remotely.
However, as many teachers and students have noted over the past two years of virtual on-and-off school, music lessons have unearthed some pleasant surprises during the pandemic.
Going online has forced music educators to adapt existing ideas or adopt existing technologies to discover, invent and share ways to reach students and keep music education alive.
music without instruments
During the pandemic, most school music teachers have faced the challenge that elementary school students do not have access to instruments at home. This often leaves online tools as the default. As school budgets are always tight, it is important that programs are very inexpensive or ideally free.
At the elementary level, students can enjoy and learn from apps like Incredibox, where students can explore beatboxing and combine rhythms and sound effects to create unique pieces. Beatboxing musicians who create complete musical works by manipulating their breathing, mouth and throat inspired the development of this tool.
Or teachers can introduce students to Blob Opera, a “machine learning model trained on the voices of four opera singers” developed by Google and AI artist David Li. In Blob Opera, students manipulate four opera blobs—a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass quartet—and have them sing a variety of pieces on global stages. Students can “take the blobs on tour” where they might sing a Korean folk song in Seoul or a piece by composer Erik Satie in Paris.
Students can share their creations live with teachers and classmates on various platforms. I’ve found that when we introduce students to technology, they often take it in unexpected directions. A student I taught built a rhythm on Incredibox and left that window open, playing to accompany a blob opera set: not an obvious musical pairing, but a wonderfully creative one.
Learning from home with instruments
Even before the pandemic, some music researchers were interested in helping educators overcome hurdles in teaching instrumental music online and how children in rural areas could benefit from online instruction. However, singing and playing instruments online comes with its own set of technological issues, the most notable of which is time lag — what some of my students refer to as “glitchiness.”
However, research conducted during the pandemic suggests that teaching students how to play instruments online can provide an opportunity for music teachers to redefine curriculum, set new goals for students and accommodate new assessment criteria.
For students who have access to instruments at home, music teachers can use a flexible companion app like SmartMusic. Without changing pitch (a crucial skill), students can change playback speed, manipulate the type of accompaniment they hear, activate a metronome, and even click on individual notes in a score to change the fingering and sound of the note for display specific instruments.
This program costs money, but schools can purchase site licenses, making the resource available to more students.
Google’s Chrome Music Lab suite offers learning for K-8 students. Younger children can explore rhythm, or teachers and students can explore melody, harmony, form, duration, rhythm, timbre, and tempo to compose relatively complex electronica, save projects, and submit them for assessment.
At secondary school, teachers can encourage students to explore and collaborate on Bandlab, a program similar to Apple’s Garageband. Students can compose pieces in standard western notation on the web-based Noteflight — particularly accessible because it requires no downloads or sharing of personal information.
Some online offers promote healthy exercise at home. Ollie Tunmer, British body percussionist and former STOMP performer, offers teacher training and short courses for children.
Other teachers have posted clips exploring form and movement in music, based on techniques from an approach to teaching rhythmic movement, listening, and embodied musical intuition known as Dalcroze Eurythmics, and subsequent work by early childhood music educator John Feierabend.
Make music education more inclusive
Aside from making music accessible to many students at home, online learning, which focuses more on pop music, electronic music and rhythm-heavy music, tends to shift the curriculum focus away from the predominantly Western art music such as ‘classical’ genres move.
Music researcher Margaret Walker examines how music education in the West has traditionally encouraged European uniqueness and cultural superiority. Walker is one of many music educators promoting a music education that reflects the cultural diversity of learners. Music education researcher Lucy Green found that students who have a wider range of original repertoires are more successful and stay with the music longer.
Revamping music curricula to make them more inclusive can involve both introducing new forms of music and repositioning canonical artists like Mozart and Bach in a broader musical context to enable more learners to access and succeed.
The music curriculum not only demands manufacturing music, but also learning about music. Online reading aloud – stories told with music – existed before the pandemic, but likely became even more useful in remote contexts. One of my students’ favorites is the 1936 composition by Sergei Prokofiev Peter and the Wolf and the 2015 children’s book Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews.
Music educators and students also benefit from isolation-inspired composite-style videos, such as the Kingston Youth Orchestra’s performance of Cold Play’s “Viva La Vida,” especially when students are currently unable to attend live performances.
For younger children, Evan Mitchell, Conductor of the Kingston Symphonylaunched an online music series for children, Harmony in Space! The series sees Harmon, a fuzzy dog puppet, isolated on a spaceship. Harmon’s limited social contact is via online chats with musical friends – members of the Kingston Symphony. The first episode has over 11,000 views on YouTube. When I interviewed Mitchell, he said he had received many letters from children concerned about Harmon’s safe return to Earth.
Nobody wants distance music lessons to become the norm for most students. But amidst the global noise, the creative minds that have made it doable, fun, and often productive have brought us unexpected gifts and welcome kinds of beauty.
Robbie MacKay, Lecturer in Musicology, Dan School of Drama & Music, Queen’s University
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.