Learning music is a complete activity of the mind and body. Whether you teach how to play a musical instrument or sing, teachers rely on students’ physical cues to help them progress, signals that are often obscured by watching someone on the screen or listening through a microphone. As a music educator, I would risk that few school music teachers would choose to teach their students remotely.
However, as many teachers and students have found over the past two years of the virtual school of inclusion and exclusion, music lessons during the pandemic have brought some pleasant surprises.
Going online has forced music educators to adapt existing ideas or adopt existing technologies to discover, invent and share ways to reach out to students to maintain a music education.
Music without instruments
During the pandemic, most school music teachers faced the problem that elementary school students did not have access to instruments at home. This often leaves online tools by default. Because school budgets are always stretched, it is important that programs are very inexpensive or, preferably, free.
At the entry level, students can enjoy apps like Incredibox, and learn from them, where students can learn beatboxing by combining rhythms and sound effects to create unique pieces. The development of this instrument was inspired by beatbox musicians who create complete musical works by manipulating their breath, mouth and throat.
Or teachers can introduce students to choral research at Blob Opera, a “machine learning model taught by the voices of four opera singers,” developed by Google and artist David Lee. At Blob Opera, students direct four opera points – a quartet of soprano, viola, tenor and bass – and can make them sing a variety of works on world stages. Students can “take drops on tour” where they can sing a Korean folk song in Seoul or a work by composer Eric Satie in Paris.
On different platforms, students can share their works live with teachers and classmates. I have found that when we introduce students to technology, they often take it in unexpected directions. One student I taught tuned in to Incredibox and left that window open and played to accompany the Blob Opera set: not an obvious musical combination, but a superb creative one.
Learning at home with tools
Even before the pandemic, some music researchers were interested in helping educators overcome obstacles with teaching instrumental music online and how online lessons could benefit children in rural areas. However, singing and playing instruments online face their own set of technological challenges, the most notable of which is the time delay – what some of my students call a “failure”.
However, research conducted during the pandemic shows that teaching students to play instruments online can give music teachers the opportunity to revise the curriculum, set new goals for students, and consider new assessment criteria.
For students who have access to instruments at home, music teachers can use a flexible accompaniment program such as SmartMusic. Without changing the pitch (critical opportunity), students can change the playback speed, manipulate the nature of the accompaniment they hear, activate the metronome and even click on individual notes in the score to show applique and sound notes for specific instruments.
This program costs money, but schools can purchase licenses for the site, making the resource available to more students.
Google’s Chrome Music Lab package offers training for K-8 students. Younger children can learn rhythm, and teachers and students can explore melody, harmony, form, duration, rhythm, timbre, and tempo to compose relatively complex electronics, save projects, and submit them for evaluation.
Intermediate teachers can encourage students to study and collaborate in Bandlab, a program similar to Apple Garageband. Students can compose works using standard Western notation on the web-based Noteflight – especially accessible because it does not require downloading or sharing personal information.
Some online offers promote healthy movement at home. Oli Tanmer, a British body percussionist and former member of the STOMP cast, leads the professional development of teachers and short lessons for children.
Other teachers have published clips exploring form and movement in music based on techniques from an approach to learning rhythmic movement, listening and embodied musical intuition known as the Eurhythmic of Dalcroze, and the subsequent work of early childhood music educator John Feyerabend.
Make music education more inclusive
In addition to making home music accessible to many students, online learning, which is more focused on pop music, electronics, and rhythmic music, tends to shift the curriculum from predominantly Western art music, such as “classical” genres.
Music researcher Margaret Walker explores how music education in the West has traditionally contributed to European exclusivity and cultural superiority. Walker is one of many music educators who promote music education that reflects students ’cultural diversity. Music education researcher Lucy Green has found that students who have more choice of their own repertoires are more successful and stay with music longer.
Reviewing music curricula to make them more inclusive may include both introducing new forms of music and changing canonical artists, such as Mozart and Bach, in a broader musical context to allow more students to enroll and succeed.
The music program involves not only the creation of music, but also the study of music. Online reading aloud – stories accompanied by music – existed before the pandemic, but probably became even more useful in remote contexts. Among the favorites of my students is a composition by Sergei Prokofiev in 1936 Peter and the Wolf and the 2015 children’s book Trombone Kid from Troy Andrews.
Music teachers and students also benefit from composite videos in the style of isolation, such as the performance of the Kingston Youth Orchestra “Viva La Vida” Cold Play, especially when students cannot attend live performances.
For young children, Evan Mitchell, conductor of Kingston Symphony, has launched a series of children’s music online, Harmony in space! The series shows Harmon, a fuzzy puppet dog, isolated on a spaceship. Harmon’s limited social contacts are via online chats with music friends who are members of the Kingston Symphony. The first episode garnered more than 12,000 views on YouTube. When I interviewed Mitchell, he said he had received many letters from children concerned about Harman’s safe return to Earth.
No one wants distance music education to become the norm for most students. But the creative minds that made it possible, fun and often productive, gave us unexpected gifts and welcome essays of beauty amidst the world’s noise.
[This article originally appeared in The Conversation]
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