Updated: Sep 13, 2020
I teach music at an independent high school in southern Vermont. As of the Fall of 2020, I have been working at this school for 17 years and have been in education for 31, In all these years, I have never met an educational challenge as great as the one I am about to face. The Hybrid Music Classroom. Cue the epic music.
If you are in the world of education you will know that hybrid means half of your students are on a Zoom call with you while the other half are in front of you. Think for a moment what that might look like to a teacher of an orchestra, band or choir. Your ensembles are now cut in half, one group in front of you the other online. What are your options? Can you rehearse? What about engagement? I should insert a graphic of a sad boy in front of his computer with a trombone in hand watching his band play without him. Cue the latest ASPCA music and an emaciated dog in the pic.
As you try to solve this, remember to factor in that fact that our face to face rehearsals went from three days a week to one. What can you accomplish in only a third of the time.... with half your group... watching online.... can this work? I have more questions:
With Covid, can I safely rehearse with the students that are in-person?
What do I do with the students that are remote while I am rehearsing?
How many students can I fit into a room safely?
So I did the math and split my group A-L and M-Z. 35 in one group, 22 in the other. I measured out my room and discovered I could only fit... 20 students. Well... that won't work. Don't forget about those brass players, aren't they super-spreaders? Add that to the mix. Anyone overwhelmed yet?
I was so overwhelmed that I started having bizarre conversations about the word itself. Overwhelmed?
Can I just be whelmed?
Anyway, as expected. I had a really great pity party for myself in the middle of the summer. My cat died, my dog died and my band broke up, literally... into multiple groups determined by a letter in their last name.
Ok... figure it out and chill out.
So I did. But only after I spent a month doing construction on my house to avoid the problem as long as I could.
When the lottery winnings did not fall my way, I had to get back on the horse. I started to address the academic music courses I offer; in addition to the challenge with the ensemble. We built a blended learning program called music studio. We offer about 12 unique pathways through different subjects in music. This is referred to in early blog posts. With Covid restrictions, these courses will all need to be modified to be cross platform Mac/Windows. We will also be short on classroom space in the tech lab. As the puzzle gets more complicated, I start to see solutions that can solve multiple problems.
I need space, technology and some teaching assistance to cover the split of the groups.
With my administration's support, we were able to secure funding for two adjuncts to assist during the week on a part time basis. This was huge. With some creative staffing we could work with the "remotes" separately and/or divide the in-person learners if needed. We started to look at our facilities as one big studio. Using our 3 practice rooms, the tech lab, an old office, a small library and the vocal room, we were able to spread out the technology from the lab and create about 30 workstations throughout the building. Each workstation has a mic, headphones and some type of controller. With the added space in the music room we were able to add digital and acoustic percussion equipment to several stations. The percussionists in our ensembles will be assigned to these stations while a few of our wind players will be behind plexiglass setups made from an old acoustic drum set sound shield. Brass players will be put in the practice rooms eventually and isolated from large groups of musicians. I was initially going to use the wiring I had installed 16 years ago to connect us all together. There are not enough inputs and outputs so I was going to have to get more creative.
If I could get a large ethernet switch, I could create two way communication from and to each station.
Dante software to the rescue. With Dante you use the computer and mic to capture sound and sent it to any other computer you want. Sound can be mixed and returned back to the student. If it works I will be able to get 30 students to play together when they are on campus. This will cut my groups down to one per cohort. I could also expand it and have multiple small ensembles if we so choose. I now have options. In addition, if I can get any students that are remote to connect to the internet via an ethernet cable, I could leverage the new Jam Kazam software and have them play with us from home. Jam Kazam works fairly well, having used it during the summer months. I would not record from it, but you can play with each other online if your connection is wired.
This all is going to take time and money. I contacted our development office and currently have a lead on someone that might be willing to lend us some financial support. Mics and mic stand, cables, a few controller and a digital mixer will be needed. The school is replacing an ethernet switch this week, and additional ports will soon be available. With only one rehearsal a week, I am figuring it may take me about a month to get the new Audio Network integrated into my rehearsals. In the meantime, we will begin to make music outside while it is warm and will split up the group that is on campus if we go inside. We created another rehearsal space up in the lobby outside the theater. Doors to the outside can be opened and we plan on having the brass spread out in that location.
I think this solution solves the most problems. We are now challenged with writing the curriculum to meet all the constraints that have been present. With the large ensemble, we discovered last spring that playing in an ensemble is much different than playing in a studio, recording with headphones on to a click or back track. One can hide in an ensemble, but not in a recording. Traditional instruments seem to require sheet music and many other instruments to make music. But what if we changed it up? Could we teach them how to 'Jam?' How can a clarinet player sit and make music with a trombone? Duets? There has to be more. Improvisation and composition may be the answer.
Give them a key, train them to understand the role and function of their instrument, build short riffs and develop tonal memory, transcribe what you just played, develop your ears, listen more critically, the list goes on and on. As I contemplate this option, it seems to me that there potentially could be much more music learning taking place than in a traditional ensemble setting. The jazz folks would definitely agree.
Challenges still are present, the tech alone might just kill me. Getting past the psychological barriers of making music up on the spot will be the first hurdle. Can I get them to transcribe their patterns so that they can reproduce them a week later? One rehearsal a week. What they do at home will be key. All remote work must be in alignment with the goals we have when face to face. How can we make jamming fun at home? Will the transcription of their riffs reinforce their literacy? How much pre-arranged music should we do? I have taken the need to share this out with the public off the plate for now. Public performance will not be possible. This leads me to another idea, document this entire process and create a documentary with video footage of the students building songs on this new audio network. Maybe it will work, maybe it won't but I am confident that the process of attempting all this will sure give us all an education.