The Remote Classroom 2021 Pt.1
I’ve been teaching remotely since last March 2020 at the Harris Institute, my weekly “artist in residence” class running the past six years.
By Bill King
I’ve been teaching remotely since last March 2020 at the Harris Institute, my weekly “artist in residence” class running the past six years. At first, the arrangement was called virtual then remote, an agreeable term that pretty much says it all. I was apprehensive, yet in no way at this age was I going to test the will of Covid-19. In fact, early on I spent many a night on the couch eavesdropping on my lungs, quizzing my sense of taste, and combating anxiety.
First term, it was students in a Harris classroom watching the big guy on the giant screen each masked and socially distanced. It wasn’t until week twelve and the virus tamped down, I faced my class in person during the final exam. And what a lovely bunch. It was a constant challenge with audio kicking in and out - patience outpacing frustration. In time, the bigger issues were addressed yet that distance thing and disguises amplified the divide.
The second season, a much different situation. With lockdown, students are in their home studio enclaves from Whitehorse to the mountains of Colombia. A common request – “send me coffee.” Zoom two – yes! We are all on the same plane. I see expressions, I can put names to faces. We talk openly back in forth the conversation always engaging. I play music as a running soundtrack to my historical journey through all aspects of song though I will admit, head-banging music was never my forte. I keep it simple. Sam Weller at Harris has set-up a transformative Zoom feed that allows teaching from an iPad which I plug into a small JBL audio tower allowing me to hear clearly. I program the music portion into Spotify vs iTunes for its efficiency which permits me to avoid wasted time pausing for uploads. I’m at my digital Roland piano and ready to rumble and speakers blasting. All minimal and self-contained. The only Con – we aren’t together in the classroom. The Pros are numerous. The students look comfortable and it’s up to me to keep them engaged. A good many teacher will agree, schooling is as much performance art as the nuts and bolts.
In this article, I put the word out to a variety of teachers - some specializing in a particular instrument, some rock, some jazz, some classical and here are their responses in the order they arrived.
Teaching drums online is a challenge. When we were forced to stop teaching in person, I lost over 50% of my students. Some because of the tech involved, some because what was being done in the lessons was not viable online (special needs kids who basically come in to play drums for a half-hour).
For the ones that remained online, there are other problems. The latency between the teacher and the student is the main one. No longer can you play along with each other or have the teacher play music and the student play along. I had to really change lesson plans and concentrate more on reading and interpretation of reading and rudimentary exercises. Luckily, the students that remained were the ones that were really interested and were willing to go down this path.
The other big problem with teaching drums online is audio quality. What I’m sending them is OK as it is going through my studio computer and the studio mics but what they are sending me is from a laptop or tablet or phone. The sheer volume of the drums can make everything distort and almost indecipherable. I find that many times I have to resort to watching their hands and feet to determine if they have played it correctly.
The other thing that I’ve heard from the parents is that it simply gives the kids something to do while they are in lockdown. This was very evident in the spring when this was all new, that it seemed to help to contribute to the overall mental health of the student, even if the quality of the learning experience is not what it was in person.
I've got 5 online students at the moment. Two from Humber. It's a drag. The main drag is that we can't play duets in time, which is an essential way that I normally pass on information to a student. The other numerous little drags all have to do with the stability of the platforms. I have the most experience with Zoom vs Skype or Facetime, but they all suffer from the same types of things.
These apps are made for users who will probably just be using their computer's built-in mic and speakers and they have certain audio processes going on that mute the sound coming from the speakers when the other participant is speaking so as not to create a feedback loop. In the simplest setups of this type, the student will have a guitar amp in the room with them and a talk-back mic that also picks up up the amp's speaker.
If I want him to use a metronome or a play-a-long track, he needs to play those sounds in a way that reaches his mic, or he could plug an audio player directly into his guitar amp, mixed with his guitar. Now, I can guide a student on how to optimize Zoom's Prefs for this simplest of simple setups. But there are still all sorts of annoying issues that will get in the way of the lesson. Time dilation. - The student's audio speeds up and slows down. Dropouts - The student's audio momentarily freezes and then unfreezes. Video freezes - Self-explanatory.
There are more sophisticated ways for the student to set up their systems so that they can use headphones and an audio interface as opposed to the built-in mic and speakers. But these setups get really complicated because of the way that these apps route their audio i/o. On my end, I have my own gear set up this way, i.e., with headphones. And it's so complicated, as well as being specific to my actual gear, that I can't really explain it to a student anyway.
I have to tell them what they want as the end result (i.e., everything in their headphone mix) and hope that they can figure out how to do it themselves, and they never can. One of the most important things they can do on their end is to use an Ethernet connection to the Internet. Wi-Fi is bad for this type of audio. Most students live with their parents and use the Wi-Fi that comes off the house's main router. A long Ethernet cable to the router can usually solve the problem, but few of my students are willing to do that. We go through hoops just to get Zoom's audio quality at its best, and it still sucks. Now, there are some other apps out there now that aren't too bad for real-time playing, e.g., duets with a student. But they ALL require an Ethernet connection to work. Two of them, Jamkazam and Soundjack, also have video capability. Jamulus is just audio. But for the reasons listed above, it's next to impossible to find a student with a system capable of using these apps. My Kingdom for a student with an Ethernet cable. And the easiest of that bunch to use, Jamkazam, has just decided that they want monthly subscriptions to use the app, especially for lessons. So, now, most of us are just getting by. And the quality of the teaching has gone way down.
Teaching music remotely has been a challenge. There are the inevitable tech hurdles: glitchy connections, poor sound quality, device issues, etc. There's even a noise suppression feature on Zoom that automatically silences anything that isn't a voice speaking. I have to watch some students play in silence to tell if they're playing something correctly. (This feature can be turned off on Android devices, but Apple hasn't gotten around to it yet.) And the latency issue negates any possibility of playing along in real-time with students.
To not be all negative Ned, it does allow me to see the students' practice spaces and equipment. I've corrected a few drum set up problems that I might not otherwise have noticed. It gets rid of sick days, snow days, and can't-get-a-ride-in days. Plus, there's a level of comfort that some students have been in their own environment on their own gear.
I saw a dramatic drop in enrollment when we switched to strictly online teaching, somewhat of an uptick for the brief period when we were allowed back to in-person teaching, and then a drop off again when lock-down 2.0 started.
There is no getting around the fact that the online version of teaching doesn't provide the same type of experience as one on one instruction, particularly when it comes to music lessons. It "works" as a substitute or place holder, but until the virtual experience is instantaneous and stereo surround, it's always going to be just that: a substitute for real experience. In much the same way that watching a virtual concert or performance demotes you from active participant to casual observer, so too does online instruction reduce you to an interactive, educational video game
I teach one large ensemble online and I have abandoned playing altogether. Instead, we’re focusing on artistic and aesthetic development, talking through listening techniques, what it means to be a musician in 2021, and utilizing the power of guests in a range of genres to talk about their life and work. We have Effortless Mastery as a textbook. I’m tired of pretending we’re all in the same room. We’re not. This reset works at the university level, but I think it has a short shelf life.
I try to put up short private u tube videos of the homework. For the actual lesson, I'm realizing that if they are playing sax to a track in the room, said track can become inaudible on my end, with me only hearing the student's saxophone, not the track even if it's blasted. I think it's the phenomenon of phase cancellation in the case of a student playing through a system that is hardwired inside the computer circuit. Also, Many, are recommending headphones on both ends but that's a small part of this challenge. Some platforms have heavy default background noise reduction settings that work for speech ok bit, not music.
As mentioned, I've been teaching online since March. It has been a big learning curve for me! I initially had to figure out the simple logistics like which software to use. Zoom was the obvious choice, but music schools weren’t using it because of security flaws. I considered Skype for a while until Zoom became the unavoidable standard it is today. Zoom also allowed for a bit more control over multiple cameras. For a professional online lesson, I wanted at least 2 camera angles. I teach a few different instruments, so I’ll have the laptop's wide camera on me and a second external camera that I can move overhead the piano, the drum kit or to a close-up on my hands for guitar/ saxophone. A lot of video conferencing software isn’t optimized for multi-cam and I’ve noticed Zoom struggles to keep both cameras in sync at times.
The next big thing is the race to minimize latency over these video chat platforms. It’s impossible to remove the latency, but it may be possible to reduce it to the point we’re playing together online becomes plausible. There are many companies claiming to offer a solution to this, all of which utilize slightly different technology. I’ve seen one with a proprietary interface that requires lightning-fast wired connections on all ends. I’ve also seen a system that applies a “useable” amount of latency to all signals on the way in, allowing for more time to sync them up. None of them work all that well! JamKazam seems to be the new frontrunner but getting it to run seamlessly requires all parties to have serious hardware, wired ethernet, and low ping. I usually don't feel comfortable asking students or parents to spend outside of what they're paying for lessons, so getting every student setup to use software like this doesn't seem feasible. Especially during times like this, I don't want to assume anyone's financial situation. When someone cracks it, I’m sure we'll all hear about it! There are some bonuses to online teaching. Scheduling is easier, quicker changeover between students, etc. I think the reality is that overall, in-person lessons are superior, and this is just a situation we have to make the best of for the time being. That said, once everything migrates online, it may stay there. Hope not!
For me personally, it works very well. I've adapted and found ways to make it all work. There are tons of advantages if you think about it - one of which I can see how they are set up at home and can help them with that a lot more, and they practise more since they're already set up. They get better instruments, better gear that I help source for them, they are then more motivated. The attendance rate is near 100%, with way fewer cancellations. I have managed to figure out all aspects of what I need to do. At first, I was skeptical it could happen. I cannot play duets with my students, but they run their own play along and I send recordings if needed. If they can run those things in the lesson, then you know they'll use them in their practice. I use 3 cameras and toggle to whichever view is needed.
Another weird advantage is I have far more adult male students. Sounds funny, but frankly, it being online helps everyone feel more comfortable. It's just a trend I am noticing. I far prefer people not coming to my place etc for lessons.
I am, of course missing the students' sweet faces sitting in front of me but I have, with help, adapted to the reality of ZOOM and I think Harris has done a really good job - I go down to school and sit in one of the big rooms and try and engage the class in the "old" way of doing PR.
I am kinda animated with my hands (theatrical some might say) and like to move around during class - neither is possible when sitting in front of the computer.
When we began within school classes in July for what WAS meant to be the March 2020 term, we were all masked up, and the kids were incredible about cleaning their stations - and the eagerness to learn has been a joy. But the mask thing was a challenge because all of us sounded muffled. Then John brought in the clear face visor things and I thought - great - but because I gesture with my hands a lot - I kept hitting the visor and knocking it off!
But - I truly commend the students - many of whom have come to Toronto from other cities, provinces and countries and had all spring and summer mostly being isolated.
I must admit - it is strange going into the school not hearing music somewhere, not hearing the kids playing pool during a break, no sounds of feet in the classroom overhead and without anyone else there - but we're all doing our best.
Here are a few...
No commute. Unlimited geographically. Students can be anywhere in the world. Kids are 100% comfortable with technology. It’s not weird to them.
Accessing files & videos on my desktop to share. I had a situation where a student placed her camera on the music stand so I could only see her face and torso but not her fingers or keyboard. She was having some difficulty with a double hand position change. Because the camera was on her I could see where and when she was spotting with her eyes which was very helpful in resolving her issue. I couldn’t have done that in person because I am placed beside the student.
Tough to notice fingerings. Doing written work/theory is clunky.
Tone is harder to direct. That said, they all use keyboards so tone playing isn’t as good as an acoustic, even in person. The tech is glitchy. Zoom has sound dropouts when two people speak simultaneously. It takes a little bit of acclimatizing to the latency. Simultaneous playing is not possible.
Overall, I would say that every one of my students has continued to advance in their development. That’s the real measure.
I teach piano to about 20 students via various platforms (google meet, messenger, skype etc). I'm a neighbourhood piano teacher so I know these kids and their families really well. My main concern with them is finding a good level for them that doesn't cause them more stress, but still piques their interest. And then being a source of real encouragement for them. I teach RCM but don't do exams with my students. I'm mainly interested in working at their pace and giving them appropriately challenging experiences in music that show them that they can work through and solve musical "problems".
I also teach primary music with the TDSB. I'm at a new school and have started them with homey music experiences (sing-alongs, working with found instruments). I continue to work on solfege and rhythm basics with them. For these kids, my main goals are to accomplish their curricular requirements while giving them a space to have some fun, and to engage their curiosity and imagination by exposing them to some interesting performances (Bobby McFerrin's power of the pentatonic scale, Wintergatan Machine). Staving off screen and school fatigue is important, and I think interesting experiences with music can do a lot to keep them coming back.
I have some other fantastic musician friends who are offering lessons at a post-secondary level (Alison Arends, Peter Kadar, Larry Graves, Fern Lindzon, Ariel Shetzen, Chris Cawthray). Let me know if you'd like to make contact with them.
One important thing I should say is that I always do all the sing-along with the kids - whether I'm leading with the guitar or occasionally using another resource where another teacher is modelling the actions and singing. They're never alone to do it, watching a screen. I'm always modeling and enjoying the activity with them, building community.
I was talking to another teacher friend who agreed that her experience as a performer gives us the ability to keep it fresh and engaging for every class we see (among other things we both did several summers of more than 500 shows at Canada's Wonderland when we were starting out). Every single class deserves our engagement with them and our best energy - just as every audience for "In Concert '91" deserved the same energized commitment from the performers. :)
Romina Di Gasbarro
Well... I'll try to give you a nutshell version:
- Teaching people you've never met how to play instrument they've never played! Getting student to turn on camera and sound so you can help them get the right posture, embouchure, fingering, sound, etc. (Easier with older grades since they've are building on previous knowledge and experience.)
- Not being able to fix issues with instruments and their tone production when you can't see the instrument. (Ex. If they dropped it or banged it at home and you can't see the issue.)
- No ensemble playing. No sectional playing. Far less support for the kid in the back playing the trombone and can't turn to his section buddy and ask for help.
- Progress moves slower and issues are easier to get lost in the shuffle because you're not hearing them live every day.
- Correcting rhythm issues is tough since computers tend to lag and that messes with tempo. We do sight reading and clap backs but again, the lag makes it sometimes hard to hear and sometimes they don't translate what they clap into playing unless they've gotten the repetition with the band in class.
- Teaching theory is fine online... but do they really understand it? That is harder to tell. (Been using Breezin Thru Theory which is good.)
- The bonds you make in a band or choir don't get formed the same way.
- No trips, festivals are not the same, etc.
-The cost of loaning out instruments is more expensive since they tend to damage them more at home than under my eye in class and each instrument has to be sent to either Long and McQuade or other stores for cleaning because of covid. It's a much heftier penny than usual.
- New players actually are learning to play their instruments! (Cue miracle music)
- You can organize so much really well on a google classroom: assignments, due dates, rubrics, quizzes, tutorial videos, etc.
- Google meet allows for breakout rooms which has been really useful. I make breakout rooms for sections so they can work on music together and discuss any issues with their particular instrument. I come around to each "room" to work with them. I've also set up individual rooms where I work one-on-one for parts of the lesson which gives them private lessons within a classroom setting. (Pretty great!) - SoundTrap with GC has been really great (even though the have almost zero online support). SoundTrap allows for collaborative work in real time. Right now I'm using the google classroom breakout rooms for students to work on their SoundTrap recording/producing sessions to write film scores for short films. They download the short animation film, write the score in SoundTrap, and edit in iMovie or any other platform they have. Different classes have done everything from traditional songwriting, to Soundscape Collages, to this class writing for film.
- Flat with GC has been really good too. All files can export to SoundTrap and SoundTrap can export to Flat. Lots of possibilities here.
- Breezin Thru Theory has been great for theory work.
- I get students to mostly rent instruments right now as it's easier and better for covid reasons.
- We've had online concerts and ensemble pieces made possible through editing software, etc.
- I have guest musicians work with the students online and it's been great.
- Creative work has increased and creative content has improved with kids being home and spending more time on making music.
I have my vocal sections coming up which will be different but I have lots of ideas in store. I'll be good...
- Most importantly we are still able to keep teaching rather than being shut down.
- I have had to up my tech game substantially.
- Learning how to work Zoom and set up my 6 camera angle rig for lessons was good to learn.
- Learning how to mix a 13-pc funk ensemble in Logic Pro for video has been very educational for me.
- Learning how to put together video footage and edit into a decent looking performance video for my ensemble has been a big plus for the students.
- Getting the students to be ready for the future of the musical online environment (because it’s not going to go away now) is very beneficial for them even if some truly hate it right now. Long term gain for them is a plus.
- Figuring out creative solutions to problems that come up for assignments when students don’t have access to school equipment. A coffee mug sounding like a triangle or a pillow sounding like an electronic bass drum can actually work.
- Students having to video themselves really gives them honest feedback about their playing/performance choices.
- Not having to drive anywhere is pretty convenient. Saving money on gas/parking for sure.
- Someone will surely have to figure out an app that can let musicians play together live online without any delay.
- Getting the students to play separately to a click and then put it together with other students’ performance has been a good lesson in time keeping and feel.
- Overall, it’s exhausting.
- The online format is not conducive to interaction because less kids want to speak on screen.
- I feel like I don’t know my students as well because there’s no “hang out” time to chat after class.
- Prep time for some classes has been a lot more time.
- Editing video takes hours and hours more than I originally thought it would so now I’m stuck with it as it was the only way I could see making an ensemble work in this environment.
- The internet lag/quality/glitching on the student’s end can really be problematic. This can and has been a massive time waster.
- When something goes wrong with audio there are so many variables to sort through to finally correct things. Because everyone’s set-up is slightly different, there’s no quick and easy fix.
- Not being able to play together in an ensemble or for group assignments has been tough on students.
- Audio online is really hard for drums. Without an audio interface and decent mic, the volume of the kit will crush any laptop/phone/ipad mic. All students have had to outlay more cash to buy gear in order to be in class.
- Filming demonstration videos is very time consuming as opposed to playing something live in class. I shot 35 videos over 5 weeks last summer as a back-up in case playing live didn’t work. Saved my butt having those.
- The lack of interaction onscreen makes you, as a teacher, talk more to fill up dead space.
- Having students who don’t like to be seen on camera, so you teach to a black screen, is not fun at all.
- The constant “You’re muted. Turn on your mic. It’s the tiny icon on the bottom left. Oh, you’re on an iPhone. Okay I have no idea when the audio prefs are” gets tiresome for sure.
- The new Back/neck pain from sitting at my drums all day has not been fun, whereas in the classroom I can get up and walk around when I talk. I can’t do that at home otherwise I’d go off camera.
- Ear fatigue from the constant use of headphones.
- My ink costs have gone way up for printing of assignments (transcriptions,etc.) to grade.
- I’m staring at a video screen for so much longer than normal. The video glare glasses have been helpful for that.
- Students without acoustic drums is very challenging for all involved - Playing Jazz on an e-kit? Ugh. How does a student learn about control, sound, touch, feel on rubber pads. It’s a completely foreign surface that gives the student a false sense of their technique. They need to be on an acoustic kit for certain things.
- Students not being allowed to practice on school premises was a very serious problem when this all hit back in March and they closed the campus down. Thankfully the school let students use the school gear now, under strict Covid guidelines of course.
- Taking over my living room (for larger percussion demos) with kids and wife all trying to do their online work/studies at the same time is challenging.
- I don’t think the administration has any real idea how difficult teaching a musical instrument is, especially the drums, online.
- It’s definitely not as much fun as in person.
- Getting the audio interface to consistently work with Zoom at the onset was very mind numbing. It’s running smoothly now though.
- Not seeing the other faculty in person is actually quite depressing. There’s no hang.