Today marks the end of the strangest semester in my 23 years in academia (four as a student, four as both student and teacher simultaneously, and fifteen as a tenure-track or tenured faculty member). Having been forced into distance education due to the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, both teacher and students had to adapt quickly to teaching and learning music entirely remotely. While I am thankful for the familiarity with new technologies that this experience has engendered, overall my opinion of teaching music online is a mixed one at best. I hope to write about that in the coming weeks.
The ways in which my students responded to the sudden challenge of online music education were mixed also. Those possessing fast internet connections and at least some consumer audio equipment beyond the standard microphones in smartphones and laptops transitioned in to online lessons relatively smoothly. Those lacking one or both of these conditions had a harder time. Unfortunately, those living in large cities and university towns do not always remember that the availability of fast internet connections is limited in rural areas and among those with limited financial resources. Students in these situations struggled to thrive in online music lessons, the reliable streaming of complex audio and video signals requiring far more bandwidth than online courses consisting primarily of reading and writing, or even lectures.
There were other difficulties, of course. Some students found themselves being required to care for young siblings or cousins who were sent home from school despite their parents still needing to work in “essential” businesses. Others were themselves employed in such businesses, and were asked to work longer than usual hours, including during scheduled class times. All found themselves in situations where tests were replaced with papers, the usual rhythms and resources of university life disrupted, and, in the case of applied music students, being asked to prepare their end-of-semester juries, which are usually performed with a live pianist, by recording themselves with a prerecorded accompaniment. The latter change might sound easy to the uninitiated, but live accompanists have a way of making subtle microadjustments that both compensate for students’ inaccuracies (particularly rhythmic ones) while also helping students to find their next entrances. The absence of this was troubling for many students.
The psychological effect of these changes was notable for both teacher and students, and more than one person voiced to me a dissatisfaction with the entire situation. Although there were times that I became frustrated with the volume of panicked, worried, and even angry calls, texts, and emails, for the most part I was and am honored that my students feel comfortable voicing their concerns to me. In some cases I was able to find ways to help students along or to mitigate their concerns, but I did not except in one minor instance lower expectations. Instead, my admonition to students was essentially “figure it out.”
That might sound short and unfeeling, but I assure you that this is not the case. Instead, it is an idea that I picked up from my trombone teacher and dissertation advisor at UNCG, Dr. Randy Kohlenberg. I wrote about him in a post a few years ago, after he had me return to UNCG as a guest artist at the North Carolina Trombone Festival. Dr. Kohlenberg had a way of being both exceedingly kind and inexorably demanding at the same time, and I wish that I was a better imitator of his character in this way. But one of his most annoying habits to me—at first—is that he would tell us to undertake some complex or important task with absolutely no guidance regarding how to complete the task. Sometimes he did this in trombone lessons, but more often it was in administrative and practical tasks, like organizing the NCTF or preparing for the massive Summer Music Camp held on campus every summer. The way things generally went was that he would give me a task, then evade my questions asking for clarification or direction. I would eventually attempt the task on my own, and afterwards Dr. Kohlenberg would correct the things I did not do correctly or efficiently. I actually learned a lot about the practical side of music education through trying things, making mistakes, and correcting those mistakes. As it turns out, that was the point.
You see, what I thought at first was an unconscious oddity in Dr. Kohlenberg’s character—the first summer working for the music camp I wondered if he had simply forgotten that I was new—was actually very purposeful. He knew that we students would forget much of what he simply told us, but that we would remember what we figured out on our own, and we would really remember the things that we had to correct after “figuring them out” incorrectly the first time. This was true in trombone lessons, but it was, like I said, especially true with practical tasks like organizing a “trombone day,” or preparing rehearsal sites and folders for a massive summer music camp…..or maybe even retooling the teaching and learning environments for online instruction.
You see, dear students, I don’t want to tell you every little thing you have to do all the time. Not because I don’t want to share knowledge with you, but because you will retain more of what you figure out on your own. This is why I ask you questions in your lessons so often rather than simply giving you the answers. Yes, I’m trying to guide you to the right conclusions, but retention improves when you have to think and reason and discover for yourself. The same is especially true for the practical business of being a musician and teacher. The truth is, online teaching and learning is not going away. While I don’t think it can ever fully replace face-to-face music instruction, the ways in which we deliver and receive instruction are evolving and will continue to do so. I have tried to use this experience—this unexpected, frustrating, and often stressful experience—to develop new skills, master new technologies, and develop new ideas. I hope you have done the same and will continue to do so. Keep trying to “figure it out.” Try things. Experiment. Learn. Grow.
And don’t worry: when you really mess up I’ll still be there to correct you.
Speaking of learning new things, the CoronaTunes playlist is still growing, and I am still getting a little better each time at recording, mixing, and mastering. I still have a lot to learn, but recording these tunes has been fun. Enjoy.