Teaching young musicians to play an instrument is a process that requires continued feedback and adjustments. Typically, the process involves helping students find the right hand and finger positions to play a note correctly or demonstrating how to blow into the mouthpiece of a flute or clarinet.
Helping students hit the right notes is still an important aspect of the instruction that Battle Ground Public Schools’ music educators provide to students. However, this year the biggest adjustment has been learning how to deliver the hands-on instruction over the internet.
“There is no playbook for shifting band classes to an online format,” band teacher at Laurin Middle School Jeremy Gallagher said in a news release. “Teachers should not be fearful about doing something the wrong way. We will need to be open to new ideas, adapt to the current reality and find creative ways to provide an online music education program. Despite the challenges, we are committed to maintaining robust and vital music programs in Battle Ground.”
“It’s amazing how much progress you can make in an hour with all the students assembled and playing together,” Tukes Valley Middle School band teacher Alison Pierce said. “Sometimes it’s listening and providing immediate verbal feedback, or maybe you play a corrected note back to them or physically adjust their hand position. This year, we’ve had to get really really creative to try and find ways to replace that in-person instruction time.”
The district’s middle school band teachers have been collaborating to adjust their instruction to meet today’s challenges due to COVID-19. The group has identified two of the Washington State Music Arts Learning Standards to focus on while students learn from home and are using a wide array of technologies to deliver instruction.
The first foundational skill band teachers are focusing on is Standard 5, which requires students “to develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation.” To facilitate performance instruction online, band teachers are using a variety of resources. For example, the online program SmartMusic allows teachers to assign a piece of music that students can play along to at home. The students record their performance, and SmartMusic identifies when a wrong note is played, displaying incorrect notes in red on their sheet music. Students can click on these notes for information about how to correct the issue.
Students also have the ability to record themselves performing at home and upload their videos to Google Drive, where their teachers can review the videos and provide feedback. Teachers may also use online video platforms such as Google Classroom and YouTube to help students.
“Hearing students play on a video is very similar to hearing them play in person,” Pleasant Valley Middle School band teacher James deBra said. “We are able to give them focused and direct feedback, which will help them to improve their playing. Focusing on concepts that align with Standard 5 will help students be successful at the next level in the fall, whether it be in the middle school band program or one of the high school programs.”
While online video technology is a useful tool for one-on-one music instruction, such programs don’t work for live performances due to involving multiple musicians. Performing as a group requires perfect timing and the natural lag time involved with online conferencing makes performing as a group over webcams is nearly impossible.
The second area of focus for the district’s middle school band teachers is Washington State Music Standard 11, which requires students “to relate artistic ideas and works with societal, historical and cultural context to deepen understanding.” While educators always include lessons about the historical and cultural aspects of music, remote learning has afforded teachers more time to focus on this standard.
“It’s important for students to understand not only music history, but also how music fits in with our culture right now,” Pierce said. “Online tools like SmartMusic and YouTube channels with instrument karaoke feature music that kids can relate to, from current pop music to famous songs from movies. Learning these songs lets some kids personally connect with the music and makes it more culturally relevant for them.”
Focusing on the cultural and historical aspect of music by assigning readings and essays also provides some flexibility for students who may not be able to play an instrument during this time due to financial constraints that can come with renting an instrument.
“Students may be missing out on playing music together as a group and performing for the public right now, but they are able to use this time to reflect on how being a musician makes them a part of the community and the local culture,” Pierce said.