Ensemble Teaching In An Age of COVID

Updated: Nov 20, 2020



It feels like a lifetime of living in this new world of maintaining 2 meters (or a trombone slides length) of distance between each other, hundreds of zoom meetings feeling like we are looking at the cast of the Brady Bunch and trying our best to not to touch our faces, even if that itch on your right eyebrow has been bugging you for the past five minutes. During this time as music educators we’ve done a marvellous thing, we VERY quickly changed a giant part of our curriculum to online delivery, a feat not to go unnoticed. That being said, like me, I’m sure there are a lot of you that know that it was a quick fix and we can defiantly serve our students better now. So today we’ll explore some of the factors that are involved in ensemble teaching in this age of COVID-19.


We’ll go through these factors in the following order: I know many of you have been in hundreds of zoom meetings to talk about the problems of teaching remotely, face to face or a hybrid of the two but it’s a good starting point for talking about solutions. Personally, it seems every new meeting I enter with colleagues there’s a point that I forgot or maybe the full weight of the problem hadn’t hit me yet. Maybe that will happen for you.


Secondly, we’ll think backwards and lay out the learning outcomes of being in an ensemble. Seeing what our students learn from participating in our ensembles and how we might change the model and maybe realize what our real goals are to achieve these outcomes.


Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for! We’ll talk about solutions of how we can achieve the stated learning outcomes and how we may need a bit of a mindset change when we approach ensemble teaching, for now.


Let me preface everything by saying the purpose of this blog post is to share ideas with you for your rehearsals/classroom, they might not work for you or you may even have a different opinion and that’s fine. I must also mention that I teach in post-secondary institutions, so what works for me may not work for you. That being said I’ll do my best to re-imagine how ideas would work in a school system setting.


No surprise here but I’m not a medical expert so if you’re looking for those kinds of answers you’ll still have to refer to scientific studies, including several prominent ones from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, Rice University, and University of Maryland, looking into aerosol production from wind instrumentalists.


So, let’s start with the bad news. I promise I’ll make this as short and painless as possible!


BASIC UNDERLING PROBLEMS EDUCATORS FACE

I’ve spilt these problems into two categories, face to face and remote. I chose not to categorize anything into a hybrid category as I feel that the problems stated in face to face and remote will lend themselves to hybrid. I have most definitely missed some so bear with me. Let’s start with the ideal perspective from a performance standpoint, face to face delivery:


Face to Face Problems

  • Government regulations of how many people are allowed indoors with proper social distancing in place.

  • Spaces not big enough to maintain proper social distancing.

  • Most spaces used for face to face teaching need two exits.

  • Not every music room has proper air flow/air ventilation.

  • The idea of sharing instruments has been mentioned in a couple of forums I’ve been involved with.

  • How do we have enough time to clean and disinfect instruments?

  • Funding to buy more equipment so each student has they’re own.

  • Will we have to wear masks when we play? How will that affect sound production?

  • A lot of people have been saying one answers to get our performance fix is, chamber music, chamber music, chamber music, and I couldn’t agree more! However, how does a beginning band teacher approach this? We go back to the space issue, do you have the space to run 10 chamber music groups (can’t go into practice rooms with a woodwind quintet anymore). Do you have the time to run that many groups? How will they be supervised. In some cases, depending on your school board, level you teach, student leadership won’t be an option.

Remote Teaching Problems

  • Students internet connection. Some students will have a great connection and some (as I think most of us have learnt will be much slower. I’ve blamed countless students of rushing when it was their internet slowing down then speeding up.

  • Student engagement

  • Not everyone has a space they can play in, be it an apartment or townhouse. Not everyone’s family be it parents or siblings are supportive of the students practicing/recording.

  • Not everyone will have access or the means to purchase an adequate microphone.

  • How do students with larger instruments play? Get their hands on percussion, a double bass, maybe a piano.

  • Creating a “virtual ensemble” performance is a super cool project and gives us all good feels. But is it playing in an ensemble?

  • Zoom fatigue is a real thing and we aren’t the only teachers asking for their online attention.

  • And a plethora of other problems in both face to face and remote teaching.

Ensemble Learning Outcomes

As mentioned before, I think it’s best to take a backwards approach to finding solutions for our current reality. It has become apparent that many of us are trying to fit our circle shaped pre-COVID-19 ensemble model into the triangle shaped hole that COVID-19 has left for us, and it’s not going to work. Lets break down what we learn from playing in an ensemble. I’ll start with:


Individual playing skills

  • Pitch – playing in tune with myself

  • Rhythm – reading and executing

  • Articulation – clarity, variety and consistency

  • Breathing and blowing

  • Phrasing – options, choices

  • Metre – mixed, asymmetrical, metric modulation

  • Extended techniques

  • Balance- matching volume

  • Blend – matching tone

Ensemble skills

  • Hearing and responding to the sound around you

  • Technical skills – fingers, articulation, tone, pitch

  • Intellectual understanding

  • Balance – matching volume

  • Blend – matching tone

  • Adaptability – applying and maintaining changes made in rehearsal.

Aural skills

  • Listening and responding

  • Matching pitch

  • Singing

  • Balance/blend

  • Melodic recognition

  • Awareness of bassline

  • Awareness of linear activity (horizontal)

  • Awareness of harmonic activity (vertical)

  • Being Mindful– remembering to listen

Conductor interaction

  • Reading and responding to gesture- turning physical gesture into sound.

  • Eye contact when needed

  • Anticipating information- responding vs reacting

  • Maintaining focus in long rests

  • Matching style to cues

  • Responding to in-the-moment adjustments

Extra-Musical Context

  • Historic, social, cultural context of specific repertoire

  • Historic sense of wind band medium

  • Awareness of important historic composers

  • Awareness of important contemporary composers

  • Awareness of the state of diversity and equity in the music being performed.

  • Programming

Stylistic understanding

  • Articulations as per era, composer

  • Dynamics as per era, composer

  • Other interpretive choices

Ensemble culture

  • Understanding one’s role as a section player, leader,

  • Sense of ensemble – what is it to collaborate musically?

  • Teamwork

  • Etiquette - how not to be “that player”

  • Preparing for rehearsals

  • Working toward a unified artistic goal.

Theoretical understanding (Music Theory meets Music Fact)

  • Form

  • Harmony

  • Cadences

  • Modulations

  • Scales

  • Phrasing

Community

Let’s not forget maybe the most important of all the outcomes, a sense of community. The simple pleasure of players talking to each other before/after rehearsal. I know this is something my students greatly appreciated when COVID first started. Being in an ensemble gives a sense that we’re all in this together (high school musical…) working together for a common purpose. The reason I named this podcast the Band Room is it’s a safe place and a place to come together, be yourself. For some students being in an ensemble is the only happy part of their week and where the community and music might be the only support they have.


When we hear things laid out we see that the performance aspect of being in band is not the end all be all. Trust me, I realize its importance but realize the place we are now, is not forever. My friend and July BRP guest, Pete Meechan said it this way:


“The joy of making music doesn't include performance for everyone. So many creative ways to discover the love of music - it doesn't just have to be in a classroom doing band. This time is an opportunity to really look at all the many ways of teaching music, of inspiring a love for music.”


With that in mind let us talk about solutions!


Solutions

Survey Students

I think we all generally think we know what’s needed for band class, or at least have started some ideas. Maybe we should go to those being affected. Personally speaking, I initially assumed a lot of students wouldn’t want to participate in an ensemble if we were doing remote activities but I was pleasantly surprised when I sent a survey out. The majority would love to come back, the opportunity for community as we discussed before being the biggest factor. Ask them if they have any ideas? What are important ensemble factors for them? Who knows you might learn something from your students ;) An excellent survey can be found in THE CBDNA COVID-19 RESPONSE COMMITTEE Report, from the University of Minnesota and I’m happy to share my survey questions as well, both of which can be found here.


Chamber music, Chamber Music, Chamber Music…

When trying to maintain some degree of face-to-face performance component its difficult for the large ensemble model as we know it to be achievable. Even if granted to meet in full ensemble numbers, our facilities won’t be able to hold us with our socially distancing measures in place. Although, if you want to see what this could look like check out the west point band’s article on COVID-19 Risk Mitigation for Large Groups, everyone two meters apart, plexiglass walls separating and a detailed document explaining the materials and dimensions used to build their plexiglass barriers.


Chamber Music at First Glance

Since this large ensemble model won’t be available to us we turn our focus to chamber music. Sounds easy enough, split your group up! Right? Well, it gets a little complicated. In my case, as someone who teaches post-secondary this is relatively easy, I can split up the group, spend some time coaching one group while a student leader can work with another. However, this isn’t a luxury that everyone has. When we consider elementary, junior and high schools and the thought of leaving students by themselves, you may run into school board problems, among many others. Needing a teacher or some kind of su