Ensemble Teaching In An Age of COVID

Updated: 3 days ago



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 supervision in the room with the students.


There is a useful article that the NAME (National Association for Music Education) put out in 2015 about how you might go about allotting time for chamber music and some supervision idea’s as well. Dr. Eugenia Goldman suggests some ideas that are doable and some that might not be. Also keep in mind this was written pre-COVID:

  • Designate one day per week to chamber music in a large space such as an auditorium, large classroom or even gym for splitting the orchestra into small groups. This arrangement allows one teacher to keep an eye on all the groups, walk between them, and address any issues.

  • In a team-teaching situation, one of the teachers can take some students into a practice room or hallway and coach one or two groups at a time.

  • Occasionally allow more experienced students to coach less experienced ones.

  • Run the rehearsals before or after school.

  • Find time during the day when students may be available (e.g., at lunchtime).

  • Encourage students to treat chamber ensembles as independent projects and meet outside of school in their free time.

As we just read, scheduling plays a HUGE role in making the chamber music idea work. Making sure the different groups are able to enter and leave rooms safely, leaving adequate time to clean up and sanitize. At my schools we developed very detailed schedules, making sure we have the minimal amount of traffic happening in the department at any one time.


Repertoire

The other concern that has been brought to our attention is repertoire, as not every school ensemble will be able to be nicely split up into woodwind quintets, percussion ensembles, brass quartets, etc. Certainly, if you have the people to split up into conventional ensembles, do it! And you’ll have plenty of rep to choose from. However, as mentioned before this won’t work for everyone. In one of my ensembles there’s the potential that they’ll will be split up by year, creating some pretty funky instrumentations. One possibility being flute, tenor sax, trombone and two percussion…Last I checked, that instrumentation doesn’t have a great deal written for it! This is where flex band repertoire or adaptable repertoire or my favourite, instrument fluid repertoire, can be put to use. This certainly isn’t a new idea as this concept has been around for a long time. Everyone remember those Mixed Bag wind ensemble arrangements? Pieces by Bach, Purcell, Haydn and more. However, I encourage you to explore original works. Just because we go the flex band route doesn’t mean we need to sacrifice our standards and select music of less musical merit (Sorry to go all Battisti on you). Also, be weary of every single piece publisher push to us, not saying it’s all bad but reminding you to be careful.


In the band world especially, we are immensely blessed by composers stepping up and creating adaptable versions of great works and creating new original works with flex in mind. Composers like Alex Shapiro, Pete Meechan, Cait Nishimura, Frank Tichelli, Omar Thomas, Jenifer Jolly and more are leading the charge to provide our students with creative and quality repertoire. One such place you can look is the Creative Repertoire Initiative Facebook page. This is a place for composers to provide information about their music for adaptable band, and for band directors to learn about these works. It’s also a community landing spot that hosts conversations about ensemble needs, crowd-sources ideas and solutions, and introduces composers and conductors to each other. Not to mention there has been lots of talk of composers writing music that can be played over zoom or whatever platform you’re using. The latency issue doesn’t need to be feared, it could be embraced!


If you have a favourite composer who currently isn’t creating adaptable repertoire, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask. Maybe they can quickly adapt something in their catalogue or even cooler, create a new work for your students!


Composition

Keeping in the same area, composition isn’t something that only adults do. Remember all those great composers I listed started somewhere, so why not explore composition deeper with your students? And if you think about it, we check off a lot of boxes on our learning outcomes list by teaching composition to our students, and what a wonderful tool for expression!


Doesn’t Have to Be Stravinsky!

Many of you might have already have a composition component in your curriculum, I know I did when I was in high school. However, some might not due to comfort level, time, assumption you don’t have enough of a background in composition and so on…and know that that’s ok! You don’t need to be the Natalie Boulanger of composition teachers. Start simple, one or two chords, a full progression, give them a framework or maybe let their creative minds loose and create something without a framework.


Your students can compose for the chamber groups you’ve put them into and even have an opportunity to test their ideas out. "Right, that note doesn’t exist on the bass clarinet", "Whoops I messed up the horn transposition" It’s all great! This idea is also easily translatable to a remote situation. There are plenty of free notation software’s that are easy to use and user friendly or maybe you’re lucky and can provide Sibelius or Finale for your students.


These student compositions also don’t need to be a symphonies length. I’ve been very lucky to be part of a collective of Canadian Collegiate Wind Conductors during these crazy times and we’ve been talking a lot about involving our composition departments to compose micro-compositions for our ensembles. 1-2 min pieces that allow students to learn and experiment and for our students to play. This can also easily be done remotely if necessary and there are ample opportunities to use electro-acoustical elements. Alex Shapiro has been doing a lot of great work in this area and a number of her compositional templates can be found on the Creative Repertoire Initiative website, along with resources from Frank Ticheli, Julie Giroux, Steven Bryant and Brian Balmages.


Professional Composer Masterclasses

I don’t know about you but with being forced to use video conferencing software I’ve become more social than ever before. This has opened our eyes to being able have really great remote guests in classes. Why not invite a composer to help get your class started on this compositional adventure!? They offer a great deal of knowledge and inspiration to our students. Let me also remind you that most composers are freelancers and like many, have taken a financial hit during the pandemic. We have a real opportunity to help.


Professional Musician Workshop: With a Focus on Freelancers

This idea also lends itself to professional performing musicians. Invite in a local professional to speak about their musical experiences, their instrument, their path. if you can’t go local, the world is your oyster now, well it always was but now we’ve realized the possibility of remote guests. These experiences serve as musical inspiration that will last a life time. Same thought crosses my mind, we have a great opportunity to help our freelance colleagues during this time of cancelled live performance.


The Virtual Band

One of the performance possibilities that has been talked about as an ensemble replacement is the virtual ensemble, so I’ll spend a little bit of time talking about it. This idea was made famous through Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir Projects, putting together thousands of videos of singers from around the world, creating a beautiful recording. Every time I go on Facebook now I see a new virtual ensemble video. I think they’re a lot of fun to watch and certainly a great end of year project. It gives us all the feels like we’re in this together, look what we made, it gives our students a performance goal and something to aim for. However, if we are comparing it to a true ensemble experience (which I hear many doing) we quickly realize that very little actually has to do with being in an ensemble. Students are provided with the part they need to record, giving a metronome marking (but lets remember, not all metronomes are created equal) or better a click track, or better yet, a pre-existing recording with a click track, then the videos get sent to the teacher or maybe you’re lucky enough to hire a real engineer to do the editing and mixing. Then we have the final product! Here is one of the highest quality remote recordings I’ve heard from the ASU Wind Ensemble, performing Scott McAlister’s, MORE COWBELL!!!

The first time I heard it I actually thought it was a recording from a previous live concert but after speaking to Jason Caslor about the recording he told me it was remotely done and his colleague Dr. Justin Hubbard spent 10 hours per minute of music…and that’s not even with video editing.


So why am I rambling on about the virtual ensemble!? I think it’s a valuable tool for the reasons I stated before but we must realize that it’s not the product that is most important here, it’s the process. The time you spend having students play for you, giving feedback either synchronous or asynchronous, the opportunity for students to be critically thinking about what they’ve produced and what they’ve heard. When doing projects like this make sure that the end result isn’t the focus but let the process lead.


The other thing we need to remember about the virtual ensemble project is that we can still be creative with it. The final product doesn’t need to look like another intro to the Brady Bunch. Maybe you have a student in your ensemble who has interest in visual arts or video production. Maybe this is the perfect opportunity for you to partner with your school’s visual art department, a dance studio or a local artist. These videos can be opportunities to share a story and not just another virtual performance of a piece.


I’m Drowning in Resources!

One of the most wonderful things that has happened during this pandemic is how everyone has come together sharing ideas, creating resources and providing studies so you can make informed and safe decisions. I don’t know about you but now more than ever it’s very easy to feel like you're drowning in recourses. So many studies to read, so many people saying I have solutions (myself included) or ideas that you haven’t thought of and sometimes it becomes overwhelming. Hard to tell what’s good and what’s bad. I’ve put together a list of some trusted resources and reports that might help cut down the clutter:


International Coalition of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Report 3

Before we think about lesson plans and how to do ensembles, we should first learn about the science. Since doing the COVID podcast episode, much research has been released on how to approach live ensemble performance safely. This study from the CBDNA and NFHS (among many other organizations, is the most thorough and trusted. Here is a short description from the NFHS website:


"A number of performing arts organizations have joined forces to commission a study on the effects of COVID-19 on the return to the rehearsal hall. It is important to understand what risks exist in performing arts classrooms and performance venues.  Specifically, the study will examine aerosol rates produced by wind instrumentalists, vocalists, and even actors, and how quickly those aerosol rates accumulate in a space. Although not yet proven, strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the COVID-19 virus can travel in the microscopic droplets expelled from a person with the virus, even when asymptomatic. The only way to determine what risk level exists or to create best practices for reducing infection risk is to understand how aerosol disbursement works in a performing arts setting."


View the full study here: https://www.nfhs.org/articles/unprecedented-international-coalition-led-by-performing-arts-organizations-to-commission-covid-19-study/


CBDNA COVID-19 Response Committee Report (https://www.cbdna.org/covid19/)

The CBDNA COVID-19 Response Committee Report is one of the most through documents released since the pandemic began. It helps guide you through: health and wellness considerations, space issues when it comes to social distancing, programming ideas and a number of assignment ideas for whichever situation you find yourselves in, be it face to face hybrid or remote. The other reason this document is so valuable is because of the brains behind it, trusted voices in our profession. This any many of the resources I’ll share are living documents and while be periodically updated.


OMEA Framework for Music Classes during COVID-19 (https://www.omea.on.ca/covid19/)

The OMEA Framework for Music Classes during COVID-19 document is much like the CBDNA document but also gives many wonderful ideas that might be more applicable for elementary, junior/high school lessons. Also brings many resources cleanly and neatly in to one place. Lots of documents to support music education advocacy in schools, which is a fight we all will have to fight this year.


Fall 2020 Guidance for Music Education from NFHS and NAfME (https://nafme.org/my-classroom/fall-2020-guidance-music-education-from-nfhs-nafme/?fbclid=IwAR1AKF8KEIxhdy0hKLGnqSi_d1Dhy1IsC8gDzGz5k8iuZEazM_ZuNztF41A)

The last one of these guidelines or frameworks I’ll recommend checking out is the Fall 2020 Guidance for Music Education from the National Federation of State High School Associations and the National Association for Music Education. This document does a wonderful job of offering solid ideas for starting beginners during this time, including maybe the most important part, student instrument selection, as well as many more ideas for you to consider as you plan out your fall.


Creative Repertoire Initiative (https://www.creativerepertoire.com/ & FB Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/creativerepertoire/)

I know I’ve mentioned it before but if you haven’t already you MUST look into the work the Creative Repertoire Initiative is doing. CRI is a collective of composers and conductors committed to creating adaptable music for ensembles in the coming academic year and beyond, due to the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Their Facebook group is especially helpful and provides a platform and opportunity for you to connect with composers and other colleagues about a creative approach to teaching the joy of music performance during COVID-19.


Reminders to Leave You With

Remember that the moment we are in right now isn’t forever and maybe this year we’ll have to pick and choose what is truly important in our student’s ensemble education, and either leave aspects out or change your model completely. From my experience students don’t remember playing perfectly in tune and they don’t remember how they perfectly executed that forte piano crescendo. What they do remember is the community we created together and the platform for expression you created for them. Not to be cliché, but what they remember is the power of music and the joy it brings them. I know many of us are looking for an answer that will give us some semblance of normal music making life during this time but in truth, we’ll find this “new” but temporary normal through a compilation of talked about in this post.


Be wary of social media and every article that comes out about wind and percussion instruments during COVID-19. The controversial Norman Lebrecht came out with an article called, A Full Assessment of The COVID Risk of Playing Wind Instruments. It’s a very important article, hard to read because he gives quite a realistic of view of what we know, nothing! Reminds that when it comes to solid scientific studies on aerosols, there really hasn’t been anything. A lot of the important studies are still yet to come, as I mention earlier in the podcast. Something we must keep in mind when making decisions that apply to the safety of us and our students. I encourage you to give his article a read, although ironically, it’s not peer reviewed…


During this time, it’s very important to network and speak with people you look up to in the profession, not only from an advice point of view but from a community perspective. When the Canadian Collegiate Wind Conductors started meeting, it was the only zoom meeting we looked forward to every week. Yes, because we were able to share ideas but also because we realized we are all going through the same thing. The power of commiseration! Meet with other teachers in your school board, this also might help if you’re a school that doesn’t have enough instruments for each student to have their own. One of your colleagues might have an extra tuba or bassoon you can borrow for the year. Maybe a post-secondary professor that you look up to, maybe it’s someone in industry, a mentor. Don’t be afraid to share, brainstorm and help each other out. Remember, no one has gone through this before and we can learn from each other.


Right now, we’re all going through the seven stages of grief, beginning with shock, and followed by denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, and depression, these are all regular parts of the process, but eventually, we need to get to acceptance and hope. And the sooner, the better.

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