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Getting together under Covid-19 – what now for music ensembles?

George Hess suggests a way forward for large ensemble classes under the 'new normal': project-based learning

What are the prospects for choirs, bands and orchestras in education settings in the evolving ‘new normal’ Covid-19 world? George Hess, music tech educator and founder-director of online course provider Musitex, suggests a way forward for large ensemble classes: project-based learning.

Observing the reactions of music teachers to the events around us, it’s clear many of you are going through the seven stages of grief. Beginning with shock, and followed by denial, bargaining, guilt, anger, and depression, these are all standard parts of the process, but eventually, we need to get to acceptance and hope. And the sooner, the better.

A large group of students in a classroom for an hour or more is a high-risk activity

The reality is that band, choir, and orchestra will not be taught in any way that resembles normal in the coming term. I’ve heard all the arguments and read the research, but it doesn’t matter if studies say singing or playing poses the same risk as other activities. A large group of students in a classroom for an hour or more is a high-risk activity, and no school is going to allow it. That pretty much rules out large ensembles. I suppose you could hold marching band as long as the formations maintain the six-foot spacing, but that’s about it.

That’s a pretty scary proposition. Many of you are probably even wondering whether students will opt out. After all, most of them aren’t going to be happy with general music or a theory class.

So, let’s make a record. Or a video.

It makes perfect sense if you consider how music has been presented for the last 100 years or so. Musicologist Robert Levin quipped that every concert goer has undoubtedly heard Mozart’s works many times more than Mozart did himself. The magic of technology has brought music to the masses in the form of recordings, videos, and broadcasts. It’s about time it was brought to the classroom, too.

Ok, I’m sure many of you are shaking your heads and saying, ‘Oh no, not another virtual choir video’. Well, yes, actually. But with a twist. You, the teacher, should do as little as possible to make this happen. This needs to be student-centered, project-based learning. Your job is to coach and support, not unlike what you do as a director. But you let them do the heavy lifting.

You are allowed to learn alongside your students

The next objection is that you don’t know how to do it. But one of the beauties of project-based learning is that you are allowed to learn alongside your students. You still bring all the musical expertise to the project, and once you do the project a few times, you’ll get to know more about the process and technology. But your students may learn the technology faster and even teach you. Once you accept that you’re part of a learning team, you’ll find that it’s actually a lot of fun.

A project like this ticks a lot of boxes. Composition, performance, improvisation, keyboard skills, audio technology, and critical listening are just some of the skills and activities that can be included. While students won’t actually perform at the same time, they still have to learn all of the skills that ensemble playing requires, playing in tune, in time, blend, and so on. And it’s a team project, so at least some social interaction is retained.

Focus on smaller groups

Large ensembles take a lot of work, so it’s probably best to focus on smaller groups. There’s a wealth of chamber music available, but you can also do jazz and popular music. Starting small makes it more likely that the students will succeed, and giving them choices helps keep them engaged. You let them take risks and even fail at times. In the end, the process is as important as the result.

There are apps for collaborating online to compose, record, and edit audio and video. More advanced students might want to use computer-based apps. And this type of project can easily transfer from face-to-face to online without the disruption we experienced the last term.

Start talking about the exciting opportunities

Not being able to run large ensembles doesn’t have to be the end of music in our schools, and it can even be a positive. We have to stop telling people about what we can’t do and start talking about the exciting opportunities it presents. You might be surprised and find that students who never wanted to join your ensemble will now be interested as it involves more than just performance and can even include other instruments like piano and guitar.

Christopher Boyd and I will be discussing how to do this and more at our sessions at the 3rd Annual International Music Education Summit. It’s a great, three-day, online professional development conference that features presentations by innovative music educators, live performances, and networking opportunities. Please join us! Click the link above for more information. 

About the author

Dr George Hess is an educator, author, performer and composer with over 40 years of professional experience with over 25 years as professor of music at major universities.

  • Author of Create Music with Notion: Notation for the Busy Musician (2015, Hal Leonard)
  • Professor of Music at Central Michigan University and the National University of Singapore
  • Apple Distinguished Educator
  • Award-winning educator in jazz, technology, theory and pedagogy
  • Graduate of prestigious jazz programs at Berklee and Northern Colorado
  • Producer of MuseScore in Minutes video series
  • Groove 3 video library producer
  • Performances with the Osmonds, Myron Floren, Ryo Kawasaki, Jim Nabors
  • Over 100 clinics and workshops presented on four continents