Innovation, connectivity and empowerment feature at Tonara’s music education expo

Music education app creator Tonara’s InspirED online conference was a productive gathering of musical and educational minds, but the takeaway impression of the event went beyond its three main themes.

As Tonara’s VP of Marketing Cara Katzew said in her closing remarks, the company’s customer feedback over the lockdown had inspired the discussion tracks: Innovation, Connectivity, Empowerment, ‘But community is the fourth factor that is the future of music education,’ she said.

That certainly showed in the way delegates from as far away as Armenia and New Zealand interacted in the chat columns during the programme of online presentations, discussions, networking sessions and live performances. Teachers from private studios, universities, pre-schools, public schools and more shared ideas, sympathised, joked, offered advice and promised to continue the connection after the event.

The best teachers and schools are finding new ways of bringing music to people because of, rather than in spite of, Covid

It all made for an informative, entertaining and provocative gathering on the weekend before Christmas. Topics ranged across online teaching methods on specific instruments, business strategy and marketing, mastering digital teaching aids and time-management. The weekend even delved into neuroscience, child psychology and new technology. Experts in their field covered vital aspects of working in music education such as avoiding work overwhelm, the psychology of working with traumatised students and tackling the loss of personal contact in the online teaching environment.

What pervaded these discussions was a further connecting theme, ingenuity. As Dr Lee Whitmore of Synchronize Strategy explained in the discussion, ‘Innovation Required – Teaching Through Covid’, the best teachers and schools are finding new ways of bringing music to people because of, rather than in spite of, Covid.

Paraphrasing Dr William Quillen, Conservatory Dean of Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio, he said, ‘We are not entering the pandemic by attempting to replicate pre-pandemic norms. Such would likely be impossible and would therefore lead to continuous disappointment. Instead of focussing on what we can’t do, we ask, what do the current conditions afford and what sort of new horizons might they inspire?’

Covid-19 had awoken a dormant understanding of the essential role creativity and the arts play in human wellbeing

‘With finals [final examinations],’ Whitmore explained. ‘They couldn’t have the usual juries so waived the usual finals and students performed collaboratively and remotely, delivering the types of musical outcomes that would never have happened if Covid hadn’t come along.’

Other schools, he said, have taken to rehearsing together outdoors where practical, or booked 1000-seat venues to allow smaller ensembles to use large stages for distanced lessons. In cities such as Detroit, whose music education provisions had almost evaporated, the pandemic had encouraged support and sharing of arts facilities. Covid-19 had awoken a dormant understanding of the essential role creativity and the arts play in human wellbeing, especially for children.

A number of the speakers addressed this theme. Nicola Cantan explained the methodology behind her Vibrant Music Teaching system for instilling staying-power and grit into students. ‘Someone with just six months of piano lessons is not going to have a fulfilling musical life,’ she said, and pointed out that retaining students is good for teachers, too. ‘It costs a lot more to get a new student than it does to keep the ones that you’ve got.’

Nicole Laborte, an orchestra and choral teacher from Enumclaw, Washington, talked about the need to enthuse students to engage, rather than just comply with the curriculum. ‘We’ve all fallen into the compliance trap because we’re in crisis mode,’ she said. ‘I strive for my students to be questioning, curious, optimistic. I want to encourage interest, critical thinking and passion.’

That engagement requires a different approach online, but that can be of benefit to both students and teachers. Hugh Sung claims he was the first professional pianist to go paper-free, twenty years ago. He also started teaching online six years ago and has never looked back.

I prefer teaching online. I feel like my students learn more effectively

Using Newzik and Artistworks software, he has developed a global roster of hundreds of piano students who share scores and notes, collaborate and practise together in real time. ‘When the pandemic began shutting things down, my first concern was to help my colleagues around the world use the tools I’d been using,’ he said. ‘I prefer teaching online. I feel like my students learn more effectively.’

This remained a point of contention for many of the delegates, who admitted to struggling with online teaching. They found the lack of personal contact difficult, particularly over details of musical expression, physical actions and the sense of connection.

Dr Anita Collins with young musicians
Dr Anita Collins, Tonara InspirED Music Expo keynote speaker, with young musicians

In her keynote talk, Dr Anita Collins explained how the three tracks of the conference, Innovation, Connectivity and Empowerment, interconnect to provide a way forward for music education. In essence, she said, the music education community needs innovations such as Tonara’s to empower teachers and students to find new ways to connect without the intimacy of a music studio.

‘Music education is such an ancient profession… the master and apprentice in an important, intimate, closed space… We need to understand even more about what is going on in the brain if we’re going to learn to teach using moving light technology.

‘Being physically together and watching the tiny signals that come from a body is really important. When we’re using a two-dimensional screen, we need to find new ways of getting around this.

‘We need a new level of language about music learning. How do we find a new way to help a that student over a learning problem?’

This is an opportunity to learn more about how we help students, how they take more control and have more agency in their learning

‘You have to be more explicit and deliberate in how you do things. Find the best place for the camera and move it around,’ she said. ‘When a teacher plays to the student, they miss some of what makes a difference because it compresses the sound.

‘Auditory processing is the largest information gathering sense we have in our body. It never turns off. So, how do we continue with our students online? We need to be more deliberate and mindful. This is an opportunity to learn more about how we help students, how they take more control and have more agency in their learning.’

That control combined with the engagement discussed by Nicole Laborte was seen as one of the reasons why music learning plays a critical role in developing human resilience to the psychological effects of the pandemic.

Neuro-surgeon Dr Charles Limb, bassist Mike Pope, a professor at Berklee, and Lou Ann Pope, a music teacher and consultant to Tonara took the neurological discussion still further, emphasising the need for music education from an early age as an aid to health, brain power and wellbeing. ‘We’re trained to understand that sounds have a special meaning,’ said Limb. ‘That’s to do with how the higher order of the brain interprets what you’re hearing. It’s a very complex process that we’re only just beginning to comprehend.’

Group music making for children is a powerful resiliency tool against trauma

Lou Ann Pope added, ‘The window to learn music starts to close about the age of nine. We need those neural pathways to be created early in life. The earlier the exposure the better.’

‘Group music making for children is a powerful resiliency tool against trauma,’ said Professor Gloria Tham-Haines’ discussion on trauma-informed pedagogy. Her discussion attracted a number of teachers concerned that they were ill-equipped to handle the therapist aspect of music education.

With around a quarter of people in the USA said to have experienced some form of trauma in their childhood before this year’s challenges, Tham-Haines argued that we all have a long way to go in understanding how to engage with traumatised students.

She explained the need for music teachers to develop new language skills, safe spaces and methods of empowering students to feel a sense of control. ‘Behaviour is communication,’ she said. ‘It’s about seeing the need behind the behaviour.’

With live performances and online chat space for delegates, conversation at the conference was lively and friendly. In a year of isolation, the opportunity for dozens of music educators to share their problems and solutions proved valuable. And with two seminars on time management, it was clear that many of the delegates had been feeling the stress themselves.

Carly Walton of Teach Music Online shared some of the lessons she learned as she navigated the transition to online teaching over the last seven years. As a Berklee alumna on piano and voice, she had stretched herself to breaking point, saying yes to everyone, driving from home class to home class and failing to keep up with administration.

Increase your studio value with technology

By stepping back and re-assessing her life she developed a simple plan to manage time, projects, students, business development, leisure time and money. She took all her teaching online seven years ago, stopping driving to all her students, increasing her hourly rate and choosing her students more carefully.

By blocking out her time and using technology such as Tonara’s music education apps and Google Suite, she reduced time spent on scheduling, invoicing, setting assignments and communicating with students to a couple of hours per week. Some of her subscribers were in the session as testimony to the success of her system. ‘Increase your studio value with technology, well-mapped curriculum, performance opportunities, studio communication and by diversifying your offerings,’ she said. ‘You provide a more amazing experience for your students and you perceived value increases.’

We are listening to the needs of music educators and students and putting them into action

As the Tonara InspirED conference demonstrated, agility, ingenuity and flexibility are the keys to survival in the Covid era and beyond. Tonara organised the event because it saw opportunities in the pandemic where others may only have seen threats.

‘The pandemic has reminded us how important it is to be innovative, connected and empowered, which inspired the three tracks of the conference,’ says Cara Katzew. ‘Our whole world was turned upside down. So, we thought how can we help during a pandemic? One of the first things we did was integrate video lesson capabilities in a flash, thanks to our amazing software development team.’

Since then, the company has added the Tonara Academy plan for schools and Tonara Connect, to help students and teachers find each other around the world.

Tonara’s Learning Groups is still a Beta system at present, but it’s aimed at people like Nicole Laborte, who has already swung the balance of her lessons towards ‘asynchronous’ or pre-recorded tutorials, keeping one-to-one time to relationship-building sessions with students. ‘Realistically, in an online model, we need things delivered asynchronously because we have no control over student’s bandwidth at home or if the student is also baby-sitting,’ says Laborte.

‘Our lives are dynamic, so we want to provide an agile solution,’ says Katzew. ‘We are listening to the needs of music educators and students and putting them into action,’ said Katzew. ‘We want to make it easy for people to learn music.’


Tonara‘s InspirED Music Expo took place on 18 and 19 December 2020 online. Recordings of conference sessions are available here for a limited time.

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