Opinion: online music classes of a new era

by Christine Kim

In the wake of Hamden High School’s sudden transition to full distance learning on Nov. 17, the school’s music department has faced new challenges in keeping students engaged while learning and performing new music.

Previously, Hamden High School permitted its students to attend in-person classes on set days of the week, based on a hybrid model which proved mostly successful at containing COVID-19 cases until early November. The Hamden Board of Education moved quickly to begin full distance learning, despite concerns raised by some parents in terms of managing child care while maintaining their work schedules.

Under the now-replaced hybrid model, the school provided private lessons and ensemble rehearsals for stringed instruments only. Further, singing and playing wind instruments in the school building were forbidden due to concerns regarding the spread of respiratory droplets and aerosols.

“A study from the University of Colorado determined that the increased air pressure and emphasis on over-enunciated consonants involved in singing generates too much aerosol in a room of any reasonable size, with or without masks,” said Daniel Balint, choral director at Hamden High School. “In hybrid learning, time in the classroom was spent reading and discussing background information about the songs that were being sung at home.”

From the outset of the pandemic, teachers turned to digital technology, struggling to ascertain the best way to deliver the ensemble experience online.

“Due to significant sound latency, playing at the same time over Zoom hasn’t proven effective. So, I decided that we would all learn how to use audio recording software so that students can submit parts that ultimately get sewn together,” said Aaron Barkon, instrumental director at Hamden High School.

“My primary way of teaching songs is through learning tracks I make and share via YouTube,” said Mr. Balint, sharing a recording he made for this purpose. “Students use the tracks to learn their part and then record themselves using FlipGrid. They share their recording and I provide feedback to them individually, and then to sections or the whole group as needed. They then repeat the process with a second and third draft before I begin editing together their work and releasing it to the public.”

It is well-documented that the performing arts world was among the hardest hit by COVID-19, as most artists have been limited to online methods of content delivery since mid-March. Music teachers face not only the conventional challenges of teaching via Zoom, but also find themselves forced to radically change their conceptions of music.

“On many levels, music is a social/group process. Being in Zoom takes away our togetherness,” said Mr. Barkon. “Arts that require being together and utilize instant feedback to make corrections and working as a team are definitely at a disadvantage.”

Whereas full distance learning unexpectedly streamlined the content delivery process for music teachers, it has also highlighted the limitations of online music education.

“Full distance learning is much more effective by comparison to hybrid learning. The class period can be spent singing, including independent practice time, small group and individual instruction,” said Mr. Balint. “The most difficult part right now is learning to edit videos. So I’m studying a lot. It is definitely the bottleneck in the process right now, so I’m hoping to get quicker at it over the course of the year,” he said.

“On Zoom, we are faced with the challenge of not being able to look directly at students and therefore, communication has been very inconsistent,” said Mr. Barkon. “Some students are visible, others semi-visible, and some have their cameras off. Knowing what information is received and what students understand and need help with is a challenge.”

In a world where the arts are likely to be shut down for the foreseeable future, and even the most innovative of performing ensembles have canceled their 2020 concerts, the question is whether orchestra and choir classes retain their value, even on Zoom.

The cultural and psychological importance of the arts notwithstanding, music students in 2020 face an unprecedented opportunity to learn the skills that once separated the vast majority of so-called “traditional” music practitioners from the few who made their names known by sharing performances and gathering listeners on YouTube.

The finger-style guitarist Sungha Jung became a household name among guitar enthusiasts by sharing videos on YouTube since he was 10 years old. Sam Tsui found his first stage on the internet, rising to fame as an internet celebrity for his covers and pop music medleys before Instagram and TikTok became fixtures of American teenage culture.

Both Jung and Tsui have since experienced success offline, even as they continued to engage with viewers on YouTube.

Their paradigm of moving from YouTube to the so-called “real world” has been mirrored in reverse by today’s music students, who find themselves working with recording equipment and seeing their faces on YouTube.

To be sure, few will experience Jung and Tsui’s success. Nonetheless, it is possible that their experiences learning music in the age of COVID-19 will help them develop the IT skills necessary to succeed in other ventures.

The pandemic is a disaster for artists, but it is also motivating artists to learn the skills they need in order to succeed in the modern era. COVID-19 forced a transition from offline to online content delivery that, as any teenager would tell you, was already happening.

“This process does require a lot of independence and courage from students and it does not replace the feeling of playing together with others, but it does give us new learning opportunities, products to reflect on and new insight about our own knowledge base, strengths and weaknesses,” said Mr. Barkon.

As the arts industry continues to change, music students who are persevering through their frustrating online curricula may find themselves equipped for new performing arts paradigms for the 21st century.