How innovative educators are shifting music classes online

Student musicians are experimenting with new recording techniques and virtual collaboration

One of the first things campus orchestra director Chad Hutchinson did when Eastern Michigan University shut down its campus was to make a self-care video for his music students.

After returning home in the early days of the closure, his students were excited about the new world of learning and though they’ve remained committed, their anxieties have grown over the ensuing weeks, Hutchinson says.

In the video, Hutchinson talks to students about getting exercise, finding a peaceful place (such as his own sunroom), practicing yoga, and limiting time spent watching the news and tracking the pandemic on social media.

“Many of them are struggling on a variety of levels,” Hutchinson says. “Most of all, it’s not being able as musicians to be with each other. Social distancing is very difficult for people in the arts because they need that community.”

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In normal times, he has 50 to 60 students rehearsing together in a classroom, and going online has made it difficult for the full orchestra to play together.

Hutchinson is working with the sections of musicians, such as the woodwinds, brass and upper and lower strings, and has also posted videos of himself playing the piano.

At the beginning of the online sessions, the classes spend some time checking in on each other’s well-being and sharing their anxieties.

[VIDEO: Eastern Michigan wind symphony student Rimas Stapusaitis performs a duet]

He has also focused on projects in which students have searched for themes of communications in musical compositions, and shared specific passages with each other. And he encourages students to find online performances that are being offered for free by organizations such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Detroit Symphony.

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“I’ve talked about music being an outlet—they don’t have to be studying music 24 hours a day,” Hutchinson says. “It’s OK to use music as a salve.”

EMU’s online music innovations

Eastern Michigan music professors have innovated in multiple ways, says Christopher Barrick, director of the university’s School of Music and Dance.

Mary Schneider enrolled her wind ensemble class in SmartMusic, a platform that provides accompaniment—from a piano to full concert band—for students as they practice compositions on their instruments.

The students are then producing and sharing videos.

Brandon Johnson has launched “Virtual Vespers,”  in which singers in the university’s choral groups are making videos that can be assembled into a performance.

Johnson posts himself conducting the specific song on YouTube, and students then record their specific vocal line on the platform. The voices are uploaded to a file and combined into one track, and then mixed.

Because there are fewer opportunities to play together, instructors have also been hosting online listening sessions in which students analyze their own performances and other compositions, Barrick says.

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“Band and choir and orchestra are not just about learning your part for the spring concert,” Barrick says. “This difficult situation has forced to step a back and examine the process by which we make music and examine the music we’ve been making.”

It has also been critical for the instructors to remain flexible as students juggle online learning and other responsibilities, Barrick says.

“Everyone’s life has been flipped upside down and it affects our students’ ability to sit in a virtual lecture and participate in these activities,” Barrick says. “We want to keep students engaged and learning, but also provide an amount of understanding as individual students struggle with this new reality.”

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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