Videoconferencing, The ALIVE Project and You

Mike Lawson • Technology • March 6, 2011

For the past 15 years, I have been intrigued with the capabilities of video conferencing and its instructional benefits with guest lecturers – without the complications of travel, housing, meals and timelines.

By John Kuzmich, Jr.

While giving a presentation in Stockholm for the Swedish chapter of the Percussive Arts Society’s Day of Percussion in 2004, Allan Molnar stated, “Back in the 1980s, musicians began taking computers to gigs so they could replace live musicians with MIDI instruments. Now musicians can take computers to gigs and replace MIDI instruments with live musicians!”


He recalls, “The virtual musicians I took to that gig were from Kansas State University. I played vibraphone onsite in Stockholm with the Kansas State Univer- sity Latin Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Kurt Gartner. The gig was very traditional in every way except for the fact the KSU musicians were in Manhattan, Kansas. They joined me via videoconference in perfect real time.”

This performance launched the Accessible Live Internet Video Education (ALIVE) Project, under the direction of Allan Molnar and Stewart Smith. This series of videoconference presentations used these trans-Atlantic performances as a vehicle to demonstrate the potential for working together on musical projects. Allan Molnar says, “Today, we are challenged to integrate technology into our teaching methodology without compromising the traditional music education paradigm. Just imagine: where would you go if you could take your students on a field trip anywhere in the world? If you could invite anyone to teach a lesson to your class, whom would you ask? Imagine the ability to connect your students with students from other schools in dis- tant cities and countries. One of the technologies the ALIVE Project uses to bring these ideas to fruition is the tech- nology of computer-based distance learning!”

For the past 15 years, I have been intrigued with the capabilities of video conferencing and its instructional benefits with guest lecturers – without the complications of travel, housing, meals and timelines. Colleges have advocated for distance learning as a sure-fire delivery system for asynchronous lecturing. Today, interactive synchronous instruction over the Internet is readily available as Internet bandwidth has increased and cost is more attractive. Opportunities for videoconfer- encing have also become realistic because computer hardware, operating systems, and software applications are more powerful and practical. For example, since 2003, Skype, a quality delivery software system for Internet videoconferencing, is free for both registered PC and Mac platform users, allowing two locations to interact via simultaneous, two-way video and audio transmissions. Family and friends obviously benefit from Skyping, and music educators can too. Consider the following venues for videoconferencing that the ALIVE Project has featured since 2004:

• Concert band rehearsals with guest conductors

• Day-long events with multiple guest artists

• Individual lectures on a variety of topics

• Jazz band rehearsals and clinics

• Joint performances spanning continents

• Lecture series culminating in live performances

• Interviews with renowned jazz masters

• Live concerts to remote locations

• Instrument master classes

• Music technology classes

• Private lessons

• Section rehearsals

• Supervision of student teachers

• Combo rehearsals and workshops

• “Virtual” music festivals

In October of 2010, Dr. Fraser Linklater and the University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble spent about 75 minutes via Internet communication with Allan McMurray from the University of Colorado. Dr. Linklater remembers, “I was quite excited about the outcome of this first distance ensemble work- shop. I had previously spoken with Allan McMurrary about the reper- toire to be rehearsed and given him a brief history of the group. Prior to this rehearsal, Stewart Smith was in contact with him regarding the audio and video aspects of the session. Consequently, the technology was seamlessly integrated into the workshop and it was as if Mr. McMurray was in the room with us, listening and commenting. Granted, he wasn’t conducting up at the front of the ensemble, but his perceptive comments told us that he could dis- tinctly hear the sounds we were pro- ducing.

“This kind of interaction allowed us to access the talents and experi- ence of someone who, due to cost and time factors, would normally be unreachable for our ensemble. It was also a challenge for me to conduct and make happen the suggestions that Allan provided. The students were intrigued and focused. They enjoyed the experience and every- one grew musically. We will be do- ing this again in the second semester with H. Robert Reynolds from the University of Southern California. I would definitely encourage en- semble conductors at all levels to consider the possibilities offered by distance learning of this type.”

General Video Conferencing Equipment Options

The component parts required for a video conferencing system include:

• Video input: video camera or Web cam

• Video output: computer monitor, television, or projector

• Audio input: microphones, CD/DVD player, cassette player, or any preamp audio outlet source

• Audio output: loudspeakers associated with the display device or telephone

• Data transfer: analog or digital telephone network, LAN or Internet

There are basically two kinds of videoconferencing systems: dedicated, sophisticated and expensive systems often used by businesses, and portable desktop systems, which are perfect for educators. Allan and Stewart both use the Apple platform, but have also successfully made the Mac to PC link. The ALIVE Project primarily utilizes the technological resources that already exist in most schools.

Imagination and Video Conferencing

At the 2011 Jazz Educators Network (JEN) National Conference in New Orleans, Stewart Smith, who teaches at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg, Canada, Provi- dence College, and the University of Manitoba, and Allan Molnar, who lives in New York, teaches at Lehm- an College, runs www.percussionstu-, and freelances with KoSA ( presented a clinic on the ALIVE Project, Jazz Education via Distance Learning.

Through the medium of Internet videoconferencing, they presented concepts and examples of live Inter- net links for musicians and students around the world. Over the past seven years, they have nurtured re- lationships between teaching artists and schools worldwide with class- es in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and universi- ties using iChat, a free conferencing application for Mac users. Allan is also sharing this concept with his colleagues through his role as for- mer chair and current member of the Percussive Arts Society Technology Committee.

Allan and Stewart demonstrated how they took their iChat-equipped laptops to their respective schools, plugged in, and began team teaching music classes. It’s really that simple, and to date they have been involved with well over 100 training sessions throughout the U.S.A., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia. They cre- ated ALIVE because they found that previous videoconferencing initiatives that had been explored in some districts were cost-prohibitive to all but a few schools. However, this has changed dramatically as technol- ogy has continued to develop. The vast majority of the schools now involved in the ALIVE Project have never invested in dedicated video conferencing equipment. By and large, the technology costs are non- existent because schools can employ existing infrastructure. Most schools have high-speed Internet access and personal computers with cameras, and the iChat and Skype software is free.

The cost for professional artists will be a budget consideration. This expense will vary based on the de- mands of the artist and any technical support that might be needed. Many schools have some kind of clinician fee structure in place. Yet, because transportation, accommodations, meals, and so on are no longer an is- sue, bringing in a guest artist will be more affordable than ever –with no geographic limitations.

Allan Molnar reminded us at the JEN Conference, “The value of net- working cannot be measured and the concept of connecting classrooms by way of video conferencing is exciting. Teachers sharing ideas, techniques and resources, as well as students meeting students in other schools, cities and countries, make the pos- sibilities limitless. ALIVE encourages students and teachers to develop the networking skills needed for success in today’s highly competitive world. Every teacher and many students can afford to use this technology at home! Music provides an excellent model for the implementation of this idea because in addition to the rich educational value of the subject area, music is a social, interactive and a hands-on discipline. We are build- ing on this music-based model by es- tablishing connections with teachers from other disciplines. The possibili- ties are limitless.”

Initially, they conducted sessions with traditional jazz improvisa- tion lessons where Stewart Smith’s students in Winnipeg successfully traded fours in real time with Al- lan Molnar in New York. Additional instructional sessions have included brass, percussion, music listening and appreciation, general music and technology workshops.

Video Conferencing Equipment

“This kind of interaction allowed us to access the talents and experience of someone who, due to cost and time factors, would normally be unreachable for our ensemble.”

By introducing iChat and the iSight firewire Web conferencing camera, Apple opened the door to a new era of communication. While this technology is still evolving, we have reached a point where video- conferences are both effective and satisfying. The PC world is catching up. Here are six basic needs for large group videoconferencing:


1. Apple computer (G3 600 MHz or faster) Any Mac purchased within the last seven years will have the minimum capability to videocon- ference.

2. Web camera, either external or built into the computer. There are many bands with varying capabilities, so take the time to shop around. Apple’s original iSight camera has been out of production for several

3. iChat account. While free, it can be bundled with a MobileMe account to include Web-based e-mail and web access to files for about $129 per year.

4. High speed Internet connection. 5. LCD projector (not essential but very useful in a classroom with a larger audience).

6. Sound amplifier (again, not essential but very useful in a larger setting).

“We have always been interested in finding the confluence of digital technology and music education,” says Allan. “Music teachers are busy enough and the simplicity of what we have done with the technology in the ALIVE Project is, I think, a big part of its appeal. To paraphrase Jamey Aebersold, ‘Anybody can videoconference””

Videoconferencing Highlights

The ALIVE Project has produced over 100 videoconferences and recording sessions since 2004. For an overview of the 15 different venues, go to TheALIVEProject.pdf In addition, you will find suggestions for how to structure your own suc- cessful videoconferences in these three categories: Preparation, Technology and Delivery.

The Big Apple… online was a virtual jazz festival involving the University of Manitoba Faculty of Music in coop- eration with the ALIVE Project. Interactive, on- line clinic sessions were presented live involving leading professional musicians from N.Y.C. and around the world. Sessions included “Latin Bass Styles, Leading the Jazz Ensemble, Modal Improvisation, Improvisation Con- cepts, Trumpet Styles, and Latin Percussion and Drum-set.

Live videoconferences have brought the best professional artists into classrooms, such as a jazz pi- ano and improvisation master class with Dan Haerle, a conversation with Frank Foster about his musi- cal career, a trumpet master class with Bobby Shew, a discussion with trombonist/arranger Tillmon Gal- loway about his time in the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, a euphonium master class with Dr. Brian Bowman, a performance and pedagogy tuba master class with Rex Martin, trombone master class with Norman Bolter, and horn master class with Gail Williams.

Neal Berntsen, trumpet player with the Pittsburgh Symphony Or- chestra and Chairman of the Brass Department at Carnegie-Mellon University, was very impressed with his videoconference experience with Stewart Smith’s music class. He re- marks, “I found the entire event to be fascinating. Under Stewart’s direction, both the class and the technology went very smoothly. I am very impressed that a school is on the cutting edge of such an en- deavor. Clearly, these online master classes are the wave of the future and I was honored to be initiated to the process in such a seamless manner. Students will benefit greatly from the myriad of ideas that they will be exposed to in future classes.”

Allan (amolnar@percussionstudio. com) and Stewart (mstewartsmith1@ can be contacted directly for more information. More details and insight about Allan and Stewart and their videoconferencing can also be found in this article’s Web supplement (

Closing Comments

Just think of the possibilities for classroom use. How about hav- ing a composer create an original composition for your ensemble and videoconference in to explain the composition, as well as observe and comment on rehearsals? This was recently done at one of the Manito- ba Band Association’s Summer Band Workshops in 2010 with director Darrell Chrisp.

Headmaster Dr. Stephen Johnson says, “The online learning sessions that have occurred at St. John’s- Ravenscourt School have been a tremendous asset to our music pro- gram. Being in direct contact with musicians in some of the finest or- chestras and music schools in world is a unique experience for our stu- dents, and first-rate professional development for our faculty. These enrichment opportunities have been second to none in the prov- ince, and all for a very affordable cost. I would strongly encourage all schools to explore what the ALIVE Project has been doing for the last seven years”

Videoconferencing technology electrifies how teachers teach and how students can learn and share their music. Classrooms, no longer limited by walls, are opening up a world of possibilities… which is fit- ting for the universal language of music.

Dr. John Kuzmich Jr. is a veteran music educator, jazz educator and music technolo- gist with more than 41 years of public school teaching experi- ence. He is a TI:ME-certified training instructor and has a Ph.D. in comprehensive musi- cianship. As a freelance author, Dr. Kuzmich has more than 400 articles and five textbooks published. As a clinician, Dr. Kuzmich frequently participates in workshops throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, and South America.

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