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Helping Music Educators Teach Online in the Age of Covid-19: The Music Industry Steps Up to Support Music Teachers

Dr. Jim Frankel, founder & director of MusicFirst • Features • March 27, 2020

Whether we like it or not, we are now in the Covid-19 era – a global pandemic that will likely have widespread repercussions on every aspect of our lives. One of first disruptions was the preemptive closing of schools across the country with a shift to teaching students remotely using technology. For many teachers, especially music teachers, they have been thrust into the unknown. Few, if any, have had experience teaching performance ensembles and classroom music remotely.

If there is one silver lining to this unprecedented crisis, it is that numerous music technology providers from the industry have stepped up to provide free access to their products during this time.

Companies such as MusicFirst, Noteflight, SmartMusic, Sight Reading Factory, PracticeFirst, Breezin’ Thru Theory, Macie Publishing, Auralia & Musition, Essential Elements Interactive and Classroom, Shed The Music, Musicplay Online, Quaver, and others have offered full, free, unlimited access to their platforms for teachers and students during the school closures. Other companies have offered their usual 30-day demo access or have created free materials for teachers to use.

Many other music educators and startup companies are also joining the effort – creating targeted Facebook groups, Google Docs, free apps, and even online happy hours to help teachers get through this.

It is important to note that it costs a great deal to provide these normally paid services for free, but these incredible companies and educators have stepped up in a time of need to ensure that teachers and students across the country and around the world will still be able to learn, create, perform and love music in a time when it is arguably most important.

Just because teachers have free access to these tools doesn’t mean that they know exactly what to do with them. Many of the same companies listed above have been offering free, sometimes daily online trainings on how their products work, and while this is certainly helpful and appreciated, many teachers simply need to figure out the basics of teaching music online. What follows is set of recommendations to get you through this challenging time, focusing on how to best utilize the resources available.

The Realities Of Teaching Music Online

The first thing to do with your students and their parents is to manage expectations. A little patience and grace is required to get started. There are numerous factors to bear in mind during the initial process of getting set up to teach online. They include:

Think of your students!

• They are probably just as stressed as you are. They have been asked, with very little notice, to completely change their daily routine and learn in a brand-new way.

• Almost none of them have experience learning online (other than watching YouTube videos and maybe turning in assignments on platforms such as Google Classroom).

• Who knows what your students are dealing with at home? Has their family been effected by certain layoffs? Do they have their own reliable access to the internet or are they sharing it with siblings and parents?

• What about your students with learning disabilities? ESL students? Students with IEPs? How will they have successful learning experiences?

Think of your students’ parents!

• They are stressed too! They may not know when their next paycheck will be coming.

• They’ve probably never spent this much time with their children at once. Trying to keep their children healthy and happy during this unprecedented time won’t be easy.

• They will most certainly be appreciative of your efforts!

• Be creative, be musical, and show everyone that you are truly a rockstar.

Think of yourself!

• These are uncharted waters and you are probably just as stressed as everyone else.

• Be sure to make some time each day for self-care.

• The students will understand if things don’t always go according to plan.

• Remember that creating online learning materials takes time!

• It’s one thing to prepare for a rehearsal, conduct it, give feedback, and teach when you have the students physically in front of you. It’s quite another to create materials that engage your students in the same way.

• Creating materials takes 2-3 times longer than in-person instruction, maybe more.

• Pace yourself – and your students! Don’t try to do too much. Aim for creating 1 or 2 meaningful activities per week.

Rethinking Your Music Curriculum For The Online World

The reality is that it will be almost impossible for you to simply recreate your current program in an online environment. While the idea of a live rehearsal over a videoconferencing tool such as Zoom sounds great, in reality it is very di cult to pull o well. Between audio quality, latency, and frankly students who simply don’t know how to use the tools themselves, it is likely to be far more trouble than it’s worth.

Virtual rehearsals (asynchronous rehearsal with students uploading videos/audio recordings) are definitely better, but the concept itself might be too much for many to actually facilitate. Meeting general music classes online using Google Hangouts is definitely possible, but many teachers who have tried it point out that some students do inappropriate things in the chat box, while also having issues logging in.

With that in mind, it is my strong suggestion to take this opportunity to rethink your program during this period of time and focus on things like musicianship skills, music theory, composition, critiques, and project-based learning. Some points to consider:

• Don’t expect your students to attend live classes.

• Focus on creating meaningful activities that can be done in their own time.

• Consider holding a weekly live chat session with all of your students using products such as Zoom, YouTube Streaming, Google Hangouts, or even Facebook Live.

• Online discussion boards are great! The MusicFirst Classroom, as well as other platforms, provide the opportunity for you to post topics of discussion that students can reply to. Questions such as “How are you feeling today?” “What kind of music helps you get through this?” “How are you enjoying learning online?” are perfect.

• Create one large project for each of your classes for the students to work on over time. Project ideas include:

›› Have students compose music for their own instrument or ensemble. Once finished, have the rest of the students perform it and post those performances using a free program such as Flipgrid.

›› Have students create movies or presentations on a given topic.

›› Have students create podcasts about their favorite musical artist or band.

›› Have students invent their own instruments using materials found around their house and create a video that shows them discussing how they invented it and then have them perform on it!

›› Have students record and submit audio and video for themselves performing musical exercises that you have assigned them.

Having taught classes online for almost 15 years, I can assure you that the more you simplify your assignments, clarify your instructions, provide ongoing communication with your students, and focus more on quality of work than quantity of work, the better this experience will be.

Teaching Music Asynchronously

Asynchronous learning has been around as long as online learning, and it can be highly effective. What it means from a practical standpoint is that the teacher posts content, including videos, documents, and links to websites and articles alongside very clear instructions. In addition, a related task or tasks are assigned that will help students show their understanding of the content assigned. These tasks can be as simple as an online quiz, sending an audio recording, or writing a response to a prompt. They can also be quite complex, including composition assignments using notation software such as Noteflight or a digital audio workstation such as Soundtrap.

The key factor in assigning any task in an online world is to have very clear instructions and expectations. Creating a screen sharing video of you doing the actual assignment will be very helpful. Creating a clear grading rubric will help students understand how they will be assessed. Programs such as PracticeFirst and SmartMusic provide music educators with online automated assessment of assigned musical works. Tools such as Sight Reading Factory, Auralia, Breezin’ Thru Theory, Focus On Sound, Musition, and even free sites such as can provide teachers and students with pre-made quizzes and performance activities. In each instance, it is important that the student not only has the musical skills to complete the assignment, but also that they have the technical skills as well. Just because students live on their phones doesn’t mean that they can open up a sight-reading activity and submit it without any issues. They will most certainly appreciate videos of their teachers showing them exactly how to complete the task assigned. This up-front content creation process will be time consuming for teachers, but once they are done, students will be comfortable doing future assignments using those same tools.

In terms of finding content online, the MusicFirst Classroom includes thousands of pre-made lesson plans, tasks, assessments, and even pre-made complete courses that can be used during this period of time. In addition, look to Facebook groups where teachers are sharing resources on a daily basis.

To make asynchronous learning as effective as possible, I would recommend adhering to the following guidelines:

• Make asynchronous work the major thrust of your teaching online. Keep live, synchronous instruction to a minimum.

• Simplify everything as much as possible.

• Give very detailed instructions for everything you want your students to do. Consider adding screenshots and/or tutorial videos for every step of the process.

• Make the goals for every task very clear.

• Give your students some slack. Make due dates realistic.

• Be sure to communicate with your students frequently. They need to hear from you.

• Ask your students for feedback. They may have some great suggestions for you.

You Can Do It!

These are indeed uncharted waters for us as a profession. Remember that we will get through it, and that this is temporary. We will be in our classrooms soon enough, dealing with everything that teachers deal with on a daily basis. Try to make the most of this situation and focus on the students. This could be a moment where everyone realizes just how important music education is for humanity. Please stay safe and healthy and I’ll see you on the other side!

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