Pre-Service Music Teacher Education in a Virtual Environment

Mike Lawson • Modern Band • October 28, 2020

I teach music education and music technology courses at Montclair State University in northern New Jersey. This semester, like at many other colleges and university courses, all of my classes are online.

As I try to engage my music education majors with hands-on experiences through virtual means, I can’t help but reflect on the challenges and opportunities present with pre-service music teacher preparation in online spaces. Here are some lessons I’ve learned from preparing the next generation of music teachers to enter the profession during these uncertain times.

The students are more important than the content- This is something that we know intrinsically as music teachers, but it is easy to forget as we start thinking about how to teach all of our students the content that we would normally cover in our music classes. I find it useful to continually remind myself that I’m in the field of youth development, and we don’t just teach music, we teach students, whose well-being is more important than the curriculum. At the beginning of each class, take a few minutes to check in with your students instead of “diving into” the assignment for the day. As I think through what the skills are that I want my music education majors to walk away with from their university experience, my list starts with empathy and the ability to meaningfully connect with students. Everything else is secondary.

Think about projects instead of one-off lessons- Creating a songwriting project for students can provide an opportunity to connect many of the musical elements that you are teaching to students into one continuing project. Students can use online drum machines to make beats that will provide the rhythmic backbone of their song. They can then use instruments (real or virtual) to explore melodic and harmonic elements of music, and then create lyrics to be sung or rapped over the top of their song. There are many cloud-based Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like BandLab and Soundtrap that can allow students to gradually add elements to their compositions throughout the course of a week, month, or entire semester. I’ve used both Soundtrap and BandLab in my modern band courses at Montclair State University to allow students to compose in groups and share their ideas with each other.

Don’t worry about perfection- This semester, I am teaching a graduate-level course called “Teaching Popular Music.” This course covers all elements of modern band in the classroom and prepares teachers to integrate modern band instrumentation and pedagogy into their classes. I started the year making professional-looking videos with multiple cameras and a close-up of my fingers on the guitar fretboard as well as my face. These videos took a lot of time to make and I found myself worrying more about the video editing and production than on the actual content of the lesson. I also found that creating the videos didn’t allow me to be as flexible as I might have otherwise been, since if a student brought up the desire to learn a certain technique or approach, my mind immediately thought, “yeah, but I just made this cool video about another topic.” As the semester has progressed, I’ve found myself worrying less about creating glossy, professional quality videos and relying more on spending my time connecting with my students and offering more office hours for my students to stop by virtually and touch base. And, as it turns out, there are thousands of relevant videos on YouTube that are professionally produced, and I can use those to teach  my students how to change the strings on their guitar or replace a drumhead.

More than ever, talk to your students about their musical goals – I’ve always tried to focus on democratizing my music classroom, whether as a middle-school modern band teacher or a higher ed assistant professor. This was usually accomplished through many conversations, both informal and more structured with my students throughout the semester. In virtual spaces, I have to be more purposeful about facilitating discussions about the music that my students value, what their goals are for the class, and what experiences they want to leave my class with.

One fun way that I start each course is by having students add a song or two to a public Spotify playlist that I create at the beginning of the semester. I do this for all of my classes. I then have a pretty long playlist of music that is important to my students and I can draw from as I look for examples of a verse-chorus song, or how filters are used in pop music.

In summary, let’s not forget that our students are more important than the content. Let’s engage them in meaningful musical experiences that allow them to create their own music utilizing technologies available to them. Talk to your students about what their musical goals are for the class and don’t worry about perfection. There is a growing database of free resources for music educators to use as part of their virtual teaching. Focusing on the students without overly worrying about the resources that we create for music teaching and learning will allow us to keep our focus on what is really important: the humans on the other end of the Zoom link.

Bryan Powell is an assistant professor of music education and music technology at Montclair State University and works with Little Kids Rock on their teacher training and higher education initiatives.


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