Side-by-Side Classroom

Mike Lawson • Performance • January 7, 2016

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Skype LogoTechnology seems to be everywhere now, and especially in the classroom. I came across a Facebook page for band and orchestra directors that had a post about Skype sessions that could be anything that the director saw ft. About that time, a grant was available in our district for all K-12 teachers that would support a teacher’s project up to $5000.00. I submitted my proposal that included the equipment needed to Skype with musicians and students across the world. My proposal was chosen, and through the grant I was able to get a laptop computer, H2n microphone, HD web camera, cables, and stands for the mic/camera.

Our bands and orchestras then started to Skype with composers, teachers, professors, and musicians. It has been very beneficial to our program. Our program is able to save money by bringing in guests through Skype. Our 8th grade symphonic band was performing Himes’ piece Barbarossa for our district festival. We were able to Skype with composer William Himes for our 8th grade symphonic band where he was able to see the band as well as listen to our performance and give us feedback. It was just like having him physically in the classroom with the group. Students were able to ask and answer questions directly with the composer!

With all technology there can be hiccups. During one moment of the session, the connection lagged a bit and was difficult to hear a comment by Himes. Otherwise, the Skype sessions have been very beneficial to our music program. Even though nothing beats live performances, it is fun and another educational way to be able to listen to other professionals, allow classes to play for other classes, sectionals with professionals, and have question and answer/ lecture sessions with musicians from all over the world right there in your classroom.

I wrote this article for our district to tell them about the experience:

Frost musicians tune in to composer on Skype

Eighth-grade Symphonic Band students at Frost Middle School received virtually all the instruction they need in preparation for their performance at the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association Festival. It’s not often that students can receive feedback and critique from the actual composer of the piece they are performing, but that’s exactly what took place on Wednesday for these Frost musicians.

Under the direction of Frost Middle School’s Director of Bands and Orchestras Michael Rais, the students were treated to a 40-minute Skype session with renowned, award-winning composer William Himes, whose works include the emotional and harmonic World War II piece called Barbarossa. The Symphonic Band will perform the piece at the festival competition. “This is something that doesn’t happen every day with many school ensembles, to be able to work with the composer of the piece,” said Rais, who was awarded a grant from the LPS Education Foundation for the Skype session. The musicians played the piece in its entirety for Himes, who listened intently from his home office in Elmhurst, Ill. He then offered specific critique and worked with the students on ways to make it even better.

“I think the students gained quite a bit of information from working with Mr. Himes,” said Rais. “To be able to bring in Mr. Himes through Skype, it gives the ensemble a chance to hear directly from the composer how the piece should be played, and to be able to take the piece and make it as true to what the composer wants.”

Rais thanks the LPS Education Foundation for making this virtual field trip possible through the grant.

“So far, we have had two composers, a clarinet specialist and a music education professor work with our ensembles,” he said. “Our motto for the music department is, ‘Music education in the real world.’ This gives students a chance to see what these people do in the music field.”

Frost Principal Chris Berry said using technology in this manner is a joy. “What a wonderful learning tool — it’s bringing the world to the students,” said Berry.

Himes, who taught at the middle school level for five years, said he enjoyed hearing the eighth-graders perform his music. “It’s really great to see your bright faces and hear your great sounds,” he told the students. “I just put the notes on the page, but they’re not sounds until you make them. Thanks for making such nice sounds.”

Michael RaisMichael Rais is the band and orchestra director at Frost Middle School in Livonia, MI. He has been the director at Frost for 7 years now. He received his bachelor degree from Wayne State University and master’s degree from VanderCook College of Music. Rais is also a freelance bassist for many Motown/R&B groups, Il Segreto String Quartet, Accidentally Hip, and studio session player. Rais has been playing bass for over 24 years. He specializes in alternative styles for string players. He has also presented at the Michigan Music Conference and the American String Teacher Association National Conference.


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