Music Education At A Distance- Videoconferencing Technologies In The Music Classroom

The explosive growth of the use of video in the classroom has changed the way many of us could teach our lessons, but when using YouTube or other online instructional video sources the information usually flows in only one direction.  Videoconferencing opens up the opportunity for teachers to have truly interactive conversations and lessons with their students by connecting their classroom with other students, other teachers, and professional performers from all over the world in real time.  We spoke with NAfME members Heather Mandujano, Distance Learning Education Coordinator at the Cleveland Institute of Music in Cleveland, OH, and Dr. Fred Rees, Professor of Music in the Department of Music and Arts Technology at Purdue University in Indianapolis, IN, to discover what the current best practices and opportunities are for connecting our classrooms to a wide variety of musical opportunities.

 

Teaching Private Music Lessons With The Help of Videoconferencing Apps

When it comes to the various uses for videoconferencing software and apps in the music classroom the most often seen are private instruction, class or small group instruction and enrichment, and the relatively new idea of using videoconferencing as a low cost substitute for face to face auditions.  The most popular application today however is the idea of using videoconferencing tools to connect individual students with specialized private teachers.  

The benefits of using videoconferencing tools in this way becomes very useful when access to instrument specific private instruction in a specific geographic location is limited.  Says Mandujano, “I grew up near a university with a strong music program, so not only were there excellent private teachers in my area, but my high school often relied on the university’s faculty for extra coaching as we prepared for contest or concerts. This isn’t geographically feasible in many parts of the country, but video conference technology allows students to work with an excellent teacher or coach regardless of where they live.”  

In an example such as this a student or his local resident teacher finds a private teacher either through their own professional connections or through online services such as lessonface.com or takelessons.com.  The student then takes the lesson in a virtual face to face meeting with the remote teacher using software such as Skype, Zoom.us, or a variety of other apps running on a computer or tablet.  This opportunity for one-to-one online instruction is quickly growing in popularity and provides benefits both for the student and the remote teacher.  The student gains access to a teacher on their specific instrument while the teacher opens up a new potential source of income.  

Things To Consider When Investing In A Videoconferencing Solution For Your Classroom

While the relative ease and convenience of these new lesson opportunities may be quite enticing there are several things to consider before connecting your local students with a remote teacher.  Of primary importance being whether the level and maturity of the student will make the lessons worth the time and effort. In this regard Mandujano points out that “It’s sometimes difficult to accurately assess and correct basics like embouchure and hand position, and with most platforms it is not possible to play in real time with the student. This makes the technology less than ideal for an absolute beginner. To fully take advantage of the musical elements that can best be coached via video conference, the student needs to have a firm technical grasp of his or her instrument.”

Rees holds a similar point of view, however he also sees these kinds of situations as a significant learning opportunity for the resident teacher when the lessons are done in a school setting.  In cases where the local teacher is not an expert on the instrument being taught Rees suggests that the local teacher sit in on some of the lessons personally, especially at the beginning.  “If you are hiring a remote teacher to teach a student on an instrument you don’t know it becomes an opportunity for you to watch the lessons and build your own knowledge of the instrument as a result.  Then you can use that knowledge to help the student when the remote teacher isn’t available.”  

Rees also points out that there are often problems that crop up during an online lesson or classroom session and the resident teacher needs to be aware of and available to assist when needed.  “Keep in mind that you may need to be there to help out in case of technical problems.  For example you quickly learn to remember to do things such as to set the computer to not go to sleep automatically after a few minutes.  If it goes to sleep then you often have to take several minutes to get everything reconnected.”  While technical issues are always a possibility there are other things to stick around for that may not be quite so obvious.  Rees continues, “another issue can be that depending on the instrument,  younger students can misinterpret a video instructor’s instructions if they don’t have a live teacher in the room. Beginning violinists don’t always mirror very well.  If, for example, a beginning violin student is watching their remote teacher play on a video screen they often try to mirror what they on the screen, making make their left and right hands get mixed up visually.”  

A second use of videoconferencing apps can be found in the ensemble or general music classroom.  Through the use of sites such as epals.com, CILC.org, or simply through their own professional connections a teacher can easily find many different potential teachers to connect with to teach a lesson or provide additional material that can enrich a unit they intend to work on with their students.  Colleges and universities also are offering more of this kind of opportunity as well, not just for degree seekers but also in classes targeted at the elementary and secondary music classrooms.  Mandujano says that at the Cleveland Institute of Music they provide more than thirty interactive sessions on a variety of different music related topics.  “Some of our most popular classes are interdisciplinary, like Mozart Math (grades 3-5), which incorporates math concepts like basic operations, graphing, and mean/median/mode with live performances of Mozart’s music by our conservatory students.”

Finally, there are a small but growing number of colleges, universities, and independent ensembles that are beginning to use online services such as getacceptd.com to gather video audition materials from potential applicants.  Organizations such as NAfME already use the service to audition potential members of the All-National Honor Ensembles.  The site serves as a clearinghouse for potential students and participants to find schools, music camps, or other activities and then allows them to submit their audition materials quickly and easily.  Rees points out that this method of auditioning is growing more popular and advanced as time goes on.  “There are many schools doing this for pre-audition events, particularly with international students.  Even more so if they have high quality videoconferencing capabilities already available.”  There are other high tech ways to do remote auditions as well.  Rees continues, “Yamaha, for example, has had a system for years where they use two Internet connected Diskclavier pianos and a separate video conference connection to allow a remote teacher or auditor to evaluate a live performance done by a student located somewhere else.  The MIDI data is sent from one piano to the other in real time and makes the auditor’s piano reproduce the student’s performance exactly as the student performs it.”

Videoconferencing Hardware, Software, and Apps

High quality videoconferencing tools require large amounts of bandwidth to transmit both the audio and video signals.  All apps deal with this restriction in the same basic way, by compressing, and thus reducing the quality, of the feed.  Most of the free, popular options like Skype, FaceTime, and Google Hangouts tend to use very high compression audio codecs that are optimized for speech and thus can significantly alter the tone and timbre of musical sounds.  Depending on the situation this can make them less than ideal for use in the music classroom.  At the collegiate level where new technologies such as Internet2 offer much higher bandwidth connections Rees prefers to teach via commercial products such as such as Adobe Connect or Indiana University’s iStream videoconferencing system running on Polycom telecommunication hardware.

The Cleveland Institute of Music has been at the forefront of videoconferencing for music education purposes since 1998 and Mandujano herself has presented on these topics at recent NAfME conferences.  As a result she has developed her own list of favorites. “At CIM, we tested free programs, paid programs that run on a desktop or laptop, video conferencing codecs, and tablet apps. We occasionally us a desktop platform called Zoom.us for classes in which we’re mostly teaching about music, but we prefer to use our Polycom codecs, especially for music performance coaching.”  These systems use dedicated hardware that produces the highest quality audio and video possible but at the trade off of requiring significantly more bandwidth that some school districts may not be able to provide.  They also come with a high price tag that often puts them out of range of most school district budgets.

Video conferencing can open many new doors and opportunities to even the most remote music program.  When planning your lessons for the fall take a few minutes to consider where such an experience might be of value to your students and use the tools provided in this article to help make it happen.

 

VIDEOCONFERENCING SOFTWARE

Software Based:

Skype   Windows/Mac/mobile Free

FaceTime   Mac/iOS Devices   Free

Zoom.us Windows/Mac/mobile   Free for 40 min. sessions/Paid longer

Adobe Connect   Windows/Mac/mobile Free trial/Prices vary by plan

Polycom (Software Only)Windows/Mac/mobile Free trial/$80-100 per computer

 

Hardware Based:

LOLA Requires two dedicated computers $5000+ est.

Polycom Each site must have a unit $2,000 and up (new)

 

Regarding dedicated videoconferencing hardware like the Polycom units, Mandujano points out that many school districts may already have at least one unit somewhere in the district that may be able to be used for special music oriented online events.  Doing so will greatly reduce or even remove the costs shown above.  Be sure to check with your school IT department to see if they have one available.  Also be sure to work with them to work around potential problems with your school district’s firewall.  Some videoconference transmissions are often blocked by default and require tweaks to the firewall settings to allow the data to get through.

This article originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Teaching Music Magazine.  It is reposted here with the permission of NAfME by the original author.

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