SRU students are ‘frontier leaders’ for music education during the pandemic
Slippery Rock University’s marching band, the Marching Pride, came together at the end of the fall 2020 semester to perform at safe physical distances after rehearsing in smaller groups throughout the semester.
Feb. 5, 2021
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Music teachers and students have had to play to a different tune during the pandemic. Safety measures limiting in-person gatherings have affected students receiving instruction from their teachers, causing members of music ensembles and marching bands to play solo, in smaller groups or in virtual jam sessions. Professors and students in Slippery Rock University's music education program are at the forefront of these changing practices as students prepare to teach music both virtually and in-person while receiving an education that mixes these modes of instruction.
"Our music education majors are about to start careers and experience what it's like to teach virtually," said Jonathan Helmick, associate professor of music. "So not only is this the first time that they're learning music as students virtually, but then we're teaching them how to become teachers who are delivering music education through a virtual platform, if they need it. Some school districts are still in-person, some are virtual and some are hybrid, so our students need to have those tools in their tool belts."
Students such as Olivia Bazanos, a senior music education major from North Huntington, are completing their student-teaching requirement in virtual settings. Bazanos is teaching music virtually to students in the Mohawk School District, and while the students there will return to in-person classes in early February, Bazanos will continue teaching them remotely.
"Dr. Helmick told that we are the 'frontier leaders' of a new generation of teaching," Bazanos said. "More people are going to realize that virtual learning is possible, either as a replacement for snow days or they just want to be taught virtually. Nothing beats being together and making music, but having the ability to use technology and all of these different apps, formats and platforms helps us in multiple ways to simulate an in-person setting and create a learning community."
Music educators have had to leverage new forms of technology because having dozens of musicians playing together on a Zoom videoconference is not feasible. Online collaborations for music ensembles are affected by audio latency, or a slight delay that disrupts music more so than conversations, even if there's just a millisecond disparity.
For instructors and band section leaders, the workaround is having one musician play unmuted for an individual assessment and the remainder of the group plays along muted while listening to a rehearsal recording that a host is sharing.
While not ideal, there is some benefit. "When students are learning to play an instrument and are struggling with something, I could give them some pointers, and then they could mute themselves," said Kathleen Melago, associate professor of music. "They have the time to explore what I had just asked them to try and then I would come back to them and be able to see how they did with it. When you're teaching an entire class in-person, you can't mute the other students. That's part of learning, exploring how the sounds are when they're off-kilter and how you can fix them and become better."
But when it comes to playing together in concert, there are options to piece together everyone's parts using digital editing applications, such as MuseScore, BandLab, Acapella and DaVinci Resolve, that SRU students and professors have used. Last fall, Amanda Schlegel, assistant professor of music at the University of South Carolina, met virtually with SRU students as a guest lecturer to introduce different ways to teach music in an online environment and conduct online rehearsals.
"We've been leveraging technology," Helmick said. "(Amanda) directs a (Congaree) New Horizons band and she has been coming up with some pioneering best practices for what it means to teach an ensemble online. This helped our students feel more comfortable or at least have a leg up when they went out to student teach."
SRU also has an ongoing partnership with the New Mexico Music Educators Association, where every other year Melago and at least four SRU students attend the NMMEA's annual conference. While there, SRU students observe and teach children in the Sante Fe Public School System. This year, however, Melago, Helmick and two students attended the conference virtually and learned about how teachers in New Mexico are adapting to virtual music education.
"The biggest takeaway was just how much of an impact music has on kids and how we as educators are making that big of a difference in kids' lives," said Matt Rees, a junior music education major from Pittsburgh. "I was really grateful to have been able to attend the conference. There were so many inspiring speakers that were giving seminars and talking about how to build your band or choir program from the inside and out."
SRU music majors are required to participate in one large ensemble, such as concert band, marching band or wind ensemble, with their major instrument. Although auditions are being conducted virtually, these groups will still rehearse and perform in-person later this semester but will practice physical distancing in larger rooms and use outdoor venues and tents as weather permits.
SRU faculty and administrators relied on guidance from national organizations, supported by scientific studies, to determine the safest way for students to play instruments or sing indoors. The University implemented mitigation strategies that involved limiting the spreading of aerosols, or the tiny particles that transmit the coronavirus. Students wear face masks with openings for the instruments mouthpieces and they place HEPA filter coverings on the bells of their instruments. Additionally, indoor rehearsals are limited to 30 minutes to allow time for the HVAC systems to clear the air.
"For ensembles, the toughest thing to try and shoehorn into this virtual or hybrid setting was coming up with a plan," Helmick said. "The possibility of transmission is much less if you had outdoor rehearsals, but we still have to limit the size of our groups."
The SRU marching band, with more than 140 members, followed these protocols last fall and the only time the band rehearsed in the same venue as a group was when they played outdoors at Mihalik-Thompson Stadium in November. Band members did not march but they performed on the field spaced 6 feet apart from one another.
A group of students led by Bazanos created a 62-page marching band handbook to help facilitate a virtual band camp. This digital guide included marching fundamentals and more than 120 video tutorials for topics such as marching steps.
"Because we are confined to our dorm rooms and apartments and whatever space we had, we had to adapt," Bazanos said. "We did all this so that everyone can see what the SRU Marching Pride is all about. This is how we made the best of our situation."
Other student contributors to the handbook include T.J. Mull, a junior music education major from Greenville; Mikayla Ridgeway, a senior early childhood/special education major from South Park, Isaiah Greenawalt, a sophomore music education major from Ruffs Dale; and Josh Zeigler, a senior music education major from Bellefonte. Bazanos said she is working with Helmick to submit the handbook to national and regional associations and conferences for presentations so that their work can help other marching bands conduct virtual band camps.
Meanwhile, during the spring semester music classes at SRU will meet online, with about 25% that have an option to meet in-person. To accommodate students, SRU has loaned nearly 100 instruments to students so they can participant remotely.
For example, Michael LaBella, a sophomore music education major from Glenshaw, is taking Low Brass Methods and, although his primary instrument is the bassoon, he needs to borrow a trombone, euphonium and a tuba at varying points during the semester for the class.
"I just pull into the parking lot and meet Dr. Helmick at the door, he gives me my contract and my instrument and then I'm on my way; it's a quick and easy handoff," LaBella said. "Everyone's been very accommodating and very understanding. The professors give us our lessons and create a plan for us so that we're still able to grow as musicians."
"Just like everyone else, we all want to get back to normal. We do this all to make music. This is how we express ourselves. This is how we communicate. There's nothing quite like being in an ensemble and playing a really strong piece with everyone and forming that connection with them."
"The students still love that opportunity to get together," Melago said. "In addition to making music, there's a certain element of community that happens in the ensembles with all these different people coming together with different beliefs and backgrounds and they bond over the music. That just speaks volumes to what music does for people from an emotional standpoint."
The same sentiment applies to music educators.
"They recognize that it's not just important to provide the content knowledge and the skills, but also to keep these students mentally healthy," Helmick said. "For a lot of students, music is why they get up in the morning. Music classes are why they (want) to go to school, and this is their opportunity to socialize and experience beauty and art. There's so much testing that happens (in K-12 schools) these days; students need this outlet. This is part of teaching and what it means to be human."
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