Online Group Piano: My Experience

Original post: May 14, 2020

*This is not an in-depth discussion or existential question. This is rather a chronological journal about my teaching experience during the six weeks of online teaching.

Before the breakout of COVID-19, many services have been turning online. The millennial and Gen Z have been exposed to and consuming online services. The education industry also utilizes the service either from the traditional classroom or through an online campus!

CCM (College-Conservatory of Music of the University of Cincinnati), being a traditional performing arts conservatory with two hundred years of history, and now having a large portion of ensemble activities and stage performance-related majors, was somewhat forced to turn online.

CCM Plays Government Inspector. Photo from CCM ON STAGE

I remember how quick the turn was.

Instructors had three days until the last day of class before the spring break. As one of the graduate assistants who teach piano classes, I was given numerous kinds of online platforms that I potentially use. At the same time, an online forum was created quickly for music teachers and group piano teachers.

Students were perplexed because of the rapid change, instructions from the higher powers in different directions, and uncertainty of the very near future. Because of this, instructors had to not only re-design the class but also personally connect with the students. In the last class, I talked about taking the situation very seriously, also went ahead and tested the online conference program to have everyone on board. UC used WebEx, and Microsoft Teams also came into play to set up small groups for classes.

The Frances Clark Center website

Change of Plan

Thanks to the extended spring break, I took a week to absorb the information and to learn the platforms by attending webinars and watching tutorials. I was under stress that I had to create the ultimate scenario in this unknown world for the sake of the students’ well-deserved education. On top of that, I wanted to keep the consistency and low frequency of my announcement considering their stress with overflowing information. There were many discussions in webinars and online communities of college instructors about how to implement the classes and finals.

I revised the syllabus for my group classes, one for music education and jazz majors, and another for performance majors, with some guidelines of our department.

1. I changed my monitoring and commenting time in the classroom into student video submission for every class, and I commented directly to the video.

2. Naturally, the online class length became much shorter as I only delivered instructions when everyone was muted.

3. Online class live attendance was optional as various situations could come up.

4. I made a sign-up for individual coachings to connect on a personal level and check regularly. It was also according to the university-wide need.

5. I re-structured their tests. For the final, they could take a portion of the test in advance whenever they are ready and get it done.

I did not know how students will accept the revised syllabus, but at the same time, I was optimistic about our reunion on the web.

I also had private students as a part of my teaching load at CCM, one of whom had gone to China and quarantined without a keyboard. I gave the weekly assignments that she could do on her laptop.

The Reality

I started classes with great energy. I was very glad to re-connect with my students at least online. I saw them sitting in front of the keyboard at home and it made me know more about them. I enjoyed watching their video submissions, sometimes with some popcorn. In a couple of weeks, however, I felt my level of energy dropped, and my complaints piling up. I was doing reviews, giving useful tips and assignments of the day at the class. Regardless, only a few students made a steady effort, and there were three students in the third week. I was struggling to engage the students in the class.

Online learning is challenging for students, too. Here is what happened: a father of a student was infected, a mother of a student had a surgery, religious events halted a student from focusing on schoolwork, the constant exposure to the screen led students to migraine, a keyboard was broken in a power surge during a storm. Online class also failed the students who possess little motivation and organizational skills, so was hanging in by coming to the actual classroom.

What I learned is

  1. to go over the big bullet points and to take all possible questions in the first online class instead of telling students to read it,
  2. to emphasize the pre-test to raise their motivation to the fullest,
  3. to engage students in a creative way
  4. and to assign their final pieces and coaching times instead of waiting for them to choose.

Toward the end of the semester, I made some changes from the revised syllabus, which I was resisting. Flexibility and transparency indeed make a group run well, but I hated the feeling of losing the structure. I moved the smaller class to a different online conference platform and changed some assessments. Thankfully, the students were very patient and cooperative. In hindsight, the individual coaching time made me touch base with students on a personal level and know them better. Especially for slow learners, the online class format worked better.

So, what I also learned is that

5. students eventually got used to the ‘uncertainty’ of the bigger world.

6. the format fits the individual educational need better.

My WebEx Classroom

Future

I thought about things that can be done if online learning continues in the fall. I think class time should be longer and make students’ attendance mandatory. For that, I should be able to hear students playing individually in the breakout rooms with better sound quality, and the class recording should be generated faster for those students who had to miss the class. Students also should play an ensemble using mobile apps. The school should provide free access to the app through iOS and Android.

What does the future of the online group piano class look like? First and foremost, students have to have access to a keyboard at home. Music schools and instrument shops should build a network and conclude a treaty that ensures students a keyboard for a semester. The second issue is whether to keep the class live or let the student learn from pre-recorded tutorials. Students and instructors might benefit from tutorials when it comes to recurring material, such as scales and arpeggios, keyboard styles, music theories. For the intermediate student’s group class, keeping the class live can be beneficial, especially if the meeting platform is fully utilized. The ensemble playing that I mentioned earlier is also more realistic and meaningful when they know who is in the class and sending the recording.

As people are discussing fall 2020, the hybrid model is more being weighted in some schools: having half of the class in the lab on the first class of the week, and another half of the class on the second class of the week. The teaching and learning plan will change and evolve as long as the virus and the spread will. The great lesson about this shift is that I learned many effective teaching tools especially for the new generation who is the main consumer of the technology. Even when we are safe enough to go back to offline teaching, I would continue to blend the tools in my teaching and working with the young generation.

Through this global change, I experienced the ‘Skype lesson’ without a proper introduction, just like CCM was forced to, and it was interesting enough to keep me on toes. It was a great chance to develop a new skill, and I am also definitely immune to many kinds of troubles. Nonetheless, I terribly miss the classroom and seeing my students in person.

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