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Music Education Teachers Say Virtual Recording Is The New Normal

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Clint Randles/YouTube Screenshot
A group of University of South Florida students performed and recorded their music tracks at home for a class, then their professor mixed them together and posted the series of performances on YouTube. These students, many of whom are already teachers, will be taking this concept back to their own classrooms.

With schools across the state back in session both in person and online, and concerns about the coronavirus spreading, music education teachers are getting creative. Some say this shake-up is just what their classes needed.

Schools across the state are back in session with some students in brick and mortar classrooms and others attending online.

But when it comes to music education, federal and state policy makers don't have much to say.

So these teachers are turning to organizations like the National Association for Music Education for guidance on how to safely move forward with extracurriculars that could contribute to spreading the coronavirus.

Caitlin Pearse, an elementary music teacher in Hillsborough County, said the students she’s teaching in person will stick with instruments like xylophones and small hand drums - but absolutely no singing.

"It's kind of disappointing to me to see the research, that singing is not very safe in a group setting right now. I'm limited to having the students hum because I don't want to put them in an environment where they're unsafe. It's my first job as their teacher to keep them safe."

A recent study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the College Band Directors National Association recommends performers wear special slit masks for wind and brass instruments, and putting bell covers on instruments like trombones.

“While you can teach a great trumpet lesson on zoom, a trumpet ensembles a little more challenging,” said Chris Green, a former band director from St, Petersburg.

Green represents four companies that sell gear to marching bands and school music programs, one of which sells face coverings that tie around a musician’s mouth - called "blowhole" masks. He says some schools are also using lightweight plastic shields that mount to instruments.

Director's Assistant Bell Covers and Blow Hole Mask

“Some of the research is showing that shields or flutes it seems like the flutes and piccolos are the worst culprits,” Green said. “A shield will help a great deal on the brass instruments.”

The study also recommends rehearsing and performing outside - and frequently sanitizing shared instruments. But that's not always possible.

Sean Beirns, an elementary music education teacher in Palm Beach County, said a lot of instruments are too fragile to quickly sanitize in between students.

“So you can't be spraying Lysol on them, because that's going to ruin them. So it pretty much means that you have to make do with technology."

He took a class at the University of South Florida called "Learner-Centered Pedagogies," which, in part, teaches masters level students how to perform, record and mix music online.

Like many music ed teachers, Beirns is turning to digital instruments, which are played on laptops and phones through software and apps. This isn't new technology, but it's being utilized more than ever in remote learning or when performers are prevented from using certain instruments.

"They (students) have a musical instrument, it's just going to be using software instead of a physical instrument in front of them. And so there's online programs like Soundtrack or BandLab where they can actually use those to create music. But there's also, like, online drum machines or virtual pianos, guitars."

Associate Professor of Music Education Clint Randles teaches Beirn’ class.

"It's an exciting time for those of us who would like to nudge music education in different directions. And it's for people who only know a large ensemble choir band, sort of experience it, it can be extremely unnerving."

This summer, Randles’ students took to YouTube for a demonstration of what they learned, recording themselves separately singing and playing both physical and digital instruments, which Randles laid down onto tracks and mixed together.

Celebration of Music Teaching and Learning - Live from Tampa, FL

Sarah Cino was another student who participated in this project. The middle school teacher from Miami is excited to take back what she’s learned to her own classroom.

"I'm super excited because that opens up the door to incorporating technology and mixing techniques and all of that other career-oriented things that we don't have as much time for usually,” Cino said.

“So it's given me an opportunity to really go for something new and exciting for the kids."

Cino says it's important to meet her students where they're at - and for many - that's online.

And Beirns says while the pandemic has forced music ed teachers to pivot, digital music and virtual performances are here for the long haul.

"I see this sticking even after everything passes, and we go back to normal."

For Beirns, his own virtual class performance of Panic at the Discos "High Hopes" felt just like musicians playing together at a venue. But instead of packing up instruments and heading home, they just logged off their computers.

I took my first photography class when I was 11. My stepmom begged a local group to let me into the adults-only class, and armed with a 35 mm disposable camera, I started my journey toward multimedia journalism.