Wednesday, March 25, 2020

NCSSM Zoom Orchestra: Day 1

Hi friends.

I told you that I would post some thoughts following my first Orchestra class. We had our first meeting last night at 6:15. I was pleased to have about 40 students join me for orchestra rehearsal via Zoom last night. It was so great to see everyone's faces. In this post, I would simply like to outline my plans for orchestra for the rest of the term and provide some associated thoughts.

I began class with a welcome and a brief statement of my thoughts and philosophies regarding the class and ensemble's role for the rest of this school year. I truly believe that the orchestra community is significantly more important than any content I might be delivering or other work that we might do musically and technically. I wanted the students to know that my intention is absolutely not to increase their levels of stress or anxiety in this new online interactive video classroom world that we live in. I want them to understand that our role is to facilitate their participation in the arts and in aid in making them whole people through music. I think that message was well-received and it set up our class in a very good way.

This was the first time that I had been in a zoom meeting with more than 20 people or so. The first thing that I noticed was that in the gallery view, I could only see about half the class (25 per page). I quickly found myself toggling between the two pages of gallery view. We started the class by hearing every student's voice. I wanted them to say hello to me and their classmates and give a brief update on their situation at home. Sadly, the remarks mostly were very thin and centered around class work rather than mental state, positives in their lives, or funny anecdotes. It really wasn't exactly what I had hoped for. (It is an odd ting about my crew at NCSSM.  They are usually hesitant to warm up and trust me and their classmates with candid remarks when prompted in class.  It happens outside of class, but never seems to make its way into my classroom. I wonder if it is me?!) But, at least, every student's voice was heard.

Next, I wanted to make sure that I reviewed our modified syllabus and course expectations. Obviously, we will not have a live concert in May. So, I wanted them to know how I would arrive at a grade at the end of the term. Without too many details, grades will be based primarily on class participation (70%) with a significantly lighter weight on practice time (10%) and musical performance (20%). My ensemble has significant variation of experience and and playing level. So, I differentiate expectations based on there experience and preparation prior to coming to NCSSM. Everyone is welcome in the NCSSM performance ensembles regardless of playing level.

Next, I explained my plan for the rest of the school year. My class meets for 2 hours on Tuesday night, 90 minutes on Wednesday, and 50 minutes on Friday. We have everyone in the room for our Tuesday night rehearsal, but Wednesday and Friday are split into two sections based on academic schedules, and there are multiple students who have special dispensation to work independently in lieu of one of those two shorter rehearsals based on schedule conflicts. In other words, the only time we are all together is Tuesday night. We are in the midst of preparing for a concerto concert which would have featured six of our school's top soloists on a single movement of a concerto. We were scheduled to perform a movement of the Bruch Violin Voncerto, Saint Saens Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso, Brahms Piano Concerto No 1, Beethoven Piano Concerto No 1, Ponce Guitar Concerto, and Mozart Clarinet Concerto.

Next, I outlined my plans for our Tuesday evening rehearsals. During this time, we will take a deep dive into each of the works that were scheduled to be performe. I will have the soloists talk about technical challenges and practice routines for each of their pieces. There will be one concerto featured each week. (We will start with the Saint Saens next week.) During this time I also plan to lead guided listening of not only the movement we were scheduled to perform, but the entire work. I have also invited each of the soloists to encourage their private teacher to participate in their Zoom session as well. This activity is designed to maintain a focus on our planned repertoire. I feel like it is my responsibility to maintain the direction in which we were moving before we left school. While we only had two weeks of actual rehearsal prior to vacating the school, I still feel like it's important that we hold true to some aspect of our previously established curricular goals.

My challenge has really been how to handle the other two rehearsals during the week. I had a brief, enjoyable phone call with my dear friend and colleague Georgia Economou from Atlanta over the weekend. She suggested that I assign other concertos to the entire class so that everyone would have an opportunity to learn portions or all of a selected concerto movement. I loved the idea! So, I have selected three concertos of varying difficulty for my students to choose from. They will select a concerto and learn it over the course of the rest of the school year. I want everyone to engage in the learning process and do as much as they can, without overwhelming themselves or adding stress to their lives. I have encouraged my more advanced students to tutor their colleagues.  I am hopeful that this will be a positive experience for everybody.

For class today, I want each student to review the concerto options. At the end of their class., They will make a brief video to share their thoughts with me or perhaps a very little bit of sight reading. Videos must be under 3 minutes. I am also asking every student to submit a brief journal entry on their practice through Google forms. This will be my attendance record for the class. So, our Wednesday and Friday classes will be asynchronous independent practice sessions. But, I will be available in a Zoom meeting for anybody who wants to make personal contact with me for instruction, advice, or feedback throughout the class period. This will be the case for every day of class for the rest of the year. I am also setting up Flipgrid opportunities for students to share their successes, struggles, and ideas for practice with each other. I am not sure how this format will work, but I am excited to give it a try.

In retrospect, I would say that the number of students in the Zoom session felt quite unwieldy to me. It lasted about one hour and I could tell by about 45 minutes into the class that students were getting restless. I was also getting tired and overwhelmed.  Obviously, I wont be able to use the entire two hours like I normally would on a Tuesday night. I just don't think that is mentally or physically advantageous for them or for me!

I intend to send a note to students this morning, reminding them of their assignment for today. I will do this each Wednesday and Friday to simply keep everyone moving in the right direction.

So, there you have a quick overview of my Tuesday night rehearsal. I will certainly give updates on our progress with the concerto movements. I don't know if this will work or not. I would put my level of confidence at about 50%. I feel like it's a well-developed plan that might work. I do not have expectations of 100% success. Some students will simply be more comfortable and confident in this independent environment. But, if this provides some direction for my Orchestra students and serves as a bit of motivation to have their hands on their instrument, it will be a success. Also, those who seek assessment from me periodically will most likely have stronger levels of satisfaction, I believe.  In the end, I would be thrilled if particularly the less advanced students had a chance to play and prepare something of value and meaningfully add to their skill set and repertoire.

I would love to hear what you are doing to keep your kids motivated and playing! We are all in this together. When intentions are pure, good things will happen. Let's all care for these kids through music as best as we can.




  1. I also felt that the large group was very difficult to manage on zoom. This was my first experience running zoom (I've been in Zoom calls before, but not moderating.) I also have a variety of levels within my orchestra so I will also have to modify the level of content or expectation. I meet with my students daily, so they will have daily assignments as long as we have the flexible instruction days. I really enjoyed the listening, reading and reflection class I had today on Carmen suite no. 1. So far, my student reflections have been very insightful and well articulated. I really want to dive into string techniques as we move on. I would love to collaborate with a low strings person. Great article Scott as always!! ❤️ Stephanie

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! Sounds like our experiences were pretty similar. I spoke with several of my students today in Zoom sessions and they were appreciative of the thoughtful preparation that went into my plans. I think we will be OK. They can be hard to read.