Wednesday, September 9, 2020

NCSSM Orchestra: My Plan for a Hybrid "Low Density" Approach

Now that we are a little over two weeks into the 2020-2021 academic school year, it feels like a good time to reflect a bit on the opening of school and the plan that I have created for my orchestra class moving forward this year. Obviously, with a global pandemic and many schools operating either remotely or in a hybrid model, most music educators and ensemble directors have been forced to re-examine their plan for rehearsal, performances, and their priorities for music students and classes. I am, obviously, no exception. As I begin my 34th year of teaching, I am aware that these are uncharted waters and that I need to re-examine many aspects of my ensemble teaching. My school, the North Carolina School of Science and Math, as many of you know, is a boarding school. We host 680 students each year in grades 11 and 12. They come from across the state of North Carolina and all attend on full scholarship. Students are selected to attend our school based on their grades, SAT scores, rigor of their past high school program, and interest in science and mathematics. Every congressional district in our state receives a minimum quota of placements. So, there are no socioeconomic barriers to attending our school. Furthermore, our admissions team works very hard to promote diversity in our student body. The academic program is very rigorous and students who attend are excited to learn. All music ensembles have only one prerequisite: previous musical experience. So, the ensembles have a very eclectic mix of playing levels and experience. The common denominators are a desire to excel and a high level of academic achievement. I have about 40 strings in the orchestra this year. Like many of you, we are heavy on violins. (So, I am encouraging all violins to play both the 1st and 2nd violin parts, and even learn the viola if they want.) I am fortunate to have a wonderful students every year in the orchestra.

NCSSM is operating on a low density model this year. Half of our student body is on campus and the other half is at home across the state. The cohorts will switch in October so that everyone has an opportunity to live on campus at some point this semester if they desire. Our registrar has worked hard to create relatively even cohorts. But, as you may imagine, some classes are skewed heavily to the remote or residential side. In any given class, I will have some students attending remotely and others in person. So, as I plan for any orchestra rehearsal, there is a technology element to work with or around.

I strongly believe that the best pedagogy starts with a system. I try to be very predictable in my teaching. I also operate best with sequential plan for instruction. I try to be articulate with my students about the values that I am bringing to my course and syllabus. My first step in devising a plan for this school year was to look closely at my syllabus, determine which elements of a traditional orchestra experience could be kept front and center this year, and also determine the elements that needed to be put aside for a little bit.

So, what elements are in and what elements are out? First, let's discuss those that stay. A number of years ago, I put together a Taxonomy for The Ensemble Musician on this blog. I encourage you to go back and check it out. I feel strongly that many of the elements outlined in the taxonomy are eligible for discussion even in the remote ensemble environment. Rhythm, pitch, dynamics, phrasing, accurate intonation, musical nuance, articulation, and many other skills can be developed during this time. Some things that will hold a significantly lower priority this year include watching the conductor, listening across the orchestra, developing rubato, live performance practice, and other similar skills and concepts. Obviously, for the time being, we will not be preparing for live performances. Furthermore, I do not foresee having my entire ensemble in the same room for at least the rest of this calendar year. Honestly, I believe it will be longer. So, we will be focusing on recorded remote ensembles. In the recorded remote environment, there is an added benefit of students listening to their own recordings, getting familiar with recording technology along with learning about the different type of stress involved with recording. These are new additions to the syllabus that match our current situation. Our goal will be to create a number of remote ensemble recordings throughout the upcoming year. We will begin with simple, short chorales and move sequentially towards more difficult (and diverse) repertoire. Initially, the priority is to get used to the system of rehearsing and ultimately performing a remote recording of an orchestral piece. As we move through the term, the difficulty of the repertoire will increase and we will endeavor to advance many string technique skills along the way.

In order to do this in an orderly fashion, I have developed a weekly plan to keep things organized. Here's how I am operating: I have three rehearsals per week. On Tuesday evening I have a 100 minute rehearsal with the entire ensemble in the room. On Wednesday and Friday, my Orchestra is split into two sections. On these days, we have 50 minute classes. Tuesday night large rehearsal is primarily content delivery only and is fully remote. In this rehearsal, I am primarily giving notes on the repertoire at hand. In addition, I am planning to invite guest speakers to a number of these Tuesday evening rehearsals. I will be focusing on inviting alumni who have gone on to careers in both music and other areas. This long rehearsal is at the end of a long "Zoom" day for everyone and I am trying to keep class light and fun, but full of important content and business. Students are expected to have their instruments and parts out and take very complete notes in their parts.  Wednesday is my most rehearsal-like time. There is two-way interaction throughout the class period. Everyone is playing, both those who are on site, and those who are remote. The hardest thing about these rehearsals, quite frankly, is trying to articulate directions and instruction through the mask. I find that I am speaking way too loudly and my voice gets quite fatigued by the end of the day. Fridays will be asynchronous with time for students to practice and seek individual assessment from me. I know it is odd and complex. But, after 2 weeks, I think the plan is going to work.

Just so everyone understands: I am creating recorded "audio guides" for every piece. They include all the parts and a click track. There will be no conducting in this environment. It is all done to a pre-recorded audio guide. It takes me awhile to create these audio guides, but it can be done and I am actually really enjoying the process. This also allows for me to play all of the parts for the recording and become familiar with the tricky passages, opportunities for alternate fingerings, misprints in parts (who knew there were so many!), and other performance issues. Yesterday, I created a complete audio guide for Fanfare and Frippery No. 2, by Richard Stephan. It took me a couple of hours and I was able to present it to my class last night. As we rehearse with these audio guides, we will focus on the stuff we CAN do: intonation, technique, accurate rhythm, musicianship, and the fun/magic of recording. 

Additionally, there is lots of student choice and opportunity here as well. The recorded environment is not for everyone. There can be a great deal of anxiety associated with recording a part and playing alone. Many students take ensemble music so that they don't have to be put on the spot individually. We recognize this at NCSSM and are trying to honor that situation as we move through this unprecedented time. If a student is freaked out by this plan and process, they can take a left turn to something they want/need to learn, such as vibrato, third position, shifting, scales, etc.

There is another very important element to all of this. Relationships are the most important thing. I say every student's name at least once a class. I ask how their day is. I acknowledge and encourage good humor. Our children are craving connection. It is our most important job as music instructors. The content follows the relationship.

So, you now have a much better feel for the plan I have created period what are your thoughts? How are you approaching ensemble music during remote or hybrid learning? What barriers have you encountered? I hope to hear from you and wish you all the best as you generate your plan for the upcoming school year.

Peace and good health.


Friday, September 4, 2020

Audio Guides and the Value of Direct Input with NS Design Violins


As I begin to navigate the world of orchestra in a pandemic driven hybrid learning environment, I am developing some important strategies for keeping my students engaged and maintaining many of the values of the scholastic orchestra environment. I truly believe that it is our duty to keep and promote as many as possible, of the standard musical priorities we have always had in the orchestra classroom. Some of those values include: accurate rhythm, accurate intonation, intentional phrasing, bow placement, articulation, attacks and releases, the orchestra community, and many others. I learned quickly that the art of conducting is not super valuable when I have half of my class in person and the other half participating via Zoom with a significant delay. So, I have pivoted to selecting repertoire that is relatively metronomical and creating accompanying audio guides for use in rehearsal and the remote ensemble recording environment. 

These are recordings of all the string parts from the repertoire we are preparing with the addition of a click track or prominent metronome guide. I create these guides as part of my planning and use them to keep everyone playing together in rehearsal. Rather than conducting, I play my instrument and demonstrate freely throughout the rehearsal. As a result, I have needed to record string tracks quickly and cleanly in a very efficient way. I have found that the best way for me to do this is by using my NSDesign CR5 electric violin connected directly to my computer through a standard audio interface.  The 5-string violin through a direct input allows me to get a very clean signal with very little background noise, magnificent tone, extraordinarily stable tuning, and a consistent balanced audio recording product. The 5-string violin allows me to record viola parts without changing instruments or my finger spacing. I simply play cello parts an octave up and then lower the octave electronically after the fact. For the bass lines, I use a fretted NSDesign Radius bass. The frets provide nearly perfect intonation and help to guide a rhythmic performance with specific articulations. In other words, the bass guitar keeps things from getting tonally or rhythmically ambiguous.

For those of you that haven't recorded with a solid body electric violin in a direct input environment before, there are many benefits to this action. First, as I stated earlier, the NSDesign CR5 provides a smooth accurate tone quality. It truly sounds like an acoustic violin, even when there are no added effects. I can recording completely in headphones if I choose. Or, as I prefer, I can record though the sound of speakers, which I could not do if I was using a microphone and my acoustic instrument.  Second, during the recording process, a little bit of extraneous noise or talking will not bleed into the recording. This allows me to record at my home while other things are going on and even allows me to count rests out loud or shuffle about my studio during the recording process as necessary. I mentioned stable tuning earlier. One of the great benefits of the NSDesign electric bowed instruments is the proprietary tuning mechanism and the fact that once in tune, these instruments rarely slip or change open string intonation. This is a great benefit while recording. I check my tuning early in the recording session and can generally count on those open strings staying very stable for hours, if not days! And, when creating audio guides, we really do want the intonation to be very consistent.

What equipment do I need to make this happen? It is all pretty simple. I have the CR5 electric violin, a quarter inch phone plug connecting it to an audio interface. I use a Protools system with the Digi 003 interface. But, at school I frequently use the Lexicon Omega Studio interface system which is no longer produced. In the end, there are many audio interfaces available which are relatively inexpensive.  All you need is a mono, quarter inch input which connects to your computer by USB.  Today, most of these systems are pretty intuitive and your digital audio workstation software will find the hardware automatically.

While I use Avid Protools as my digital audio workstation, this works just as well with Garage Band on Mac and with Audacity, the free open source DAW used by millions. The CR5 sounds great though any interface and in any digital audio workstation environment.

Anyway, I hope that this is helpful. Please keep an eye for another post in coming days which will go into more depth of my thoughts on hybrid teaching and learning as well as a bit more on our environment at NCSSM this fall.

For now, take care and stay healthy.