I recently wrote a blog post with a slightly controversial title – Dear Music Teachers: Please Stop Asking How To Create A Virtual Choir Video – in response to the hundreds of music teachers who would like to create one of those videos right now. 

I wrote it to explain the lengthy process that’s involved with that type of project and to provide teachers (and even administrators!) with realistic expectations about how long it would take. Most people took it well (!).

Today – let’s talk about whether it’s possible to run a live, synchronous band, orchestra or choir (or any other ensemble) rehearsals via video conferencing software such as Zoom, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams.

In a word…no.

The natural response to a shift to online learning is the hope is that you can simply run your rehearsal the same way you always have done, but in an online format.

You have dreams that everyone jumps on to a Zoom call – Brady-Bunch style – with their instruments at the ready..you count them in and then…something like this happens (thanks to the Walton Voices 🙂 ):

If you’ve never given it a go, it’s worth trying it out.  Jump on a conference call with 3 or 4 friends and ask everyone to sing happy birthday together.  It soon becomes very clear that it will never work!

The next question that everyone asks: so which software or app WILL work?

There is no such app and it’s not about the app as such.  It’s to do with the way the internet works.

The latency (lag) between all the members of your ensemble will always be present and this is largely to do with the varying internet speeds (upload and download) of all the participants, not to mention the hardware they are using and their proximity to one another.  No software application will fix that.

The bottom line: you simply can’t rehearse live, in real-time in this way.

Ah – but I HAVE found an app that will let me do this!

Let me guess – it’s JamKazam?

In theory, Jamkazam is designed to allow musicians to play in real-time over the internet. However there are numerous problems, especially if you’re a music teacher.

For starters, the company has had a lot of downtime over the past few years.   Their most recent Twitter post was in 2017, the most recent press release on their website is from 2014 and all of the videos on their Youtube channel are between 3-6 years old.  There are also numerous “are you guys still active?” and “is this company still going?” questions on their videos with no response from the company.  This does not give me comfort or confidence.

An April 14 post on their Facebook page suggests that they are scrambling to come back to life again given the current situation and the demand for a product such as theirs.

However, even if the software is updated, I can’t ever see it being a viable option for large school ensembles:

  • it is designed for small ensembles of 8 or less, not large school ensembles of 40, 50 or 70
  • you need to download the software to your Mac or Windows computer which will be a hurdle for school students who are using school-managed devices and who are in the midst of remote learning
  • the minimum tech requirements to run JamKazam are Mac OSX or higher or Windows 7, 8 or 10 and that’s for every single member of the ensemble that is intending to use it. Students cannot use Chromebooks, iPads or Smartphones to join a JamKazam session
  • wifi won’t cut it if you want to take part in a JamKazam session which means that every student in the ensemble needs to be hardwired into their router via an ethernet cable
  • on top of that, ALL of the members of the ensemble need to have a decent internet speed in order for the session to work

Even if all of those things are achieved, musicians using Jamkazam still report that there can be latency in their sessions, albeit a minimal amount.  And don’t forget that this is still in reference to ensembles that consisted of well under 10 people – not a band, orchestra or choir of 50+ students.

So what CAN you do? Here are a few ideas

There’s no need to abandon your ensemble teaching while we’re all working remotely.  You’ll just need to rethink your approach. There are some aspects of your regular rehearsals that you can use while teaching online, and then there will be some new things you can try.

Here are some ideas (I’ve mentioned many of these in online webinars and other blog posts, but thought it would be useful to include them here again).

1. Run a silent ensemble rehearsal

Michelle Rose is a music teacher that has been running virtual ensembles for more than 2 year. Yes, she was doing it BEFORE the Corona virus hit.  As a full-time teacher at North Carolina Virtual Academy Michelle teaches K-12 and directs virtual band, orchestra and choir rehearsals on a regular basis. 

Michelle was kind enough to share her techniques for running silent rehearsals using Zoom in the Music Educators Creating Online Learning Facebook group in March 2020.  She invited members of that  group to join her in a mock choir or band rehearsal so they could experience it for themselves.

Michelle’s mock rehearsals provide a great insight into how ensembles can work online and you can view them here:

What happens during one of Michelle’s silent rehearsals?

  • She mutes all the members of the ensemble for the rehearsal
  • As the director of the ensemble, Michelle conducts, plays, sings or speaks just the way she would during an in-person rehearsal
  • The members of the ensemble play or sing along with her
  • Each member can only hear themselves, plus the audio from Michelle’s piano or voice
  • Michelle can only hear herself and her piano (!)

Does this actually work?  Is it effective?

You might be wondering – what is the point?  If your students can’t hear each other and if you can’t hear them, is there a benefit to these silent rehearsals?

Michelle herself agrees that this will never be as good as rehearsing in the same room as one another, but there are a number of benefits for the musicians: 

  • Students often need to be shown how to practice.  A group rehearsal – even a silent one – will show them techniques for learning and practicing parts
  • Students will learn how YOU want the piece to be performed and interpreted: the tempo, the feel, phrase lengths, articulation and dynamics
  • Students will be “forced” to play or sing drills, scales and exercises that they might otherwise avoid when practicing alone!
  • Students will be given an opportunity to connect and communicate with you and with one another

2. Listen to your students play – asynchronously

You can also consider a blended approach.  Michelle actually does this herself. In addition to running live, silent rehearsals she asks her students to record themselves playing or singing (at a time that suits them) and then send her the recordings.

They can do this on their Smartphone, iPad, Chromebook, Mac or Windows device.

The recording software options are many and varied:

  • Smartmusic or Practicefirst are both software applications that are designed for this very purpose
  • On phones, students can use their voice memo app
  • GarageBand is a good option for Macs and iPads 
  • Soundtrap and Bandlab – online digital audio workstations – are good options for all devices
  • Flipgrid is a free video response platform which is another fantastic option for all devices (if you want to know more about Flipgrid, you can watch my free webinar here)
  • Loom and Screencastify are additional video recording options. They are both free Chrome Extensions which allow you and students to record and share videos with ease

3. Develop aural, theory and improvisation skills

Consider the benefits of using this time to encourage students to develop aural, theory and improvisation skills.

  • Use specially designed software ear-training software such as Auralia, or the exercises on MusicTheory.net
  • Learn music theory through apps like MusicTheory.net, Musition or Teoria
  • Practice naming notes of the staff with apps like Staff Wars or Flashnote Derby.  Need some more options? Here are 30+ Fun Ways To Teach The Notes Of The Staff 
  • Students can use backing tracks (there are a number on Youtube and Spotify) to practice improvising
  • Ask students to choose a favourite movie theme and have them transcribe the melody and then play it on their instrument

4. Encourage creativity and listening skills

Get students creating and listening!

  • Compose warm-ups, drills, rounds to sing, write them out in notation software and then share them with classmates
  • Create a funky backing using GarageBand, Soundtrap, Groove Pizza or similar and practice scales and drills over the backing
  • Compose some lyrics for a Lockdown Blues (this free lesson plan and worksheet is coming soon!)
  • Record a creative cover version of a song they know
  • Research a composer and create a radio show episode about them.  Students could create an audio recording of the show, make a video or create a presentation file 
  • Record a composition using found sounds from around the house
  • Ask students to watch and respond to a video that features an Unusual Musical Instrument. There’s a free lesson plan here for this activity plus some example videos you can use (or use one of your own choices!)

5. Have some fun!

Lighten the mood by engaging in some fun activities and challenges

  • Run your very own 2020 Musical Olympics. I shared a version 
  • Use the free online spinner Wheel Decide to spice up scales and drills. Share a wheel with preset playing styles with students.  They can spin the wheel and play their scale/drill in the suggested style that comes up on the wheel. Here’s an example 
  • Ask students to take part in a rhythmic challenge: learn the Cup Song or a clapping game like Boom Snap Clap and then have make a video recording of themselves 
  • Musical Me project: students can tell you (and each other) about their musical “selves”. Using the list of prompts in this blog post, students can share interesting musical facts about themselves in a digital format (Wakelet, Padlet and Google Slides all work well) or in a written format

I like to look at the possible silver linings in this whole situation.  Wouldn’t it be great if your students emerged from this time with well-developed aural, sight-reading, transcription, and improvisation skills?  And a collection of creative compositions? 

I’ve said it before – you are all doing an amazing job under these circumstances.  Remember that this is not forever! My biggest tips are to keep things simple where possible and to allow your students the opportunity to simply connect with one another – they probably miss seeing you and each other.

Free training: for music teachers teaching remotely 

I have recently run a number of free online training webinars for music teachers who are teaching remotely.  You can earn a professional development certificate for each one.

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Looking for More Resources for Music Teachers?

Hello! I’m Katie Wardrobe – an Australian music technology trainer and consultant with a passion for helping music teachers through my business Midnight Music.

I’m a qualified teacher but no, I don’t currently teach in a school. I help teachers through my online professional development space – the Midnight Music Community – where there are tutorial videos, courses, links and downloadable resources.

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I like to focus on easy ways to incorporate technology into what you are already doing in your music curriculum through a range of creative projects. I also run live workshops and have presented at countless conferences and other music education events.

If you want simple, effective ideas for using technology in music education, I would LOVE to help you inside the Midnight Music Community.

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