Music Education in the Age of COVID-19

Quite a bit has been written about the relative merits of online education versus in-person instruction. Before this year, most online courses around the country were taken voluntarily, but when the COVID-19 shutdown occurred in mid-March, thousands of instructors found themselves forced to hurriedly convert their classes to an online format, for better or worse.

Certainly, the online format works for some classes better than it does for others. Some people have expressed more concern for the difficulty of teaching the arts “virtually,” but the better distinction is that between skills-based classes and those based on learning and understanding a particular subject.

For example, my courses such as Arranging and Form were relatively painless to convert to an online platform—the students and I were able to listen to recordings together, look at a score, and mark it together in real time. The most difficult part was finding a way to ensure a level of participation similar to what I would get in person, but even that was not hard to solve once it was clear to the students that they needed to keep a finger poised near the keyboard (for “chatting”) or their unmute button at all times.

With skills-based classes, however, the challenge is altogether different, and I imagine that classes outside of the arts face similar struggles, such as athletics courses. Surely the greatest challenge has been for team sport practices and large ensemble rehearsals, but here I will address the teaching of private music lessons, which has its own obstacles.

There is a vast variety of skills that music performance instructors have to teach the students in our studios, including:

• technique—advanced technique, plus some remediation of more basic skills
• musicality—shaping phrases, changing character appropriately, etc.
• how to practice effectively
• organizing one’s practice time and goals in the short and long run
• healthy playing—endurance and how to avoid injuries mental issues like concentration or performance anxiety

We could expand this list further, but it covers much of what we do.

Some of these skills are not especially difficult to teach online, such as how to practice and organize one’s time. I found myself addressing these issues more frequently and in a bit more detail once lessons had to move online. I also had students record themselves practicing and/or performing and then send me links to these videos before each lesson.

Music instructors often perform a diagnostic role in lessons: the student performs a passage or a piece, after which we discuss things that went well and areas that can be improved. In some respects, this activity was as easy online as in person, but in other respects it was problematic. For example, the quality of the built-in microphone of most computers—and even some of the external mics that students had—makes it more difficult to hear the precise tone quality and changes in dynamics (softness/loudness), which in turn tends to make the performance much more sterile than it would sound in person. A good solution was to direct students to greatly exaggerate their dynamics and color changes and to use more body language and facial expressions to show their intended shapes—both of which can be valuable habits anyway.

The most challenging skills to teach online were aspects of technique, some of the more subtle of which might easily be addressed in person by moving the student’s hand or arm for them, for example. In some cases it would help to manipulate the camera to show an extreme close up of what I wanted them to do compared to what they were doing. By and large, though, I often found myself assigning students short exercises to correct the issue generally in lieu of trying to address the necessary changes to fix the technique at a given spot in the music. Other teachers continued to address such technical spots in a similar manner to how they would in person, but I found that this approach of treating technical issues more generally with short exercises worked well for my studio.

Is there a silver lining to the changes we have all endured since March? I know that my own technology “chops” have improved in numerous ways, and I would bet that this is true for many others as well. I am also of the opinion that our ability to persevere through the tribulations of 2020 reveal an aspect of our character and spirit that may serve as artistic inspiration for everyone who bore witness to it.

And how will conservatories and music programs within universities be affected in the long term by “distance learning”? Will they continue to charge their large tuition prices and draw enough students to endure as institutions? Or, is it more likely that students will choose a different vocation and only pursue music as an avocation?

Only time will tell, but it is likely that music programs would benefit from reading the writing on the podium, so to speak, to determine what changes they may need to make to stay solvent. My own prediction is that the total number of music programs in the country will shrink further, with the survivors containing a mix of “value” options (i.e., lower cost but a good education) along with many of the famous, high-end schools—albeit with lower enrollment.


Photo by Stefany Andrade on Unsplash

Benjamin Whitcomb

Benjamin Whitcomb

Benjamin Whitcomb is Professor of Cello at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

3 thoughts on “Music Education in the Age of COVID-19

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    I wanted to write a piece based on my own experiences, and fortunately what you describe has not appeared yet at my campus. Perhaps I will need to write another such article when it does–or its sounds like perhaps you are poised to write such a piece? I would look forward to reading it!

  2. Professor Whitcomb, there are other much more serious things to worry about in music education.

    For one thing, the “antiracists” are coming after the “Eurocentric, elitist, white supremacist ‘classical’ music” programs. And it’s being instigated right within those programs! google on ‘ewell music theory’ for a nice taste.

    Plus, classical music has been in trouble for decades. Now, the concerts are stopped for who knows how long. The performers and students are screwed, to use a polite euphemism. Someday it may cone back, after who knows how much damage. The skills, audiences degraded.

    1. Exactly correct. When major orchestras play this ‘Eurocentric, White supremacist’ classical music in Japan, tickets sell out almost immediately. Now that, like everything else that is good and decent is under attack. Why? Well for one reason they know they can get away with it. Adults no longer run universities; immature, spoiled children do.

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