Singing into the void: teaching music remotely

Being a remote music teacher is especially strange when you can't see your students - but they seem to be having fun

Chris Koelma

Online learning: How teachers can make music lessons engaging

I do a final check of my slides and links and then a last vocal warm-up…after all, 25 bubbly nine-year-olds will soon be watching me sing and play the guitar – a tough crowd!

Ding ding, ding ding. The students arrive and I kick things off with a TV presenter-esque welcome. The primary pupils love it (the secondary students later in the day...not so much).

After taking the register, it’s time for our song of the week.

Teaching music online: Lyrics maestro, please 

The first job involves choosing a student to be the "lyrics master" whose job is to share their screen for the rest of the class and move through the lyrics while I play the music on my guitar to accompany them.

I launch into the song – a song written by a colleague called Zoom School Blues – and don’t look back.

Unfortunately, since all of the students’ microphones are muted, it’s just the guitar and my own voice that I hear through my headphones.

No lovely student voices that I have spent years working on back when I had a classroom can be heard.

Are they singing well? Are they even singing at all? I sneak a look at the video windows of a couple of students.

Some are bouncing to the beat and singing along happily, although the inevitable lag that plagues remote music lessons makes them seem completely out of sync.

Repeating lines 

Another students’ camera has glitched and she appears stuck in a never-ending yawn. The lyrics master must be distracted because as I finish verse two, the slides haven’t moved on.

To make things a bit silly and to keep it light, I repeat the same line five times, as if emulating a broken record.

The screen finally changes and I see some smiles in those video windows. I smile back and push on with the song and reach the end with a flurrying of strummed chords. I’m greeted with absolute silence.

None of the usual chatter of excitement at the end of an in-school singing session…it’s hard not to be a bit disappointed but…hang on...a few students have pressed the applause button on the reactions tab.

Phew, they liked it.

Sorry, neighbours

Next, we do some body percussion. I instruct the students to stand up and find some space where I can still see them through their camera. The students follow along: stomp, stomp; chest, chest; clap, clap; stomp, stomp; chest, chest; clap.

They are all roughly one second behind me and the disjointed feeling is hard to ignore. Just keep going! I tell myself. I imagine the neighbours in the apartment below me wondering why I’m stomping so heavily above them at 8am on a weekday.

I imagine myself sheepishly telling them, “Sorry about the thumping in the mornings, I’m a remote music teacher." Not sure how that would go down.

I’m panting a little when we finish the body percussion routine and I can see that some of the students appear to be feeling the same. A few are laughing and happy, while others fall into their chair in complete exhaustion.

I love how younger students exaggerate things like that. It brings me another smile.

Next, we do some musical composition – an area of remote teaching where technology has really helped as there are some fantastic apps such as Noteflight Learn, Music Play Online, GarageBand, BandLab and Chrome Music Lab to help with this and I have seen massive improvements in theory and composition skills since the pandemic began.

My students are eager to compose melodies, write lyrics and experiment with new sounds. We listen to each other's compositions through Flipgrid, breakout rooms and screen sharing.

Students are working individually and collaboratively and, whilst things might move a little slower online sometimes, the student outcomes are fantastic.

Improvisation is key

My seven-week interlude of "real" face-to-face teaching in August/September 2020 feels like a distant memory. Like many of my colleagues in the Asian region, I have been teaching music lessons remotely since early 2020.

It’s been tough but I believe that I have become a more flexible and innovative music teacher in the past year.

Much of this learning has come through collaboration with my colleagues, but plenty has also come from glorious moments of trial and error and improvisation.

And sometimes that’s where the best music comes from.

Chris Koelma is head of whole-school music at Garden International School, Malaysia and founder of www.beginnerorchestra.com

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