Thoughts on technology support in ensembles
Perry’s (2020) article about distance learning reflected my children’s band and orchestra experiences in public schools. Both high school and middle school ensembles used SmartMusic and supplemented learning with short-term and long-term recording projects both for assessment and self-assessment and other music theory and music history projects. A virtual recital compilation of individual long-term recording projects concluded the semester.
Our experiences in the Millikin Community Cello Choir mirror some of Perry’s (2020) ideas. Until we are permitted to resume in-person rehearsals, MCCC decided to continue to operate as a virtual ensemble, understanding that this is a different way to maintain a sense of community. Ensembles, by nature, are “the very antithesis of social distancing” (Perry, 2020). However, online collaboration helped provide a sense of connection despite not being in the same space. The planning meetings also reinforced shared social identity and belonging, nurturing reciprocal learning. Without technology, the MCCC would not have functioned during the pandemic. The benefits of continued collaboration and the gains in technological habitus far outweigh the negatives of Zoom lag and lack of natural in-person interactions, in my opinion.
Some participants indeed elected not to participate in meetings or recordings. Some were overwhelmed with the technological learning curve but grew more comfortable with Zoom and recording processes this past year. Others submitted recordings without participating in planning meetings. These findings mirror Olson & Edgar’s (2020) mixed reviews of virtual choir collaborations. Surprisingly, the virtual platform has increased MCCC’s inclusivity, access, and participation, by perforating geographical, transportation, and cost barriers. Access to and comfort working with technology posed limitations to some. Similar to the short-term and long-term goals outlined by Perry (2020), the MCCC democratically chose repertoire, and members were welcome to record any piece, any part, to suit their schedule and comfort level. This promoted agency and created flexible structures that fostered participation and recognized musical taste. Although we did not have access to SmartMusic or Practice First platforms, I provided pdfs of scores and individual parts, sent mp4 practice tracks at a slower tempo, and performance tracks at recording tempo via Google Drive. We used multiple Zoom meetings to discuss style, tempi, articulations, fingerings, and other performance issues. Some members chose to compose or improvise basslines to contribute to the pieces, and some members brought this repertoire to their private lessons. In general, performance levels improved because members assessed their own recordings and worked to make strong submissions to the best of their ability.
MCCC is very fortunate to have one member proficient at Adobe Pro and another member’s son proficient at audio-video compilation. Without their expertise and contribution, MCCC would not have been able to continue virtual collaborations. Now we have a Facebook page and YouTube channel for our videos. This allows us to share our “musical postcards” to nursing homes, family, friends, and more! I hope to learn how to use one of these platforms. Also, the new low latency technologies might offer new possibilities for real-time collaboration. I suspect that we will continue to use many of our online teaching skills and possibilities mixed with traditional in-person learning strategies moving forward.
Olson, B., and S.N. Edgar. (2020) Virtual Choirs: Student Thoughts on Taking Performance Online. https://nafme.org/virtual-choirs/
Perry, P. J. (2020) Online Learning in the Ensemble Class?! Use Technology and Distance Education to Teach Ensemble Classes Remotely. National Association for Music Education. https://nafme.org/online-learning-ensemble-class/
A Cloud-Based Music App Review
Tonal Energy is a tuning and metronome application for purchase for about four dollars from the Apple App Store and only two dollars from Google Play or Amazon stores. This is by far the best tuning application that I use. It is convenient to have both the tuner and the metronome in one app. I particularly enjoy how the app’s welcome page tracks how many days in a row the user has connected to the app, fostering user motivation from the beginning of use.
Marketed as the swiss-army-knife app of musicians of all levels, Tonal Energy delivers an all-in-one application that provides both ease and depth of learning. The website, https://www.tonalenergy.com/, greets the user as “your best friend in practice” for middle school students through professionals. I argue that this app is appropriate for all age levels because it offers user-friendly tutorials. Parents or teachers who want younger students to work with a tuner or metronome can easily provide detailed and simple instruction for ability and age-appropriate usage of tonal energy.
The tuner portion of the app is one of the most sophisticated on the market. A bright circle changes colors: red if the pitch is sharp, yellow if the pitch is flat, and green if the pitch is correct. Under the bullseye tuner circle, specific increments of tenths of cents indicate digitally how close the pitch is to true. The circle increases in size as the pitch moves closer to accuracy. Users can choose between modes (wind, strings, voice), in-tune range (wide, medium, fine, and ultra-fine), and damping (slow, normal, and fast) for plucked string instruments. There are settings for temperament, auto-transposition, changing the key to shift drones. The tuner is only one aspect. Other features include plotting pitch, waveform timespan that mimics an oscilloscope, automatic exercise creator, tone generator for drone practice, audio or video recording, and much more.
The metronome features are equally as user-friendly. One can choose between various metronome sounds, subdivisions, accent sounds, a visual count-in, and a wide range of tempos, from 10 beats per minute to 1,000. There are even options for changing meters, random beat silencing, and time limits. On file recording and playback, one can choose to stretch tempo or connect to midi. There are options for notation, remote control options, external video options, and airturn pedals or Bluetooth keyboard connectivity capability. For Apple users, this can connect to an Apple Watch. Like fitness apps, this one has daily goal achievement rings (for instance, a user can set up daily practice time goals), displays the longest practice streak, and allows sharing practice streaks via social media, email, or texting.
This app offers a plenitude of features and user-friendly instructions both within the app and on the Tonal Energy webpage. For engagement, flexibility for developmental appropriateness, immediate feedback options, motivational sharing and connectivity possibilities, and personalization features, this app is a bargain at two to four dollars for instant access. Although this app is quite sophisticated, I primarily use only the fundamental tuner and metronome features but look forward to exploring the more sophisticated features in time. I have already recommended this app for those looking for a tuning or metronome app. It is convenient to have both in one place.