While originally daunted at the thought of teaching violin groups online, I have found that gathering my students together for weekly classes during our COVID-19 stay-home order has become the high point of my teaching week!
I love teaching my regular in-person group classes and I mourned the loss of familiar elements and benefits of that teaching dynamic. I came to a mental shift that helped me release my expectations of what a typical in-person group class is like: Embrace the teaching strategies and lesson elements that are uniquely well suited for virtual classes, and adjust previous in-person strategies to suit the platform. With this invigorated motivation, I created a 35-page activity book that I use with my students – (String Me Along Sample Pack free PDF download available here.)
After reading this NPR article about the world’s children experiencing an "adverse childhood event" because of the school closures and quarantine orders, this quote stood out to me, regarding teachers whose efforts to keep in touch with their students might reduce negative effects: "If provided in a way that ... continues learning in some form, they can be a real protective factor against anxiety and depression for kids." Showing up for these kids and giving them a chance to see their group class friends seems more important now than ever before.
Here are some elements and activities that have been successful in my studio:
Online Classroom Management Tactics
Create an "Order of Names." This will help the class take turns with as little confusion as possible. You can use alphabetical order, order of birthday, favorite color in order of the rainbow, anything. After setting the order (include yourself as the last player, thus signaling the loop starting over) have the children shout out their names in quick succession so they internalize who plays before and after them. Once the Order of Names is established, feel free to start with any person in the class, but proceeding in a loop according to the order of names you’ve set up.
Manage the ‘Mute’ and ‘Spotlight Video’ carefully to highlight your own frame during teaching or demonstration segments, or students during their individual performances.
For ensemble playing with pre-recorded tracks: pull up accompaniments on your own computer, and "share computer audio" from the Zoom group meeting features. Spotlight the teacher’s video feed. Everyone will hear the same accompaniment played through the platform while still seeing the teacher’s video. Play, conduct, use body language to give cues, as you normally would. This is a great time to work on physical cues for bow distribution, location and amount used for dynamic effect.
I prefer to mute the students during this segment because their delayed audio looped back into the meeting will sound "off" to their classmates trying to play along with the synced audio and video from the teacher. In the gallery view, bow strokes will appear synced up!
Pass the Piece in the Order of Names. One person starts a piece, then "passes" it to the next student, who resumes where the first person left off. Try to close the gap between players by encouraging students to finger along silently and be ready when their turn comes. Review pieces that divide into predictable segments work well, such as:
Call and Response. Teacher plays the piece to pre-determined points, then drops out. Students respond by playing the missing spot either together or as soloists in the order of names. Be prepared to respond in time! (or close enough, due to lag time) Teacher picks back up and plays again to the next spot.
Some fun spots for students to jump in between the teacher’s playing:
Drop the Needle. Teacher plays a short snippet (3-4 notes) from a review piece. Students raise their hands to guess the piece. Call on the first person with a hand up to answer. Use the Order of Names to let everyone have a chance to be the record player and Drop the Needle for their friends, or let those who guess correctly be the next one to play the snippet. Those who guess correctly may also play the piece as a solo. Beginnings of pieces are easier to guess, middles and endings are more challenging.
Teach a new piece to the class. New tunes, folk songs, or rounds that divide into short phrases can be fun: Scotland’s Burning, Frère Jacques, Row Row Row your boat, Little Tom Tinker, Hot Cross Buns, Taps, Bohemian Folk Song, Boil them Cabbage. Teach a phrase at a time with microphones on to relish the cacophony of group practice in a static/drone tonality. Then try to play together with microphones ON and whatever happens is fair game for the harmony/rhythm.
Use drones + Pass the Piece. Entire class plays tonic or dominant drones, drops in and out of the drone on their turn in the order of names to add the next section of melody. Works well on Musette, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, plus any of the rounds listed above. Advanced students can learn to change the drone pitch according to harmony changes in the piece over large sections (Bach Gavotte in g minor G – Bb – D - G)
Play ensemble pieces (unison or in parts) with the piano or accompaniment track as described in "Online Classroom Management Tactics" above. This is a great way to do play-throughs of entire pieces without stopping. It may be difficult for the teacher to see what is happening in every frame as far as uniform playing is concerned, especially with internet speed and lag time, but it approximates ensemble playing on the student’s end, especially if they’re watching the teacher screen for cues.
Invite students to perform for their classmates as soloists. (Remember to mute the others and Spotlight the soloist’s video feed). Have their classmates type supportive comments into the group chat as they play. Read comments to each soloist after they play. In my studio, we affectionately refer to written compliments of each other’s playing as "Violintines"
Mini-Masterclass. Teacher gives feedback to students individually on their solo playing, other students may chime in comments.
Theory and Note Reading
*More details about using Pop song arranging as a way to reinforce scales, arpeggios and chord theory to come in Part III of this series.
Fun and Games
1. Music or Food? Have students get a kitchen utensil to use for this game. Teacher shares various musical terms, names of composers, and food. (It helps to show the spelling of the word, either on a card or using the whiteboard feature on the share settings.) Children raise their bow if they think it’s a music term, the utensil if they think it’s a term for food, or share two different terms and have them choose between. Teacher makes quick music history teaching points of each musical term guessed. This game is a good ritual to add in a little each time as a way to let the kids sit for a game, learn and laugh, then come back to playing. (Music in bold!)
Vivaldi, Spaghetti, Campagnoli, Dragonetti, Capellini, Albinoni, Paganini, Ravioli, Tartini, Fettuccine, Corelli, Torelli, Rossini, Rigatoni, Rotini, Respighi, Rachmaninoff, Stroganoff, LeClair, éclair, Paganini, vermicelli, Veracini, Giuliani, Spaghetti, Caprice, Caprese, Boccherini, Broccolini, Tartini, Tortellini, Ravel, Ravioli, Ligeti, Linguini, Satie, Satay, Menotti, Manicotti, Blini, Bellini, Casals, Cassoulet, Liszt, Blintz, Bucatini, Farandole, Farfalle, Rutini, Cocchi, Gnocchi, Habanera, Habanero, Adagio, Formaggio, Ockeghem, Orechetti, Dallapiccola, Pico de Gallo, Piazzolla, Pizza, Tiremisu, Takemitsu, Scarlatti, Frescobaldi, Sevcik, Ceviche, Humperdinck, Pumpernickel, Twinkle, Twinkies.
2. Form Sandwiches (free handout here) Using paper, felt, or plastic sandwich components, experiment with different arrangements of form for various pieces. Have students play a section or phrase at a time and build the sandwich. Display a sandwich and have them discover which piece it can represent. Keep in mind that form analysis can be fluid and subject to opinion – multiple right answers can be entertained!
Advanced players and teens may enjoy creating video collaborations like this one on their own or with friends. Use group class time to plan out parts, harmonies, and create a plan for form. More detail on this element for groups for teens coming in Part III.
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