Making Music in a Pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way many courses were delivered and taught to students, there weren’t many programmes that felt the effects of it more than the music and dramatic arts departments.

“The pandemic has made our teaching process considerably slower, especially for the beginner students who need daily interaction and correction,” says James Oatt, Department Head of Music and music teacher at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS). “Music students are now unable to directly collaborate and they miss this element of our music programme the most. No band rehearsals or concerts. It has sucked the ‘fun’ out of making music together.”

Toronto Public Health has recommended that schools not allow singing and the playing of wind instruments unless the student singing or playing can be separated by a plexiglass or other impermeable barrier while their instructor maintains a two-metre distance.

ONLINE MUSIC EDUCATION

“A shift in emphasis to at-home playing has been necessary,” says Oatt. “Students will demonstrate via Zoom and record themselves and submit a video for assessments. While it’s not new, we are now doing much more of it.”

Oatt adds that when students are permitted to be in class at the school, they focus on music theory, history, and other activities that are permissible under the restrictions such as ‘bucket drumming’.

SMCS students practicing bucket drumming in class with their teacher Mr. James Oatt.

St. Michael's College School students practicing 'bucket drumming' in class with their teacher, Mr. James Oatt.

“This has actually been really well received by our students. They enjoy the unified ‘community’ aspect of drumming together,” says Oatt. “We have been able to turn this into a tool for teaching and reinforcing concepts of music literacy and counting and performing rhythm, which has been extremely effective. It’s something we will continue to do even after the pandemic is over.”

When students are learning from home, Oatt directs their focus to their instruments, to practice, record their playing, and collaborate online.

VIRTUAL COLLABORATION

One unique tool that has assisted the department in collaborating musically from home is the cloud-based recording software, Soundtrap.

“This program allows students to record themselves, collaborate with other students in their class, and learn basic sound engineering skills to edit their performances,” says Oatt.

The SMCS Music Programme uses the cloud-based recording software, Soundtrap for virtual collaboration.

The Music Programme at St. Michael's College School has been using the online, cloud-based recording platform, Soundtrap since the spring of 2020.

“It’s teaching the elements of music, such as form, timbre, rhythm and pulse, melody, harmony, and dynamics,” he says. “We’re using it to teach musicianship skills such as playing with good pulse and learning to relate to other instruments for timing, tuning, and phrasing. It’s teaching real-world recording studio skills and techniques. It also allows for collaboration in small ensembles including duets, trios, quartets, and full ensembles such as a 60-to-100-piece concert band.”

The program has made it possible for the Music department to virtually produce full band arrangements, such as Grade 9 Advanced Band, Senior Concert Band, and Grade 8 Class Band by having students play and record their own parts.

“It was not without challenges in the beginning—students not being familiar with the program, and a variety of microphones used at home create different audio effects. We have tried to scaffold the projects to just get them comfortable with the basics and have progressed since then,” says Oatt. “Some students have excelled from the beginning and have helped guide and assist other students, which has been great to see.”

SETTING AN EXAMPLE

Grade 10 student, Joshua Leduc is one student who took to the application immediately, working and experimenting with it to eventually create his own complete arrangement.

Grade 10 student Joshua Leduc practicing his flute at home.

Grade 10 St. Michael's College School student, Joshua Leduc practicing on his flute at home during a private lesson via Zoom.

“The first piece I ever put together on Soundtrap was Ding Dong Merrily on High,” says Leduc, who has been playing the flute since Grade 8 at SMCS. “I played all three parts and put them together and added a drum accompaniment. The other piece I played was the Sonata in Eb Major BWV 1031 composed by Bach. It was only one flute part, but I played along to a piano accompaniment.”

“Joshua was the first student to take Soundtrap and create his own recordings with it,” says Oatt. “It was astonishing how good the recording was and how quickly he was able to do it.”

Leduc says his favourite part of the music programme this year is the opportunity to use the Soundtrap software.

Grade 10 SMCS student Joshua Leduc

Joshua Leduc experimented early on with the Soundtrap software, putting together two pieces, Ding Dong Merrily on High and Sonata in Eb Major BWV 1031 by Bach, on his own.

“The use of Soundtrap in the classroom is very helpful for many reasons such as being able to collaborate with peers,” says Leduc. “It is also helpful to learn editing skills which are important for music in the future. Overall, nothing beats playing our instruments together in the classroom, but I believe the school did a great job of keeping the music programme functioning well during the pandemic.”

“Since we obviously cannot have live concerts, Soundtrap is a great way to merge everyone’s part into a piece,” he says. “In Senior Band, we collaborated on Soundtrap to produce three pieces, Joy to the World, And to All A Good Night, and Do You Hear What I Hear.”

OLD IS NEW IN DRAMATIC ARTS

Under the city’s public health restrictions, the SMCS Dramatic Arts programme faced similar challenges this year.

“When we came to the determination that producing a traditional staged play in our theatre was not going to be possible, we discussed what options we had,” says Oatt.

SMCS has produced a play in the fall and a full Broadway-style musical in the spring every year for over 50 years. Students are heavily involved in both the performance side and behind-the-scenes preparation of each production. In 2019, the Spring Musical and Fall Drama produced brought in a combined audience of over 4,000 guests.

The St. Michael's College School Centre for the Arts.

St. Michael's College School typically presents an annual Fall Drama and Spring Musical in its Centre for the Arts theatre.

“We turned to an old form of theatre known as a radio play that was made very popular in the time of radio (1930s and 40s) until TV took over,” he says. “We are currently working on our first production, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.”

“Soundtrap has allowed our students to record and edit the timing of their lines to create a flow to the dialogue. We are still in production and excited about bringing this famous literary work to life.”

While the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way programmes are run and classes are taught at SMCS, it has also unlocked new possibilities and tools to enrich and even expand student learning.

“I guess it’s the idea that ‘necessity breeds ingenuity,’” says Oatt. “We have discovered some exceptional musical teaching tools that we will continue to use beyond the pandemic. That’s a positive that comes out of this very challenging situation we find our world in today.”

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