Battle Ground’s music educators hit the right notes with remote learning

The district’s middle school band teachers have been collaborating more than ever to adjust their instruction to meet today’s challenges

BATTLE GROUND — Teaching young musicians to play an instrument is a process that requires continual feedback and adjustments. Typically, it involves things like helping students find the right hand and finger position to play a note correctly, or demonstrating how to blow into the mouthpiece of a flute or clarinet.

Tukes Valley Middle School band teacher Alison Pierce instructs an ensemble via Zoom. Photo courtesy of Battle Ground Public Schools
Tukes Valley Middle School band teacher Alison Pierce instructs an ensemble via Zoom. Photo courtesy of Battle Ground Public Schools

Helping students hit the right notes is still an important aspect of the instruction that Battle Ground Public Schools’ music educators provide their students, but this year, the biggest adjustment has been learning how to deliver such instruction remotely. 

“There is no playbook for shifting band classes to an online format,” said Jeremy Gallagher, band teacher at Laurin Middle School. “Teachers should not be fearful about doing something the wrong way. We will need to be open to new ideas, adapt to the current reality, and find creative ways to provide an online music education program. Despite the challenges, we are committed to maintaining robust and vital music programs in Battle Ground.”

“It’s amazing how much progress you can make in an hour with all the students assembled and playing together,” said Alison Pierce, band teacher at Tukes Valley Middle School. “Sometimes it’s listening and providing immediate verbal feedback, or maybe you play a corrected note back to them or physically adjust their hand position. This year, we’ve had to get really creative to try and find ways to replace that in-person instruction time.” 

The district’s middle school band teachers have been collaborating more than ever to adjust their instruction to meet today’s challenges. The group has identified two of the Washington State Music Arts Learning Standards to focus on while students learn from home, and are using a wide array of technologies to deliver instruction that helps students meet these standards.

The first foundational skill band teachers are focusing on is Standard 5, which requires students “to develop and refine artistic techniques and work for presentation.” To facilitate performance instruction online, band teachers are using a variety of resources. For example, the online program SmartMusic allows teachers to assign a piece of music that students can play along to at home. The students record their performance, and SmartMusic identifies when a wrong note is played, displaying incorrect notes in red on their sheet music. Students can click on these notes for information about how to correct the issue.

Students can also record themselves performing at home and upload their videos to Google Drive, where their teachers can review the videos and provide feedback. Teachers have found other technologies that work well for remote music instruction, including Google Classroom, Google Forms, FlipGrid, and even YouTube videos. 

“Hearing students play on a video is very similar to hearing them play in person,” said James deBra, band teacher at Pleasant Valley Middle School. “We are able to give them focused and direct feedback, which will help them to improve their playing. Focusing on concepts that align with Standard 5 will help students be successful at the next level in the fall, whether it be in the middle school band program or one of the high school programs.”

While teleconferencing technology like Zoom is a useful tool for one-on-one music instruction, such programs don’t work for live performances involving more than a few musicians at a time. Performing as a group requires precise timing, and the inherent lag time involved with online conferencing makes performing as a group over Zoom pretty much impossible.

Still, there are some musical applications for teleconferencing software. Students looking for additional music instruction have traditionally taken on extra projects at school through solos, duets, and small ensemble performances. Pierce is using Zoom to meet with small groups of students wanting such opportunities.

The second area of focus for the district’s middle school band teachers is Washington State Music Standard 11, which requires students “to relate artistic ideas and works with societal, historical, and cultural context to deepen understanding.” While Battle Ground’s music educators always include lessons about the historical and cultural aspects of music, remote learning has afforded teachers more time to focus on this standard.

“It’s important for students to understand not only music history, but also how music fits in with our culture right now,” Pierce said. “Online tools like SmartMusic and YouTube channels with instrument karaoke feature music that kids can relate to, from current pop music to famous songs from movies. Learning these songs lets some kids personally connect with the music and makes it more culturally relevant for them.”

Focusing on the cultural and historical aspect of music by assigning readings and essays also provides some flexibility for students who may not be able to play an instrument during this time due to financial constraints that can come with renting an instrument. 

“Students may be missing out on playing music together as a group and performing for the public right now, but they are able to use this time to reflect on how being a musician makes them a part of the community and the local culture,” Pierce said. 

Information provided by Battle Ground Public Schools.