Arts, On Campus, Arts Features

Music on Zoom: Playing it By Ear

Music is a disciplined craft that requires precision and attuned listening—two skills that are challenged by online platforms and modified in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Social distancing turns many musical performances into solo acts, and masks muffle voices during in-person classes. For courses that are shifted online, audio is stifled, network speeds slow things down, and students can only participate in rhythm, vocals, dance, and instrumentals behind Zoom screens. 

Barbara Gawlick, who is teaching Fundamentals of Music this fall, is simulating the in-person classroom environment to the best of Zoom’s abilities. But she said the audio over Zoom makes it difficult for her students to create and experience live music, a change impacting many virtually-converted programs in BC’s music department.

“Music is about community and hearing each other, but here it’s just them in their own space,” Gawlick said.

In the past, she would begin lessons by encouraging students to perform musical pieces for the class. Now that her classes meet virtually, she said her students cannot create music as a group—whether it’s singing, clapping out rhythms, or playing instruments. The disparities between audio levels and network connections fail to synchronously pick up real-time class performances. But Gawlick has found a way to maintain live music as a fundamental component of her course.

Accompanied by her personal piano and percussion instruments, Gawlick plays succinct melodies and demonstrates rhythms and meters for her virtual classes. Although her students can no longer sing together over Zoom, she demonstrates musical concepts to the class by singing melody lines. Presenting live music is still essential for her students to experience. 

“It exists in a given moment of performance, and then it’s gone,” Gawlick said about music. “For students, it’s a fascinating exercise in dealing with a very different medium.”

In the music department, students enter class with a variety of musical backgrounds. For novice music students, Gawlick said it’s hard enough to start with no musical experience—teaching online adds another layer of difficulty for beginners. Even if sound quality translates, students can’t see the notes Gawlick plays on the piano, and the audio may not translate perfectly to match the specifics of her performance. 

Peter Watchorn, who is teaching Music of the Baroque on Zoom, faces a similar issue. As a professional harpsichordist, he usually demonstrates how to tune and play the multi-keyboarded instrument, a predecessor to the piano, for his students. He hasn’t attempted to incorporate the instrument into his course yet because of the sound quality over Zoom. 

“To really promote that sort of extra-level of understanding I’m looking for, there’s really no substitute for just being in the room,” Watchorn said.

In place of live music, he’s resorted to playing high-quality YouTube videos. To ensure students receive the best sound feedback, he sends his students the video links during class so they can listen to them individually before returning to Zoom to discuss the musical materials. 

Although Watchorn has found this method to be effective in his online course, he says listening separately creates a sense of detachment between him and his students. He can no longer observe his students’ immediate reactions to the music, which helped him to guide his students through the pieces. 

“When you’re actually in the room with them there’s a particular energy, a particular sort of spirit that just doesn’t exist when you’re sitting in different rooms,” Watchorn said.

Although some music classes are being taught virtually, some are still meeting in-person. Ann Lucas is conducting her Introduction to Musics of the World and Music and Culture in the Middle East courses in-building this semester. Still, her classes cannot participate in music the way they used to due to social distancing and mask wearing. 

Lucas is modifying the way she and her students engage with music in class. She often incorporates group song and dance, but since these activities can increase the risk of transmitting the virus, she is focusing more attention on rhythm and percussion in her class. Her Introduction to Musics of the World class recently explored West African music, and her students successfully replicated the African rhythm by clapping in sync—and from a safe distance. 

She’s even modifying the traditional dances she teaches in her courses. To abide to social distancing, she re-choreographed a Lebanese line dance—one that traditionally involves dancing shoulder-to-shoulder and holding hands. Instead, she instructed her students to shuffle back and forth at their desks, focusing on the dance’s intricate footwork. Later in the semester, she’s looking forward to teaching belly dancing, which requires limited space and individual choreography.

“I don’t think there’s a better way to kind of get music into your body than dancing,” Lucas said.

In the past, Lucas would play her Nai wind instrument, a Middle Eastern flute made from a river reed, but playing the instrument in-class would require her to remove her mask. The instrument could also spread droplets into the air, potentially reaching students. She has, however, resorted to singing behind her mask. To amplify her voice, she wears a headset with a microphone. 

For all the technical difficulties the music department may face, Nizar Ballout, the music director for the Middle Eastern ensemble Astaza, is working as the music department’s technology adviser. Ballout has been musically training students virtually for the past five years, so he is well-versed in teaching music over online platforms. He’s tasked with assisting faculty with the transition to online classes, rehearsals, and performances.

“Technology is still limited when it comes to bringing the real live experience of it,” Ballout said of teaching online. “But I can’t remember something that we couldn’t do.” 

Although the music department is facing new challenges, Ballout is optimistic about continuing to create and engage with music during this time. His Middle Eastern ensemble is still preparing for a fully online performance in December. In the meantime, they plan to practice in a hybrid format with many instrumentalists playing over Zoom—including Lucas, who will be playing her Nai wind instrument. 

“I think at this moment we should be more engaged,” Ballout said, “Everyone should be more engaged with music, with listening, with playing, with jamming online. You need it. We all need it.” 

Photo by Maggie DiPatri / Heights Editor

October 7, 2020