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Teaching Music Online: Insight from TC Faculty and Alumni

For years, Teachers College, Columbia University has been mastering the art of teaching music online. Although we designed the hybrid Master of Arts in Music and Music Education program to achieve the best of both online and in-person learning, we transitioned to a fully online program for 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the factors that made this transition possible is the foundation we’ve built for creating immersive and engaging online education — in addition to the virtual experiences already designed for the hybrid program, we’ve drawn a lot on what we’ve learned from offering online master’s degrees since 2007.

One of the biggest lessons we’ve taken to heart throughout our history is that we never stop learning. Change is difficult, and there will be hiccups along the way in any large transition. However, we’re incredibly fortunate to have a community of passionate educators — projects like the TC Virtual Choir and Ensemble wouldn’t be possible without both faculty and students’ commitment to working together and creating remarkable music and other experiences.

We wanted to share some of the insight we’ve gained this year and highlight not just our successes, but how we overcame some of the challenges we encountered in transforming our hybrid program to being fully online for the duration of the pandemic. Three members of the Teachers College faculty, Jeanne Goffi-Fynn, Ed.D., Drew Coles, Ed.D. and Natalie Fabian recently sat down to discuss their experience.

Read their full interviews below for information about how they approach teaching online, what technology platforms they use and their experiences with virtual performances. You can also click the links below to navigate directly to a specific section of this article.

To learn more about the Hybrid Summer Online Master of Arts in Music and Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, download a free brochure.

Jeanne Goffi-Fynn, Ed.D.

Professor Goffi-Fynn discusses what aspects of teaching had to change to create enriched learning experiences in an online space. She offers insight into how music educators can approach online learning and how they can support their students as they face unique challenges.

Click here to read her full Q&A.

Drew Coles, Ed.D.

Professor Coles discusses how his background as both an entrepreneur and music educator helped him enrich the online learning experience, as well as how music educators can apply business skills to make their lessons adaptable, engaging and impactful for their students.

Click here to read his full Q&A.

Natalie Fabian, TC M.A. in Music and Music Education alumna

Natalie Fabian is a vocalist, pianist, composer/arranger, teaching artist, and recent graduate of the TC M.A. in Music and Music Education program. She discusses her experience with virtual performances at TC from a performer’s, organizer’s and composer’s perspective, and offers insight into how others can create music for virtual environments.

Click here to read her full Q&A.

Jeanne Goffi-Fynn, Ed.D.

Professor Jeanne Goffi-Fynn is part of the vocal performance faculty at Teachers College with a prestigious background in music and the arts. Her areas of interest include applied studio music instruction, voice development and instruction, Contemporary Commercial Music (CCM), and choral singing. Goffi-Fynn has presented workshops, masterclasses and pedagogical presentations for numerous organizations, including the National Association of Teachers of Singing, New York Singing Teachers Association, College Music Society, and International Society for Music Education. She is a member of the American Academy of Teachers of Singing and Opera America’s Singers Training Forum, as well as President of NATS NYC and Chair of the Nats National Mentoring Initiative.

Currently, she oversees performance at Teachers College including recitals, ensembles, and college-wide events. She is also the Director of Singers’ Workshops, a teen ensemble, working with graduate students to give voice to young singers.

Q: I’d love to hear more about your background and your role at Teachers College.
A: I’m part of the performance faculty and am in charge of singing, ensembles and all the studio lessons. Those are my big three areas of focus. For twenty years, I’ve also taught a course called Studio Music, a course that many take, no matter their instrument. It was originally designed only for college students, but we have expanded the age range for independent, private studio teachers as well. I teach both online and in-person, so the transition to online ensembles has been very smooth. Additionally, I teach Vocal and Choral Pedagogy and Vocal Literature.

In my online courses, we use Zoom and other online platforms, but the class is pretty much asynchronous, which allows for a lot of flexibility for our students in different time zones and with busy schedules.

One of my favorite parts of my online curriculum is the utilization of an interface called Acclaim, where students can upload their teaching videos and peers can respond in real-time with the video. If students find something they like, they can comment, “Oh, great moment,” or “Did you notice what your student was doing right there?” Because you can respond throughout the video, students get a much more interactive experience than watching the entire thing and giving only reflective statements afterward.

As for performance and studio lessons, the easiest to do online are songs that can be performed either with an accompanying track or as a solo. However, we also do an end of the year project, Musical Serenades, which is for anyone in the music program. For these, we have people send in their performance videos, and then we edit them together and create a Youtube Premiere release party with a live chat.

Q: The virtual choir and ensemble are both incredibly intricate and well constructed. Can you walk me through the process that professors and students go through to create them?

There is definitely a good amount of work that goes into creating a virtual choir, but one thing that I love about teaching at TC is that we have so many great resources at our fingertips. I have technology professionals that I can call on for help, I have people who are up to date with the streaming. There’s always a huge learning curve, but part of the learning process is staying calm when things don’t go well.

For example, the way we tried to put the virtual choir together the first time was by having students send their videos to one specific person, and it crashed his whole computer, so we had to postpone for 24 hours. There’s always a learning curve, but with practice, everyone gets better. Sometimes, calls can drop and technology doesn’t cooperate, but learning how to handle not having control and having a sense of multimodality are huge lessons that teachers in this program learn through these unique experiences.

The actual process consists of rehearsals which we conduct in-person, warming up together and then breaking into groups for parts. We have even mastered improvisation in the online rehearsal, using a chord progression and allowing everyone to improvise over the pattern. Practice tracks are then created and everyone is sent away to record their parts. Then we work to edit the audio and video aspects of the performance and discuss what else can be done – is the sound balanced, are solos acknowledged, should we create introductions, background photos, etc.?

Q: What do you hope students get out of this online choir experience?
A: When looking at material versus pedagogy and comparing online to in-person classes, the pedagogy is truly what’s changing. We can’t have 25 people singing at the same time. But the content is still the same. We can still do warm-ups, we still want to understand how the voice works, and we still want to have good teaching strategies that promote engagement and a community mindset.

It’s key to understand going in that the methodology may be different, but the content is modified only slightly. You can’t take the same lesson that you teach in the classroom and Zoom it, but the lessons can be just as effective if they’re taught in an adapted way. These are things that music educators can apply to their teaching. Many of my students will be teaching online, and having a glimpse behind the curtain at how to do that can be very beneficial.

Q: What’s one thing you would tell other teachers who are just starting to teach their courses online?
A: First, I would encourage them and say, fear not. There is great potential in the online space. I oversee the doctoral cohort program which is a hybrid program for doctoral students, and with the busy schedules that we all have, online courses allow students to get a great education without having to worry about the commute or constant scheduling conflicts that come with an in-person course. And it shows, many of the meetings we’ve had since going online, there’s been 100% attendance. We’ve never had that before, but the flexibility of the virtual space makes it easier for students to attend no matter where they are or what their schedule looks like.

Stay optimistic, be as creative as you are in your in-person classes, and get to know your students’ strengths and weaknesses. For example, when I’m working with adult voice teachers who are a bit more nervous around technology, I may start with more group Zoom calls and slowly transition into breakout rooms, before I ask them to post their videos. We talk about scaffolding in learning, and we need to have scaffolding in online learning as well.

Lastly, be sure to make resources known to students. Give them the ability to reach out in case they have questions. So all in all, think about a creative pedagogy, learn about the students, use scaffolding, and understand your goals and outcomes. The content may be modified in the online space, but the skills should still be learned.

Q: What specific software do you use when teaching music online?
A: For the audio recordings, students usually use something like GarageBand or Logic Pro. For the video, they use anything from iMovie to Adobe. Creating tracks can be the most time-consuming part, but even the iPhone has good sound for recording. Just use what you have. Adapt and use what is available to you, which is another skill that teachers in this program learn. People today are marketing themselves. You can upload your own videos, make your own website, show people who you are without the help of anyone else, and people who go through this program gain the skills necessary to use the online space for their benefit.

Q: Having taught online for 15 years, have you found that Covid-19 has created any unexpected challenges, or did you feel prepared in the online space for this?

“As a teacher, you need to understand that people can’t learn until they feel heard and respected and valued. Some things are more important than the lesson at hand, and it’s vital to make sure everyone has the space to be heard.”

A: The biggest challenge has been the sickness, fear and anxiety that it’s raised in students. People have anxiety about their jobs, anxiety about going out, anxiety about their family. That’s been the piece that is hardest. It’s important for teachers to check in with everyone to make sure they are in the right headspace to be in class. And what I’ve learned is that people want and need to talk about this stuff.

As a teacher, you need to understand that people can’t learn until they feel heard and respected and valued. For example, in class at the start of June, we were supposed to have an online discussion involving scaffolding in the classroom, and instead, I posted a quote about the Black Lives Matter movement and said, ‘Share your thoughts here,’ and we discussed that. Some things are more important than the lesson at hand, and it’s vital to make sure everyone has the space to be heard.

Teachers College has given me the courage to do that. I have great resources here and our leaders have events available for students. TC is continually reaching out about COVID-19 and the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, and it makes you feel supported. People don’t know what to do a lot of times in moments of distress, but doing something and acknowledging real issues is vital in any classroom. Conversations are just as important as the content that is learned in the classroom.

Q: Is there anything about the program that I haven’t asked, that you think students should know?
A. Here at TC we use a process of inquiry to consider new ideas in pedagogy and performance. Moving everyone online has heightened that necessity to reach our students in creative, engaging, and imaginative ways. Our pedagogy has evolved to meet these challenges. As educators, we never stop growing as we model lifelong learning for our students.

Drew Coles, Ed.D.

Dr. Drew X Coles is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger, producer, serial entrepreneur, and educator, who teaches applied lessons, ensembles and music entrepreneurship at Teachers College. Coles holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York at Potsdam, a Master’s degree in Jazz Performance from Queens College of the City University of New York, and an M.B.A. from the Metropolitan College of New York. Coles also earned his Doctorate in Music Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Coles has also served as the Executive Director of the International Chamber Orchestra of America, co-founded Pro Arts Management and Consulting LLC and serves as the Musical Director to the Metropolitan Players, an award-winning New York City-based wedding entertainment collective.

Q: I’d love to hear more about your background and your role at Teachers College.
A: I teach three things at Teachers College: applied lessons (piano, jazz theory, trumpet), ensembles, and music entrepreneurship — as a pedagogical resource, I need to be able to adapt quickly and I teach my students how to adapt in the current environment).

I graduated with my doctorate from TC about a year ago. The ensembles that I teach are incredibly diverse in musical content, from Lizzo to Shostakovich and everything in between. Before the degree at TC, I was in an MBA program. Before that, I was in a jazz master’s program. And before that, I studied classical music. I also own my own performance-based company with my wife. Because of this, I have a lot of experience navigating the challenges of owning a business in the COVID-19 landscape.

All of this informs the classes I teach. All aspects of my performance and business life help me understand what the students need in the classroom.

Q: What has it been like to teach online and create a virtual ensemble?
A: I’ve been teaching online for about a year and a half now. The virtual ensemble as it is now was created out of necessity. Things needed to switch to the online format, and so we adjusted.

When it comes to applied lessons, the program has diversified because there are students that could be assets to the program that may live far away. For example, there may be someone in Seattle who works at a college and might want to involve themselves in the TC experience, and we need to make it feasible for them to actively participate in the community and courses. That’s why we’ve begun to offer these online experiences.

Even for someone who lives just outside New York City, it might take two or three hours just to commute to class each day, so the access to courses online is a gamechanger. It’s really about enabling students to understand the material more.

Can you walk me through the process that professors and students go through to create the virtual ensemble from concept to finished product?
A: If I were to break it down, there are a few steps to create the final piece. First, there is the rehearsal period. Then, all the students in the ensemble record their part. We review it to make sure there aren’t things that need to be changed. Finally, we mix it and take a look at the final product. A big part of the learning happens when we are combing through the audio of someone else playing. These may be big things, but it can also be as simple as learning what instruments you wouldn’t pair in the future.

This isn’t necessarily unique to the online space, but reviewing performance work in this way does allow for a lot more introspection. While students may learn these things in-person, there is an enhanced way of thinking through problems when working remotely.

What would you say is the most challenging and rewarding aspect of teaching music online?

“The most rewarding part is the increased access. I love to see people thrive in their own space. Sometimes, when you take someone out of their own space and put them in the classroom, it’s very obvious that they’re uncomfortable. But when you’re at home and it’s just you and the microphone, you can get down to the brass tacks very easily.”

A: Another reward is that there’s an end product that we can see because it has been recorded. Also, the fluency that students gain in different music technologies is game-changing. It can completely evolve how educators interact with their job and what jobs are available to them in the future.

As for the challenges, there is a significant amount of energy that is lost when not in-person. However, one of the biggest pieces of advice I’d give is to not try to recreate the old experience. When students think virtual courses will be exactly the same as in-person classes, I work to change their mindset. Instead of getting stuck in the idea of in-person meetings, focus on the benefits of virtual learning and capitalize on the strengths of the online space.

What tech do you use to create music online?
A: Google Drive is the unsung hero. It’s imperative that I meet the students where they are, and Google Drive is an easy and free way for them to upload recordings and other material. Other things I use include Logic Pro X, GarageBand, Soundation, and Sibelius.

Q: What is one thing you’d tell a teacher if they are just starting to teach music online?
A: Try everything yourself. Anything that you make your students do, you should do first. Get a group of friends together and walk through the process. By bringing the project from beginning to end, you’ll learn a lot about how to run it in the classroom. On the other hand, if you don’t work through things on your own, you’ll have no idea what hurdles your students face or how to address them.

Anything we haven’t asked about?

Quite frankly, I came to Teachers College to figure out how to change people’s lives, so there’s no part of me that wants to phone it in on the online rehearsals, there’s no part of me that doesn’t want to have a life-changing experience at the end of every term and I really work hard to do that.

What can’t be overstated is that we never know when this current need to socially distance is going to end. Moreover, distance learning is going to be a significant part of our future even after quarantine ends. Because of this, you’d better get control of the online space now.

Faculty members are doing everything they can to make the online experience great, because we like what we do. We like to engage with students in a way that is going to be beneficial to them. Quite frankly, I came to Teachers College to figure out how to change people’s lives, so there’s no part of me that wants to phone it in on the online rehearsals, there’s no part of me that doesn’t want to have a life-changing experience at the end of every term and I really work hard to do that. It’s imperative for the students to know that every member of the faculty is trying as hard as they possibly can to give an impactful experience to their students.

Natalie Fabian, TC M.A. in Music and Music Education Alumna

Natalie Fabian is a recent graduate from the Masters in Music & Music Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her many accolades include the Herbert A. Deutsch Award for Excellence in Music Education, the William Rosencrans Honors Recital Award, and co-founder of the Hofstra Vocal Jazz Quartet. Currently, Natalie is an Adjunct Instructor at Hofstra University, she serves as the Director of the Every Voice Youth Choir, part of the not-for-profit organization, Every Voice Choirs, and she teaches private Voice, Piano, and Songwriting lessons.

At Columbia, Natalie served as a Choir Manager and Composer/Arranger for the Teachers College Community Choir, a Graduate Voice Instructor for Columbia students, and the Composer-In-Residence and Graduate Instructor for the Singers’ Workshops @ TC. Natalie’s choral arrangements and original compositions premiered at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center, Broadway Presbyterian Church, the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, and Milbank Chapel at Columbia University.

Q: I’d love to get an overview of your experience in the program and your role at Teachers College
A: I’m a recent graduate of the M.A. in Music and Music Education program. During my time at TC, I wore many hats. First, I was the Choir Manager for the TC Community Choir. I was also a member of the choir, the leader of the Soprano section, and a Composer/Arrange for the choir. Because of these various roles, I became very involved with the behind-the-scenes work for the TCC Choir.

Currently, I’m the Director of the Every Voice Youth Choir, part of a non-profit organization hosted at TC called Every Voice Choirs. For this choir, I lead the weekly rehearsals, help with composing and arranging for the ensemble, and help to compile the virtual performance at the end of the semester.

In addition, I am a Graduate Voice Instructor at TC. I taught online voice lessons during the transition to remote learning during the Spring semester and continued these lessons throughout the Summer sessions.

I was involved with the Singer Workshops’ virtual choir project at TC. The Singers’ Workshops is a musical theatre audition prep ensemble for young adults. For this group, I acted as the Composer-In-Residence and was involved in teaching my original piece, Your World, to the students online.

As a performer at TC, I gave live, biweekly performances for TC’s Come Together… Right Now… Virtually online series and I was a musical soloist for TC’s 2020 Virtual Convocation.

Can you walk me through the process that professors and students go through to create the virtual choir from concept to finished product?
A: Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir was an initial source of inspiration for the concept of the choir. When first figuring out how to record, send, and edit tracks, this was a helpful starter reference. Upon the transition to remote learning, Dr. Becker, the Director of the TC Choir, wanted to jump into the project with enthusiasm. Any aspect that might have been overwhelming was replaced with clear rehearsal methods and clear instructions for the recording process.

For example, for the weekly rehearsals, Warm-Ups would be pre-recorded. Then, during live Zoom rehearsals, ensemble members would mute their microphones and sing along with (or move along to) the Warm-Ups projected on the screen at that time. Then, we’d use breakout rooms to rehearse the Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass sections. The section leaders used either pre-recorded videos/tracks (using lyrics, accompaniment, conducting, and/or animation) or live teaching to rehearse the repertoire.

As for creating the recordings for a Virtual Choir, the process requires a lot of organization because of the sheer amount of material being made. First, a reference track is needed to sing along to… For these reference tracks, I used Logic Pro X to record myself singing each part, along with a piano accompaniment track. At the beginning of these reference tracks, we used a glockenspiel sound to help the audio engineer line up the tracks. Then, conductor videos would be recorded with the director or a section leader conducting the piece, with the reference track playing in the background. The video and audio editing processes coming together help to create the final Virtual Choir video. Clearly, it takes a lot of work and organization. But the finished products are absolutely incredible and worth the time and energy.

Q: What have been the challenging and rewarding aspects of teaching it online?

“Music is a great way for people to heal and come together, especially in challenging times. In this respect, the rehearsals became very grounding. For myself and for others who I’ve spoken with, the rehearsals were often a highlight of the week. And then, at the end of the semester, we were presented with beautiful videos of everyone singing simultaneously, a symbol of the hard work coming to fruition.”

A: The most challenging aspect is that the ensemble cannot sing simultaneously during the Zoom rehearsals without feedback/delay/looping. Zoom’s latency clearly affects the ability for choir members to sing together in real-time. However, programs like JamKazam are beginning to fix these audio issues and challenges. However, our final Virtual Choir videos made up for the audio latency, because the magic of editing allows you to hear everyone as if they are performing in the same room together.

The most rewarding part of this was watching the finished product and finally seeing the work come together. Music is a great way for people to heal and come together, especially in challenging times. In this respect, the rehearsals became very grounding. For myself and for others who I’ve spoken with, the rehearsals were often a highlight of the week. And then, at the end of the semester, we were presented with beautiful videos of everyone singing simultaneously, a symbol of the hard work coming to fruition.

In addition, I wrote a piece about the pandemic called Make the Silence Loud with Love, which was performed by members of the TC Choir and members of the surrounding community in our Virtual Choir concert. When I heard everyone sing the lyrics about exactly what we were all going through, it was truly inspiring and rewarding. It was the highlight of my time at TC.

Q: What is one thing you’d tell a teacher if they are just starting to teach music online?
A: Organization is a vital piece of teaching online. And if possible, a team of helpers is advantageous. To make a Virtual Choir work, you ultimately need a Video and Audio/Mixing Engineer, or you need to take the time to learn these skills yourself. In addition, communication with your ensemble (i.e. setting clear deadlines for video submissions), is helpful.

With over 50 singers submitting through e-mail, Canvas (TC Digital Media), or even text message, it is important to stay on top of the organizational aspects, which include setting a clear schedule that you continually keep your ensemble apprised of. In addition, having an archive of videos available (i.e. Conductor Videos, Sectional Videos, Rehearsal Videos, Warm-Ups), allows students to rehearse in their own time. They can re-watch these videos to see what they missed or continue to rehearse the repertoire and prepare for upcoming recordings. This specific aspect allows for international students in conflicting time zones to be a part of the ensemble and the Virtual Choir videos.

Q: What technology have you found useful to create a virtual choir?
Final Cut Pro and Davinci Resolve are great programs for editing video. iMovie can also be useful, but often challenging to work with when compiling videos for very large ensembles (i.e. 15+). Logic Pro X is an incredible tool for audio mixing. For myself, in creating the vocals for the reference tracks, I used Logic Pro X, a condenser microphone, and an audio interface. For students in the ensemble, they may use Zoom, iMovie, PhotoBooth, Smart Phone/Tablet or TC Digital Media to make recordings. To upload videos, they may use Zoom, Canvas/TC Digital Media, or Google Drive.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about your experience in the program and then, what you hope students get out of this program?

“Because of the valuable takeaways and the new skills acquired, I feel as if I gained more from the virtual music experience than the in-person music experience. I grew as a “tech-ie”, a teacher, a composer, a performer– and the list goes on. Although a virtual musical concert takes more behind-the-scenes, detail-oriented work than an in-person concert might, it is so worth it. Our final virtual concert was a true representation of the camaraderie, community, and positivity that encompass the spirit of TC.”

A: My experience in the program has been incredible. I call myself a conglomerate rock, I like to do a little bit of everything: teaching, singing, composing, playing piano. TC gave me the opportunity to do all of these things and wear many hats as a teacher, composer/arranger, and multi-instrumentalist. In terms of remote teaching, TC has done everything possible to ensure that the online experience is efficient, enjoyable, and memorable. When I first learned that everything was moving online, I was concerned that I would not have a graduation ceremony or not be able to perform in concerts. But TC had a memorable Virtual Convocation ceremony and all concerts moved online. I remained continually connected and TC provided me with consistent opportunities to do so.

Although a virtual musical concert takes more behind-the-scenes, detail-oriented work than an in-person concert might, it is so worth it. Our final Virtual Choir performance was a true representation of the camaraderie, community, and positivity that embodies the spirit of TC. Looking forward, if you are considering going virtual, I would say, jump in. Surround yourself with a community of learners, teachers, and technicians who make up your team. You do not have to aim for perfection. Remember to simply trust the process. Everything will come together with patience, devotion, and positivity.

Q: Is there anything about the program that I haven’t asked, that you think students should know?
A: My final semester of learning was almost completely remote. Because of this transition happening in real-time, TC gave me all the tools to not only teach but teach remotely. For prospective students, the courses are catered to the climate of today’s world. The courses and the professors of these courses take real-life circumstances into account, and apply them to lectures, discussions, and assignments. This also includes constant reflection and analysis of your own teaching, which are vital to advancing your skills as an educator. During these turbulent times, being part of a community of teachers at TC and having a sounding board for your ideas and experiences, is a true gift. It is also a reminder that you are not moving forward alone.

About Teachers College M.A. in Music and Music Education

The Hybrid Summer Master of Arts in Music and Music Education (M.A. M&ME) at Teachers College, Columbia University is designed for professionals who seek to transform themselves, their students and their communities. With an academically rigorous curriculum and on-campus experiences, our program equips graduates with a diverse and rich skillset they can use to tap into their passions and become a driving force in the transformation of music education.

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