Virtual Learning Lessons and Successes

Virtual learning lesson and successes.

Teachers turned to online tools as schools closed early due to the coronavirus pandemic. What worked and what needs work, especially in music education?

Spring break typically marks the beginning of the home stretch for high schools and colleges. As trees on campuses burst into bloom, students and teachers turn their attention to end-of-the-year activities like exams, prom, field day, and graduation.

Spring 2020 was different.

By mid-March, COVID-19 hollowed out American society, shuttering offices, restaurants, theaters, arenas, malls, and, of course, schools and colleges. Rather than moving full steam into the last few standards before summer vacation, teachers and professors hurriedly took a detour to create new online lessons.

Even for those teachers who were prepared to deliver lessons remotely for a single weather day or for those already using cloud-based software for a variety of purposes, complete and total virtual learning was a tall order. “No one was ready to do it long-term,” says Keith Ozsvath, band director at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois, and an adjunct instructor teaching digital technology for music at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.

Ozsvath’s students left his classroom on a Friday, and by the following Wednesday, they were studying music online. He and his colleagues had just a few days to develop an e-learning curriculum. “Fortunately, our school district is one-to-one with Chromebooks, and we use Google Classroom,” Ozsvath says. “It was fairly easy initially.”

Elisa Janson Jones, founder and chief executive officer of the International Music Education Summit, says some educators spent “very long days creating adequate online learning.”

The difference in preparedness from district to district was dramatic, she says.

Transitioning from Classroom to Online

Educational tools that were peripheral, like Flipgrid, Zoom, and Google Meet, were thrust to center stage during the school closings. “Most [districts] didn’t have any type of online infrastructure other than their school’s learning management system, which may or may not have suited their needs,” Jones says.

Some districts gave students a few days off while administrators and teachers ramped up their online capabilities and wrote plans. On the afternoon of March 13, students of Sycamore Community Schools in Cincinnati started their spring break while teachers spent their holiday week working to adapt or create materials that would start Monday, March 23. “You know how teachers are,” says Dr. Micah Ewing, supervisor of music at Sycamore, which also has one-to-one Chromebooks for students.

Dr. Justin Isenhour, assistant professor of trombone and music theory at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, gave up his spring break as well. “They didn’t want us to lose any instructional time,” he says. “They wanted us to figure it out over spring break.”

To prepare logistically, Isenhour also contacted his Internet service provider to upgrade his connection, knowing that both he and his wife, who teaches middle school music, would be providing instruction from home.

Overall, those teachers familiar with online teaching tools enjoyed a smooth transition to e-learning, says Tim Hinton, host of the Marching Roundtable podcast and creator of the Marching Arts Education website. Those who were not encountered a learning curve. Either way, Hinton says, it’s still just teaching and not unlike the first time they set foot in a classroom. “You were nervous, you didn’t know how [your class was] going to react, you didn’t have a lot of experience. … It’s just new,” Hinton says.


What Best Practices?

To establish a set of best practices in any profession, practitioners must use a given set of tools and strategies long enough to determine if they’re viable. Because few schools had pursued long-term online musical instruction, says Jones, they had no best practices to consult.

During the closings, Ozsvath kept his lessons simple. Rather than presenting new concepts, Ozsvath and his colleagues focused on individual music skill development, covering just one or two standards or essential learning objectives. “We didn’t want to stress the kids with a lot of new material or new technology,” he says. “[This] helped students more than completing random assignments with no definitive learning plan,” he says.

To help other educators, Ozsvath regularly posts resources and even entire lesson plans on his blog, Teaching Music & More, as well as through Facebook. For virtual student assessments, he recommended Flipgrid as well as specific music-related software, such as Sight Reading Factory, SmartMusic, and MusicFirst, which all offered free accounts during the stay-at-home order.

Isenhour modeled proper technique and tone remotely to his students by prerecording trombone pieces, then sharing his screen with his students and playing the recordings. His home setup has two microphones that allowed him to record his voice and trombone separately for quality sound. Many of his trombone students, though, were using their phones to record the audio and video samples he required them to submit. Because trombones have such a wide decibel spectrum, Isenhour decided to provide his students with a crash course in sound engineering.

“If I’m getting recordings from them, and all I’m hearing is distortion, I can’t help them with their tone quality or articulation,” Isenhour says.

He introduced them to Audacity, a free audio recording and editing software, and walked them though the features that enabled them to enhance their recordings. They would have had to learn that software eventually as educators or performers, he says. “I gave them a little head start on that … a silver lining,” he adds.

Group vs. Individual Lessons

Some aspects of a band program, such as ensemble participation, can be very difficult to conduct remotely. Concepts like intonation and rhythmic integrity are difficult to address over an Internet connection. “The teacher-student collaboration and interdependence of parts is unique to ensembles and is also what makes it so special,” Ozsvath says.

Instead of continuing with ensembles, Ozsvath’s students worked independently. He offered live online instruction to help students who had fallen behind or who just needed extra help. During the school day, he was available through email and Remind, a group messaging service, to answer student questions.

To give flexibility to families in their daily schedules and to alleviate home bandwidth problems, Sycamore relaxed its requirements on group learning and attendance expectations and broadened its interpretation of engagement. “So long as teachers and students were communicating, they were pleased,” Ewing says.

Sycamore offers three levels of band at its high school. Auditions had been conducted online through video submissions in previous years and easily continued in the same manner.

Isenhour was able to hold group learning sessions but adjusted the schedules. Some of his students worked at grocery stores and were picking up more hours. Some were earning hazard pay while it was available. Isenhour didn’t want to disenfranchise those students by requiring them to attend a group learning session. “Just because we met on campus Mondays and Wednesdays at 8 a.m. doesn’t mean the students had that time available,” Isenhour says.

While group learning became more difficult, private lessons could easily transition to meetings over Zoom, FaceTime, or other video conferencing platforms. Even marching skills and leadership classes soared online.

Both Silent Command and Dynamic Marching offer lessons for marching students virtually. Claire Wilcox, head conductor with the Phantom Regiment Drum and Bugle Corps and a student at Indiana University Bloomington, has taught private conducting and leadership lessons through Silent Command. Shortly after America’s schools closed, she saw a spike in the number of students seeking instruction from her. “I had more students than I’ve ever had,” Wilcox says.

“Graded” Material

Although most instructors had the tools necessary to teach online classes, few could present their full curriculum remotely. Sycamore teachers used Flipgrid to swap video and audio files with their students. Teachers provided written feedback on students’ performances, says Ewing, but it wasn’t the same as rehearsing live.

Ozsvath assigned review material that helped students refine a previous skill. His students were reading and playing in various key signatures before the school closed. “We continued to work on these with video instructions, online quizzes, and audio/video playing assignments,” Ozsvath says.

Whether students were learning new material or reviewing old concepts, most teachers didn’t enter numeric grades in their grade books. “We were directed by the Illinois State Board of Education that all grades must be pass/fail,” Ozsvath says.

Sycamore instructed its teachers to do the same, reminding them to consider the situation. “It was pretty lenient, emphasizing being gracious to families under stress,” Ewing says. “If students were engaged, and they were putting forth effort, then they received a pass.”

At the college level where students’ grade point averages may be tied to scholarships, an entry in the grade book can have serious monetary consequences. Under normal circumstances students at Winthrop are allowed to take a class satisfactory/unsatisfactory only four times in their entire college career and for no more than one course per semester. Administration waived those rules for Winthrop’s spring semester, allowing students to exercise that option as many times as they wished during the term.

Disappointments and Opportunities

COVID-19 brought with it a host of societal maladies, like illnesses, joblessness, and mental health issues. Ewing says that Sycamore students were stressed but resilient. Naturally, students experienced disappointment, including canceled concerts and graduation ceremonies. However, the school closings also gave students more free time to immerse themselves in their own projects. “There have been some pretty creative videos out there,” Ewing says.

Disappointed Winthrop seniors lost the opportunity to give their capstone solo recitals. To grade the students’ final juries and exams, Isenhour asked his studio’s accompanist to record piano accompaniment for his students’ solos. Then his students recorded their parts with the accompaniment playing in a speaker or in their ears. “We patched that together, and that became their juries, their exams,” Isenhour says.

Although marching bands don’t strut onto the gridiron until the fall, most programs kick off in the spring. University of Nebraska-Lincoln conducted 2020 marching band auditions all remotely. “We moved to an all-video submission first round,” says Tony Falcone, associate director of bands.

Falcone was midway through interviewing students for the band’s leadership positions when his campus closed. He quickly created a process that allowed the remaining students to interview by video. “The university has a video file-sharing service called VidGrid, so this was pretty easy,” he says. “I sent out a set of questions, and the students answered them on video”

Though the drum major auditions were a little more complicated, they were done remotely as well.

At Sycamore, Ewing held his annual marching band kickoff through Google Meet. Band members logged in and were directed to view materials and a video online. Then they had a question-and-answer session. “We tried to make it as normal as possible,” Ewing says. “We structured it like our normal marching band open house would have been if we were in person.”

Who knows what education will look like when the country embraces its new normal on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless, distance learning served its purpose this past spring by shepherding instructors and students through uncertain days and keeping music education moving forward.

While virtual learning has made its mark on education and may change the way teachers approach their lessons in the future, it’s unlikely to replace mainstream traditional classrooms forever. “It definitely does not and cannot replace the kind of education we get in our schools with our ensembles and the connections students make with the music, with each other, and [with teachers],” Ewing says.

Software for Audio and Video Sharing


  Audacity Flipgrid Google Meet MusicFirst Sight Reading Factory SmartMusic VidGrid Zoom
Description Multi-track digital audio editor and recorder Video recorder Video conferencing Learning management system for K-12 music education Sight-reading and sight-singing exercises Music practice software Interactive video platform Video conferencing


Platform macOS, Microsoft Windows, GNU Linux Cloud-based Cloud-based Cloud-based Cloud-based macOS, Microsoft Windows Cloud-based Cloud-based
Cost Free Free Free Varies $34.99 per educator and $2 per student per year; free student accounts during school closures $80 per educator and $40 per performer per year; free until June 30, 2020 $500 per month per department or custom pricing per institution; free until the end of the spring semester Free to $19.99 per month per host


About author

Frank DiMaria

Frank DiMaria is a middle school computer teacher and a freelance writer currently residing in Fort Mill, South Carolina. On weekends he plays guitar for a progressive funk band called McGroover. His daughter, Briana, marched clarinet for the Fort Mill High School band, winning two state championships and a Bands of America regional. Frank worked pit crew for four seasons with Fort Mill.

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