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Students at Long Branch Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia, used tech to perform an ‘Aristocats’ number. William Heim/Arlington Public Schools, CC BY-NC-SA

Young musicians can perform on virtual stages when schools are closed

Live performances ceased across the U.S. and around the world in early 2020 as governments everywhere barred large gatherings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

New York City’s Times Square resembled a ghost town by mid-March. The Metropolitan Opera of Los Angeles went dark. Nashville converted its Music City Center into a regional hospital for COVID-19 patients.

But the music didn’t stop.

Everyone from The Roots, the hip-hop ensemble that serves as talk show host Jimmy Fallon’s house band, to the eclectic jazz YouTuber Carlos Eiene filled the void through their innovative use of online media. A wide array of prominent musicians, including Celine Dion, Andrea Bocelli, Lady Gaga, Lang Lang and John Legend, gazed into cameras often set up in their own homes to deliver entertainment straight to their fans.

Likewise, student bands, orchestras and choirs from coast to coast could no longer learn and rehearse together in person once nearly all schools closed their doors to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As a music education scholar who researches online music-making, I’ve found it exciting to see so many professionals and students alike use online media to keep making music together and to share their music with others.

Christopher Cayari explains how music teachers worked with their students to produce virtual performances after schools were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Virtual concerts

When music teachers moved instruction online, they tried to get students to sing and play music together through teleconferencing software as an alternative to their end-of-year performances. However, they quickly realized that delays in the audio made it impossible to make music sound the same as it did in the rehearsal room.

The alternative to teleconferencing software is producing virtual ensemble performances, which are compilations of prerecorded sound and sometimes even video that are put together with sound and video editing software. During the pandemic, I saw teachers from across the world sharing their students’ works similar to a collaboration between students from Purdue University and the University of Connecticut I led three years earlier. My students at Purdue were ecstatic to see their ukulele-playing tests turned into a music video featuring their virtual friends hundreds of miles away.

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The all-virtual spring 2020 school concert season reinforced exciting ways of sharing how schools bring students together to create music online. By recording and mixing music that can then be streamed online as a virtual performance, students’ works can be presented without the problems that arise when many people try to make music together in real time with teleconferencing apps.

A virtual ukulele performance called PurdUKEConn 2017 brought Purdue University and University of Connecticut students together.

Singing, dancing and playing instruments

Show choir students from Oak Park and River Forest High School in Illinois were in the middle of their competition season when the pandemic hit. So their teachers pieced together videos of them singing and dancing.

Individual band members from Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego put on their formalwear and recorded themselves playing Pomp and Circumstance to honor graduating seniors.

And community-based youth ensembles like the Chicago Children’s Choir, the Showcase Music School’s Youth Orchestra in San Jose, California and Little Kids Rock, a nonprofit that supports music programs nationwide, didn’t let COVID-19 stop them from making music together.

Sound editing programs like Soundtrap by Spotify and Pro Tools, video software like Flipgrid and Adobe Premiere, and compilation apps like Acapella by PicPlayPost and BandLab made these productions from shuttered schools possible.

Many music teachers quickly realized that putting together a virtual ensemble was complicated because it requires technological skills that are not always taught in music education university programs.

Fortunately, some tech-savvy educators offered advice about putting these performances together, and sound engineers shared their expertise to help create virtual performances.

Meanwhile, many students realized they could make music with others, regardless of geographic constraints. Examples I’ve seen include singing pen pals who send karaoke videos across the globe on the Sing! app and online master classes that bring the expertise of professional musicians to students like those attending the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz. These relationships can continue and flourish as schools resume in person.

Students from Newark Academy in Livingston, New Jersey performed a virtual big band jazz number in 2020.

What’s next?

Questions abound regarding what music instruction will be like once K-12 schools open their doors again.

Many school districts planning a mix of online and in-person instruction haven’t shared details about whether and when music classes and rehearsals might be phased back in.

Those plans are complicated by evidence that singing and playing wind instruments, such as trumpets and flutes, can increase the risk of spreading COVID-19. In addition, if students spend less time in school, core academic classes may dominate their schedules more than ever.

Based on what happened between March and June 2020, one thing is certain: Music education and performance can continue if students can’t meet or rehearse face to face as long as educators are willing and able to use the online tools at their disposal.

After all, the internet lets people of all ages continue making music together and share that music with online audiences.

Students from Gaither High School Chorus reminded listeners that ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in 2020.

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