High-Tech Solutions

September 9, 2020 - MSU Music Communications Office


Converting in-person, hands-on learning to a virtual experience isn’t ideal or easy. But as the pandemic necessitates remote learning, music theory teachers in the MSU College of Music set out to create a workable ideal.

This fall, the Music Theory Area will lead a combination of 17 courses, labs and seminars via remote learning and communication technologies. Not a single student will set foot on campus for music theory instruction, helping ensure community well-being during the time of COVID-19.

“There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was the right call for health and safety reasons,” said Area Chair Michael Callahan. “At the same time, it’s been shocking and challenging to convert courses that were planned for a face-to-face format, and to lose access to seeing our colleagues and students.”

Building on lessons learned from the March shut-down through summer, Music Theory faculty have combined tireless ingenuity, cross-collaboration, and pure Spartan grit to provide a structure for virtual learning. While evolving, the delivery methods engage students in the quality curriculum they expect from MSU, while working around the loss of in-person experiences. Flexible web-based apps coupled with MSU’s robust IT platforms create a rich and supportive community—despite no one ever being in the same room.

“We didn’t find the perfect answers, but we’re better equipped since we’ve identified things that work better on Zoom, through recording technologies, and through synchronous and asynchronous learning,” said Callahan. “I’m not certain any of these methods will be permanent fixtures of our pedagogy, but if there is any silver lining, it’s that these challenging times have affirmed the strength of our community and each member’s capacity to empathize and support one another.”

Graduate Assistant Gerry Lopez shared a similar point-of-view. The master’s student in music theory finished up three seminar classes online from his apartment last spring, and will be teaching and tutoring virtually this fall. Over the summer, he helped faculty design music theory content for remote mediums, and to make available platforms more accessible.

“We’re reflecting on what went right and how we can move ahead and improve,” he said. “As a theorist and instructor in training, the Music Theory Area is the perfect place to be during what we all hope is a once-in-a-lifetime event, since their focus never waivers from the quality of teaching and the curriculum.”

Devising ways

Cara Stroud was on research leave when the university shuttered on-campus learning. The assistant professor of music theory observed her colleagues switching to virtual and remote learning formats, and began thinking through her approach to fall semester.

Over the summer, Stroud devised ways to balance professional commitments with the personal necessities of raising twin toddlers during a pandemic. To preserve quality in both parts of her life, she adapted her music theory courses to hybrid formats consisting of online work, recorded lectures, and virtual in-person meetings. With a team of two graduate assistants, Stroud will share responsibilities for facilitating large and small group break-outs, lab sessions and asynchronous learning.

“The virtual meetings are a great way to keep students connected to one another, and to connect with instructors, too,” said Stroud. “It’s definitely a high-tech approach, and we’ll be relying on tools that were out there pre-pandemic to keep things engaging.”

Associate Professor of Music Theory Bruce Taggart was teaching this past spring and converted his three courses to online formats, drawing on his experience teaching beginning music theory on Coursera. He agrees that pre-pandemic apps and software help students navigate aspects of music theory curriculum.

Google docs, for instance, fosters collaboration and sharing. Screen-shares become graphics, illustrations or virtual hand-outs. Sound apps and MIDI keyboards provide some ability for aural and tonal work. Recording and composing apps like GarageBand become essential for recording and practicing repertoire.

“I also watched how people have been using Zoom in class settings,” he said. “I’ve picked up some good ideas about how to maximize Zoom’s strengths and minimize some of the limitations.”

Taggart believes he and his colleagues have gotten as close they can to replicating an in-class quality of studying music theory using tools at hand. He said nothing replaces in-person learning, though, especially when it comes to exploring concepts through singing, playing and listening.

“Plus, I really miss seeing the students and the energy they bring to the classroom,” he said. “The idea that I will see them back on campus and in-person again is the whole reason I keep teaching.”

Applying points-of-view

Michael Ebie sees things from the vantage point of both teacher and student. He’s a third-year master’s student in tuba performance and music theory. He’s also slated to tutor music theory students online this fall, following a summer of virtual tutoring.

Ebie was part of a summer pilot program that offered online tutoring through the Music Theory Learning Center. Students previously came to an on-campus center to strengthen their understanding of key concepts or to prep for upcoming courses. The pandemic pushed the service to cyberspace, allowing students to receive one-on-one tutoring through a combination of Zoom, Slack and university platforms.

Ebie said tutoring-gone-virtual offered several advantages he hadn’t expected. The technology itself allowed him to share screens and documents easily, as well as to meet one-on-one with a student in 30-minute sessions. He found some students were more willing to ask questions or to speak up, when they might not otherwise in a group.

“Working with a student one-on-one allows me to meet them exactly where they are at and help them improve—whether they be advanced or struggling,” he said. “If they are doing well overall and just a little shaky with one concept, we can go back and refresh that skill.”

Ebie tutored 22 students over the summer, and anticipates a similar caseload this fall. He said the service is particularly helpful for students who were thrown off course by the pandemic, as well as incoming freshmen.

“In some cases, students fell off the radar and weren’t participating as much as they would have in a classroom setting,” he said. “Tutoring gives them some time to remediate a concept and get them where they need to be.”