The stage was set. A xylophone, two groups of percussion instruments, a set of timpani, and a grand piano for the accompanist filled the Fresno State Concert Hall’s performance area. The room with 270 seats was mostly empty, and the doors locked. It was Thursday, March 19, 2020, and due to COVID-19, these precautions were necessary to keep the campus community safe.
Those allowed inside the hall included the performer, Fresno State senior Amanda Steinhauer; two accompanists, Shing-Ming Liao on the piano and Charles Wanderscheid on percussion; three music faculty members and performing arts technician Jose ElaGarza. In the center of the concert hall seating area sat a table with the technical equipment ElaGarza had pieced together for the rest of the audience watching the live stream on Facebook.
Professor of percussion and Department of Music chair, Dr. Matthew Darling, professor of music Dr. Gary Gilroy and percussion lecturer David Gabrielson sat as far apart from each other as they could while they graded the performance.
Steinhauer’s performance was stunning and well received by the Facebook audience of over 100 people. As the recital wrapped up, the audience, both present and online, applauded the stellar performance. Steinhauer took to the stage one last time to thank her online audience, who responded with texted praise and emojis.
Sadly, due to tightening COVID-19 restrictions, Steinhauer’s senior recital was the last performance in the Concert Hall for the semester. Students performing their senior recitals are now performing them from their homes live through various online streaming platforms. The faculty recital committee and student invitees watch those performances live.
The power of online learning
It’s class time for one of the Fresno State choral ensembles. Students arrive from their homes through small video windows that pop up on the online meeting screen.
“Watching them Zoom into class sessions is almost like watching them walk into the Concert Hall,” said Dr. Cari Earnhart, Director of Choral Activities. “They get excited when they see each other — chatting, saying hello — lots of smiles seeing their people!”
While the Zoom meetings allow the classes to meet, the slight network delay with each connection makes it impossible to sing together precisely. Because of this, Earnhart has been utilizing a variety of tools to teach and keep students engaged.
“We chat about little projects I have been giving them. Some are just fun and not so academic, but a way for them to do something positive and stay connected,” said Earnhart.
One of those tools is Flipgrid, a social learning platform on which they create and share short assignment videos. One assignment asked them to post what 20-second song they sing when they wash their hands.
Along with the assignments, students watch TED Talks by conductors and composers and discuss them online. Earnhart posts listening lists on Canvas (Fresno State’s learning management system) discussion boards. Students can comment and add some of their favorite pieces for others to listen to and discuss.
Earnhart is working to create a virtual choir, with each member uploading a video with their part. They are starting with the smaller chamber choir. If it works, they plan to expand the idea to the large ensembles.
Director of Jazz Studies, Richard Giddens Jr. said that in place of live performances, his students have been using technology to enhance their scholarship.
I have been having the students record themselves with a metronome playing different passages of the songs that we were working on for now canceled performances,” said Giddens. “I also have had them record themselves playing along with the pro recording of each song that I have provided on Canvas.”
“We are so inspired by the creativity the Music Department faculty has employed when transitioning so quickly to the virtual realm,” said Dr. Honora Chapman, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. “It hasn’t been easy, but the faculty and students show us that it’s possible to produce beautiful music despite the circumstances. Kudos to all of them for their spirit of creativity and collaboration!”
With his Jazz Combo ensemble, a quintet, Giddens has taken the opportunity to teach students how to be judges — a skill they will need as music educators.
“As an adjudicator, no one ever gives you feedback on your feedback to the bands that you are judging. One either gets called back to do the festival again, or they don’t. So this gives me a rare opportunity to help them get better at teaching.”
The homework for the combo is intense. Students listen to a professional recording of a piece they are working on, then learn to sing the solo, learn to play the solo, and finally, transcribe the solo. Breaking the music down in this manner gives the students a firm understanding of how master musicians think and perform.
While the COVID-19 has forced the social distancing of musicians and made it difficult for ensembles to rehearse and perform, instructors have used their ingenuity to embrace a new high-tech environment for teaching. Rather than focusing on what was lost, instructors have taken the opportunity to add to their courses.
“If I can get these students to have a deeper understanding, or even better, a deeper love for music by the end of the semester, I feel that I will have done my job,” said Giddens.
Because the music is copyrighted, we are unable to post Steinhauer’s entire performance online. However, here is a recent video of her performing “The Golden Age of the Xylophone” on Valley Public Radio’s Young Artists Spotlight, February 12, 2020.