Teaching Remotely: Music theory students make use of digital tools for real-time feedback in Musicianship II

Thursday, April 30, 2020

After COVID-19 was detected in Austin in mid-March, the University of Texas moved all of its classes online for the remainder of the semester. In this series, we explore how faculty in the College of Fine Arts are adapting their curriculum to an online format.

Assistant Professor of Instruction John Turci-Escobar

Assistant Professor of Instruction John Turci-Escobar

Instructor: Assistant Professor of Instruction John Turci-Escobar, Butler School of Music

Tell us about a class you’re teaching this spring.

Musicianship II (MUS 605B), a music theory course for the first-year music students. The course includes more than 100 students, with 5 sections, 10 aural skills sections, 2 assistant instructors and four TAs.

What was a challenge you faced in moving instruction online this spring? How did you solve it?

My Musicianship II course posed the most challenges because of all the moving parts. A Qualtrics survey showed that a significant segment of my students lacked regular quality access to the internet. I needed to figure out the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous teaching.

Then, there were many challenges with the new technology. To reproduce the music theory teaching in the classroom, I bought a staffed whiteboard, and often late into the wee hours, recorded online videos. Here, the COFA IT people have been very helpful (especially Dennis Harvey and Joe Hendrix, who have been crazy helpful).

Julie Schell has been incredible in modeling her Zoom teaching training sessions. Honestly, I would not have known where to start if it hadn’t been for the workshops she offered. She was also incredibly quick at helping me through crisis, answering emails late at night and early in the morning.

One crucial technological solution were iPads and Apple Pencils. We can share the iPad onscreen in Zoom and work through compositional exercises with the students in real time. This was a gamechanger. For this, we have to thank Professor Jeff Hellmer’s early intervention to procure iPads and Apple Pencils for the theory faculty and AIs who needed them.

We do a lot of performance in class, and that has been a bit challenging, but not impossible. For every Zoom meeting, I make sure to email one or two students a short fragment, and they will perform that for the class. It’s great to have “gamer” students, since they have taught me and the class very basic things like “pinning,” which helps with the experience of the performance. I have also had a student conduct the class so we can sing as a choir. Of course, Zoom can’t handle this at all, but students found the experience amusing. For the next composition project, students will be posting performances of compositions on Canvas Discussion, and students have to watch and comment on a handful of them.

The largest challenge, of course, is dealing with the emotional issues the students have been going through. I have to play the role of counselor, trying to figure out when they are just behind with the work or when they are experiencing a crisis. This has been by far the most challenging part. I have been scheduling targeted “study sessions” with students falling behind so they can work through exercises together. Next week I will try to stimulate catharsis by asking students to compose music and lyrics or blues. I’m sure lyrics will be amusing, though some might push the line (which is very bluesey in any case).

There has been a lot of collaboration among the Music Theory faculty. Professor Jim Buhler figured out early on how to deal with the sound issues on Zoom, since we often have to play music while looking at a score and talking. And I have been in continued support mode with Assistant Professor Chelsea Burns, who supervises the second-year of the music theory sequence. We shared what works and what doesn’t, and we’ve talked each other off the ledge when we are feeling down.

The assistant instructors, David Heinsen and Tyler Howie, have been incredible, taking on responsibilities and proposing solutions. The TAs have also been incredible.

Turci-Escobar's white board screenshotted by a student saying "The amount of parallel octaves I've seen is amazing".

 Student's screenshot of Turci-Escobar pre-recorded lectures, write funny music-theory geek stuff, and use it as a virtual background during live, synchronous meetings.

How have your students responded in your class?

I have had several positive responses. Non-majors and Tango! students love the break from their STEM classes and the possibility to think critically and creatively. They also like the more personalized experience that Butler School of Music teachers reflexively provide to students.

My Musicianship students have been very generous and good hearted. They enjoy the weekly Zoom meetings as an opportunity to reconnect with their peers. And I have been getting nice texts and emails about people enjoying the class, even in the new form, though they all really miss the classroom experience.

Have there been any innovations or solutions that you plan to carry into in-person instruction in the future?

I think I might keep many of the pre-recorded lectures, or use them as beta versions, to create more in the future. It definitely contributes to the UDL (universal design for learning) classroom.

I will definitely continue using the iPad and Apple Pencil. A perennial challenge to teaching theory is that once you give the feedback on part-writing exercises, it is too late. Heretofore, I will ask students to complete exercises with pencil and staff paper (assignment sheets). Snap a picture with their cell phone and post it as PDF or JPEG on Canvas. With my Apple Pencil, it is easy for me to mark up their part-writing so that they can use these corrections and suggestions as they do their new exercise, and not have to wait until the next class meeting. This is a gamechanger. Of course, I could have done this before, but at least for me, here, necessity has been the mother of all invention.

I think Zoom online classes have a lot of potential for offering bootcamps for incoming students with weaker backgrounds in music theory. Traditionally, these bootcamps have been on campus, something that is prohibitive for many students.

For more Teaching Remotely stories, read here:

A worksheet asking virtual visitors to respond to an online experience and share what they notice and what stands out.
Students in museum theatre course adapt performances to online format
Turci-Escobar's white board screenshotted by a student saying "The amount of parallel octaves I've seen is amazing".
Music theory students make use of digital tools for real-time feedback in Musicianship II
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Students in painting class explore alternate materials in online format
Students build VR experiences on their own phones to test in Google Cardboard headset
Scenic Art Students painting a sky backdrop for Elixir of Love, design by Chris Conard.
Scenic painting class offers support to students working apart
A digital rendering of a student design for a marble run.
Fabrication courses faced unique challenges in adapting to remote format

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