Connected Music Students: Skype With a Composer

I’ve written before about how I believe empowered music students should be connected. The word connect, as opposed to collaborate, is intentional. I agree that it’s important for students to collaborate; it is a skill necessary for the 21st-century. But too often people hear the word collaborate and assume that means just with peers. Students working with other students. While this is something I advocate for, I don’t think it can be the end. Students must connect with their classmates, others in the school or district, and people around the world. This could include community members, music professionals, or anything in between. Recently I connected my students in the Arlington Junior Honors Band with a composer through Skype. I cannot recommend this experience enough!

Connected Music Students: Skype With a Composer

I have been fortunate to know Dr. Scott Watson, an educator and composer, for several years. I have programmed his works before, and was very intentional in programming his piece, Call to Valor, as the opening for the Junior Honors Band concert. I also knew that Scott was a willing participant in composer Skype experiences. He has presented on the topic before, including when I saw him at the Midwest Clinic two years ago. After having rehearsed with the band I reached out to Dr. Watson to ask if he might have time to meet with the group. Knowing how busy all music educators are, I approached him with several dates that would work for my ensemble. Luckily, one of them worked for him!

Prior to the Event

The rehearsal we connected was two weeks before the concert. The students knew the music well, but there was still room for polishing. With that in mind, we planned to make our Skype session part clinic and part conversation. I felt it was important for the students to learn from Dr. Watson’s expertise in music, but also to learn about him as a composer and the art of composing! Prior to our Skype, I told the students about the experience (they were very excited!) and also gave them the opportunity to come up with questions they would like to ask Dr. Watson. Since students submitted questions in advance, I selected the most relevant questions and made sure there was no overlap. I typed the questions for the students so they would have a written copy to read from.

I also provided students with two video links that Dr. Watson had made talking about what he does as a composer and how he became a composer. I felt it was important for the students to have some background information. I made these links available to the student on our ensemble Canvas page (the LMS used in my county) so students could watch on their own time.

The Skype Rehearsal

The actual event was great! We began by having the students play the piece straight through while Dr. Watson listened and took copious notes. From there, it was a typical band clinic. Dr. Watson isolated a few areas of the piece to have the students work on. He would give information and the students would play. The feedback cycle was excellent. Sometimes, he mentioned things we had talked about before, but hearing them from the source, The Composer, made the information that much more valuable! Isn’t that always the case?

Question and Answer Time

After we had worked on the piece for 20 minutes, we transitioned to the question-and-answer part of our evening. The students took turns asking their questions, asking everything from details about Call to Valor to how Dr. Watson got his start in composing and where he finds inspiration when writing.

A young student who is an aspiring composer asked one particularly endearing question! She asked for advice on composing and finding inspiration. Dr. Watson recommended one thing: a sketchbook, or better yet, several sketchbooks! He even took the time to pull several of his own sketchbooks off the shelf from his office to show the students what he was talking about. This couldn’t have happened if we were in the band room together! Dr. Watson told the students, “the best way to have a great idea is to have many ideas.” I think this hit home for many students. Not every idea will be great, but you will only find a great one if you have a lot of them.

When rehearsal ended the room was a buzz. Students talking, whispering and laughing, all with giant smiles on their faces. I could tell the experience was meaningful to them, something many had never done before. As we continue to play that piece for the rest of the season, the students had a new sense of pride. They were also very excited to tell the concert audience about it and how much they had learned.

Thank-You’s

In the following week students wrote short thank-you notes for Dr. Watson, showing their appreciate for his time and expertise. We used Padlet for this note because it’s easy to use! Each student could have their own box to write in, personalizing it as they see fit. For an online experience, an online thank-you works!

Equipment Set-Up

When setting up the equipment for the Skype I followed Dr. Watson’s suggestions. Having done this multiple times before, he had a good idea of what works. The goal was for the students to see Dr. Watson on the Smart Board and be able to hear him speak. At the same time, Dr. Watson needed to see the students and hear them play! To make this happen, I connected my computer to the Smart Board, which is in the front center of the room. The computer screen was facing the ensemble so the webcam could record the students. Also connected to my computer was a Yetti microphone. The quality of this microphone is much better than the internal microphone on my computer. Finally, I connected the computer to external speakers, to make sure the entire ensemble could hear Dr. Watson clearly.

I highly recommend you test this entire set-up before the actual event! If you cannot do a test call with the composer, at least connect with a colleague or friend to make sure everything works. I even did a test call with a colleague a few minutes before meeting with Dr. Watson, just to make sure the microphone levels were ok with the band playing. The peace of mind is worth the time spent. Also, while this event took place through Skype, Google Hangouts or Facetime work too.

Connected Music Students: Skype With a Composer

If you have never tried a composer Skype before, hopefully this post has inspired you! If you have Skyped with a composer (or any other music professional) I would love to hear about it. Our world is so connected, there is no reason not to try it. Your students will thank you!

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