Rethinking the Goals to Distance and Hybrid Learning

Students and teachers now face a semester unlike one they have ever experienced with new regulations and combinations of in-person and virtual learning. Read on to find ways to manage and benefit from this unfamiliar situation.

I

n the preparation for the fall semester, the question of how to safely engage students in colleges created a furor across academia. Department administrators and faculty members had to measure the safety of everyone with the quality of education that is possible in a digital realm over a face-to-face setting. When colleges closed last spring, many faculty members and students had little more than a week to adjust their courses to virtual learning. 

As the fall semester begins and the infrastructure changes to facilitate more virtual learning, a digital or hybrid format may be here to stay. Harvard Business Review addresses the model of virtual learning from the cost perspective in a March 31 article, “What the Shift to Virtual Learning Could Mean for the Future of Higher Ed,” by Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava. They note:

By freeing resources from courses that can be commoditized, colleges would have more resources to commit to research-based teaching, personalized problem solving, and mentorship. The students would also have more resources at their disposal, too, because they wouldn’t have to reside and devote four full years at campuses. They would take commoditized courses online at their convenience and at much cheaper cost. They can use precious time they spend on campus for electives, group assignments, faculty office hours, interactions, and career guidance, something that cannot be done remotely.1

For music, and especially for voice, this model may divide applied learning from core courses, as it deepens the divide between active, in-person learning and passive learning via prerecorded content. How can voice majors best succeed considering these changes? 

Time Management 

Time management has been a high priority for years in the business community, and it has trickled into academia also. “Hacking” your time can leave you feeling burnt out or dissatisfied with your accomplishments. 

Danielle Steele, artistic director of the Young Professionals Choral Collective says, “Before efficiency, the first things I consider are accessibility issues. My students can’t be efficient if they don’t have the right tools, technologically, or otherwise. I am mindful of the fact that not all my students are privileged enough to have access to fast Internet, sound equipment, unlimited data plans, a printer, etc. I find they do better if they aren’t cramming, but rather working in medium-sized, very focused chunks and taking appropriate time away from the screen.” 

David Gordon, voice teacher and opera workshop director for the Precollege Division of the Manhattan School of Music, recommends that students “practice as early in the day as you feel comfortable, and then do it again later. Do your exercises, both vocal and otherwise.” He also recommends reading Celeste Headlee’s Do Nothing, published earlier this year, which provides suggestions for working in ways that reduce burnout and prioritizes well-being and rest. 

Kyle Pfortmiller, faculty member at Molloy College and Lehigh University, urges students to use their college’s learning management software (Canvas, Blackboard, etc.) and their phone calendar to manage due dates. 

“If there is a due date, work backwards, and add in extra time,” Pfortmiller says. “At home, everyone needs more time than they did on campus. Carve out the time you need and discuss with parents, siblings, loved ones when you’ll need quiet time. In terms of lessons, finding a safe rehearsal space is tough. There are no practice rooms at home and no studio for lessons.” 

Vocal music director at Molloy College, Diane Griffin adds suggestions specifically for voice lessons: “Focus on a single idea in a lesson that can be immediately applied in repertoire and in practice. This can be taught and practiced in a shorter period of time, which is better for online learning as students can lose focus quickly.” 

Of course, time management strategies go only so far when dealing with the trauma and loss of our “regular lives.” Tom Rizzuto, professor of music history and guitar at Molloy College posits, “I find that students are really hurting right now, and sometimes they just need a place to share and vent their frustrations. As music teachers, we often find ourselves developing a more personal connection with our students than they may have with their other teachers. At the same time, we’re professionals and we want to do our job. 

“So, for me, I’ve found that I’ve had to let go of my own ego a little bit and sacrifice some of my instructional time so that my students can declutter their minds a little. My students have appreciated the opportunity to express themselves, and I feel that the lessons have been way better since I started giving them that space. As one told me in an email after the semester ended, ‘So few of my teachers have even asked me how I’m doing. The only time I hear from them is when they’re giving more work.’ I think we can do better than that.” 

Avoiding Frustration

You can create a plan to avoid frustration, especially with connectivity or other technical issues. For Pfortmiller, he has “instituted a two-hiccup policy. If we have two instances of excess lag, audio issues on a platform, etc., we switch to a second. 

“So we will go from Zoom to FaceTime. Or Zoom to Skype. Or a Facebook Messenger call. Having a fail-safe makes it much easier for both student and teacher to take back some control over the chaos of Internet-based voice lessons.” 

Ask your voice teacher what their plan is. Griffin advocates adjusting lesson content and means of evaluating singing, “I have always been a fan of singing a cappella and do it quite a bit. I like the fact that you are hearing the voice in its purest form. I have found that working on the tongue sounds and placement takes the focus off of sound and the challenges it puts forth. Physical exercises can be a relief and educational at the same time. Sound can often be incorporated into these experiences. Use different positions for breathing and singing, along with props if available.” 

Both Steele and Gordon recommend having patience. Leave space between classes and lessons as you would on campus for going from one room or building to another. Microphone quality and external microphone options are continuing to be researched by voice teachers and professional singers. Research as much as you can before buying, make sure you know the return policy, and communicate to your voice teacher what is realistic for your budget. 

Rizzuto adds, “We also have to recognize that our students may not have the same access to technology that we do. If their Internet is unstable, they’re aware of it, and odds are they feel some measure of insecurity about it. This is another instance where we have to meet them where they are.” 

Maintaining Community 

There are enormous differences between online and in-person learning, the largest being a loss of community. Steele says, “Keep in touch however you can—send emails, texts, have Zoom sessions just to chat.” Griffin encourages positive thinking about the changes, “Focus on what can be gained and the benefits of working online.” She also recommends seeking out repertoire that creates community: “Songs about social justice issues can help singers feel more connected.” 

Pfortmiller encourages a regular online meeting with his studio. “Connecting helps me, as an educator, see my students interact, which is different than lessons, and get a pulse on where they are at mentally and physically. I also encourage them to reach out to other students in the studio to check up on one another.” Furthermore, Pfortmiller is instituting open lessons, allowing students to observe another student’s lesson, because “watching a colleague go through the paces of a lesson can be enlightening.” 

Steele points out that “every person has different preferences for communication. Clear communication is especially important for distance learning. If you’re not feeling like you are making progress, ask why.” 

Griffin says, “Students should know their ideas and suggestions are valuable. Teachers can learn from listening to their students. I always tell a student after a lesson or rehearsal that if they run into a problem as they practice to text me so that it can be addressed immediately. I have been able to use Google Duo to have a brief, impromptu video discussion and resolve a question easily, leaving the student feeling positive and ready to apply [the] suggestion moving forward.” 

Problem Solving 

Communicating regularly is key to problem solving. “If you find your workload becomes excessive or lacks specificity, you are most likely not alone,” says Pfortmiller. “Nearly every teacher is open to hearing from you. If you need more time or clarification, reach out. Ask for what you need.” 

Griffin observes, “We can address singers that might have been intimidated or thought they couldn’t sing because online instruction allows them to stay in a place of familiarity and comfort, instead of entering the teacher’s studio. Rethink what excellence actually means or what it can look like. If we work on skill building, nothing will have been lost when we return. We don’t have to lower the bar, just rethink the goals.” 

COVID-19 has amplified the digital divide and highlighted student accessibility, as well as the quality of many university and conservatory IT infrastructures. Keep in mind that even when meeting in person, best practices, curriculum, standards, and requirements change every semester, even without an emergency situation. Stay committed to improving your instrument and your knowledge, regardless of the format. 

Endnote 

  1. Vijay Govindarajan and Anup Srivastava, “What the Shift to Virtual Learning Could Mean for the Future of Higher Ed,” hbr.org/2020/03/what-the-shift-to-virtual-learning-could-mean-for-the-future-of-higher-ed. 
Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.