This article is part of a new series called Clarinet in the Time of COVID that aims to help clarinetists find the most recent and important information regarding the evolution of our field as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. If you have information that you would like to share as a part of this series please contact Jenny Maclay at email@example.com.
Studio Morale and Mental Health During Remote Instruction
by David Cook
The intricacies of teaching various music courses remotely as a result of COVID-19 have been discussed at great lengths, but the applied studio for each instrument or voice has received less attention. The applied studio is often the closest-knit academic and social network for our students; a few easy-to-implement practices can help ensure that this support system functions during socially distanced periods.
We have all been inundated with articles about USB microphones, Zoom settings, and internet latency. Maintaining a student-centered and nurturing atmosphere during applied lessons is equally as important as “Turn on Original Sound,” if not more so. Studio morale rises and falls (hopefully only rising!) with the attitudes of each student, which is why we must ensure each student is in a good place mentally and physically.
The rapid shift to remote instruction disrupted everyone’s routines, but I make a point to begin each online lesson exactly the same way as in person: “How are you doing?” It is easy to forget this simple question when dealing with things like spotty wireless internet or microphone placement, but it provides insight to the challenges each student faces when learning from home, such as finding a private place to practice/study without disruption, handling child care duties, and the difficulties of other classes. Even if we cannot help directly, listening and being a sounding board for their concerns is often enough to make them feel more at ease.
While critique is one of our duties, giving students the benefit of the doubt is prudent when teaching under these circumstances. Audio compression and poor microphone quality negatively influence what we hear to a great extent; trusting our students (within reason) and pinning some blame on technological limitations is often the best course of action. For instance, if a student who regularly exhibits a full and vibrant timbre suddenly sounds spread and aggressive, I might begin my observation with “This might just be the microphone you’re using…” before providing my critique, followed by “Let’s see if we can adjust the placement to give a more accurate reflection of your playing.”
Many articles regarding best practices for remote teaching expound upon the benefits of asynchronous instruction. However, a synchronous online studio class reinforces a sense of community, boosts morale, and provides a chance for students to interact and catch up with each other. I often begin the Zoom meeting a few minutes before class would officially begin, turn off my camera and microphone, and admit students as necessary before walking away to allow space for the on- or off-topic conversations that would naturally occur before class. Naturally, students would not be penalized if they have a legitimate reason for not being able to attend at that time.
While having guest presenters from around the world virtually appear in our classes is one possible benefit of social distancing orders, having students continue to play for each other and provide feedback (as many do regularly in studio classes) is very beneficial and helps maintain some sense of normalcy. Even with the limitations of technology, I found my students were easily able to hear their peers’ improvements and were complimentary as such. This in turn helped the performers realize their efforts were paying off and provided motivation for continued practicing (I am confident we all heard about students finding it difficult to stay motivated!). Beyond that, hearing their peers’ musical growth often provided the impetus for the listening students to continue their own development!
Other possibilities for engaging, student-centered remote studio classes include discussions of online performances, reading groups based on certain books or articles, or presentations of student research.
Outside the Classroom
Consistent communication with the studio is essential for individual and group morale. When my institution announced remote instruction, I took a couple days to wrap my heard around everything and figure out a rough plan of attack. Once an idea was in place, I sent a quick update to our group text message—I was shocked how many students had not heard from other instructors and felt lost as a result. Students often find a “work-in-progress” update to be much more beneficial than radio silence until a concrete plan emerges. Video updates hosted on YouTube or a learning management system (LMS) work equally well; students were very happy to see a familiar face and found this more personable than an email. If not already in place (which seems unlikely!), I also suggest that studios have a group chat in place separate from the instructor, either via text message or an app.
In a university setting, ensuring students know about mechanisms such as campus life, mental health services, and the like is an enormous part of improving student mental health. They often receive this information in an overwhelming pile of papers as new students, or in dense paragraphs of boilerplate syllabus language. Simple reminders about phone numbers, social media accounts, and email addresses are helpful to all students, but especially those that exhibit signs of depression, seem disengaged, or otherwise do not seem to be operating at full capacity.
Much of this discussion also pertains to recruitment, as many incoming students are experiencing the same feelings of isolation and lack of community. If you could not meet with current students due to cancellation of on-campus auditions, virtually connecting incoming students with current students reinforces a welcoming atmosphere and helps them feel at ease (anecdotally, it sounds like my incoming students are already in on the group chat!). Social media channels are incredibly valuable for connecting with potential future students under normal circumstances and even more so during periods of remote instruction and social distancing
Teaching during COVID-19 is not only about delivering remote instruction at the highest possible level, but also about maintaining a positive learning environment. Remembering to “check the pulse” of the entire studio is one small but essential part of persevering through these circumstances!