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Forte: Challenges, perspectives of online teaching in music

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Over the past few months, Josh Gianola, Denise Dillenbeck, David Lynx, Ryan Hare, David Rogers and Pat Muir have shared stories about music and art during this crazy time. It is clear that people need art, and people who make art are creative in finding ways to express themselves.

Nowhere has this become more obvious to me than in the amazing transformation by my university to online education. At Central Washington University, we had two weeks to overhaul everything for our spring term; colleagues elsewhere had much less time. It is an illusion that online education is actually easier than in-person education. It’s just a different set of challenges.

In converting all my music classes to online delivery, I have learned some things that will definitely continue when in-person classes are reinstated. In my history class, certain types of information and assessments can be administered more effectively online, creating more opportunities for group discussion in the classroom. I have to admit, though, that I have not learned how to have group discussions online. (Maybe someday!) Also, I really have to resist the urge to over-assign — they do have other classes than mine.

Applied lessons are a challenge to be sure. Correcting inaccurate notes and rhythms, and offering some musical suggestions are possible, but gone are opportunities to evaluate tone quality and for direct mentoring by playing along with my students. Ensembles are a whole other story. In my horn ensemble (14 French horns!), the delays and inconsistencies of Wi-Fi connections make it impossible to play together. We have study scores, including various technical challenges and historical aspects of styles and composers, and learn about play-along applications like Acappella, which have turned out to be way more work than they appear and far less satisfying musically.

One unexpected and depressing discovery has been that not all Wi-Fi signals are created equally. The technology disparities among my students are surprising, and it pains me to imagine how these disparities must deepen as larger segments of society are considered. This element of access needs attention in our communities.

I am proud to be part of a university that supports student education above convenience. We are fortunate that online education allows us to continue to do something resembling our jobs, but all teachers, especially but not exclusively in the arts, are very much looking forward to being with our students, sharing a love of learning and walking with them on their life-paths for a while.

We have all been patient, flexible, creative, accommodating and opportunistic (in good ways!) to make the best of a difficult situation. There have been a few silver linings, but there is still nothing better than seeing the look on a person’s face when they figure out a solution to a problem … in person.

• Jeffrey Snedeker is principal horn for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at

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