I’m watching a YouTube video of Eric Whitacre speaking to the Oxford Union about his virtual choirs (amongst other things.) His talk highlighted the use of technology to bring musicians closer together, an idea that we base an entire chapter on in our book iPractice: Technology in the 21st Century Music Practice Room.
The Virtual Choir is a global phenomenon, creating a user-generated choir that brings together singers from around the world and their love of music in a new way through the use of technology. Singers record and upload their videos from locations all over the world. Each one of the videos is then synchronised and combined into one single performance to create the Virtual Choir.
At one point during the talk, Eric Whitacre played some of the videos that had been submitted including the video from a young girl got the whole thing started. These videos were recorded in bedrooms and practice rooms all over the world. Each part was sung acapella – no other singers to support the part – no piano for matching pitch. The parts were difficult and it spoke highly of the singers’ musical abilities to match and keep pitch without an external source or support from an ensemble.
Used well, technology can help eliminate the isolation of traditional music practice and bring music students closer together.
Most activities in a child’s life are social (e.g., sports, dance, martial arts) including many of their classroom activities. Even when a school activity appears isolated, such as completing a math worksheet, it is completed alongside other children working on the same activity. There is a camaraderie even if the activity is not overtly collaborative.
Musical practice is starkly different.
Private music lessons are traditionally designed in a 1-on-1 model where students primarily interact with one private instructor followed by isolated practice. School ensembles provide a social component in music, but home practice is typically solitary. Many students love to participate in ensembles, but then find they do not have the same motivation to practice at home.
As the music student matures, more and more time is expected to be devoted to isolated practice. Some children adapt well and find that they can concentrate more fully when alone. However, many people (adults and children alike) are not comfortable with being alone and become passive and lonely. For some adolescents, being alone can lead to negative mood states. This is not to say that being alone is necessarily a negative experience, but it is important to recognize that many people struggle with solitary activities. Some children may be so uncomfortable working by themselves that they may choose to abandon music completely.
We used a couple of pieces of psychological research to inform our position. Reed Larson explored how people feel when they are alone in his research study “The Solitary Side of Life: An Examination of the Time People Spend Alone from Childhood to Old Age” published in the journal Developmental Review (read abstract). Reed Larson and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reported on how adolescents feel about being alone in their article “The Significance of Time Alone in Adolescent Development” published in the Journal of Current Adolescent Medicine (read abstract).
Throughout the rest of this chapter, we advocate ways that students can share their practice experiences, making the practice process less isolated. This can be in the use of actual sharing, for instance through working with a practice partners – even if the practice partner is not physically in the same room – or creating “Practice Stories” posted online.
Practice stories take advantage of text-based social media like Facebook, blogs, Twitter or Snapchat to allow students to tell the story of their daily practice. They can write short status updates or lengthy descriptions (depending on the platform). They can share practice goals, accomplishments, successes and challenges. They can post how they felt about their practice. They can even crowd source solutions to musical problems.
Essentially, students can use the social media platforms, that most are likely already familiar with, and share their practice experiences. There’s nothing like having someone to share successes with – or have a shoulder to cry on in frustration when things aren’t going well.
Because there is a danger of too much public sharing, we do advocate a closed classroom- or studio-specific platform for the students to use when they are sharing stories about their practice – creating a studio Facebook group for instance.
Social media and other online forums can be also be used to create the sense of others sharing an experience as demonstrated through the Virtual Choirs. In other words, we don’t necessarily need to be directly interacting with a specific person or group of people. It’s enough to know that there are others who are sharing our experiences.
But thinking back to the virtual choirs, Eric Whittaker posted a video of himself conducting through the music – so the singers were interacting at least with him.
We encounter this sense of sharing when we use an exercise app or play a video game. There are others out there – somewhere – doing what we are doing.
It makes us feel connected.
Students taking music lessons may or may not know other students – even within the same studio – even if they are practicing the same repertoire! Teachers can help students by showing them that they are not alone in their efforts. Other students are going through the same challenges and have had success.
In the book iPractice we give models for creating this sense of camaraderie and connectedness, including but not exclusively focusing on, social media.
iPractice focuses on individual practice rather than the ensemble experience and we focused on technology that is readily available and easy to use. The technical knowledge needed to stitch individual videos together like Eric Whittaker would likely be beyond the abilities of most of us, but we can use elements of this idea in our studios to connect performers working in isolation.
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Written by Jennifer Mishra