Wilson orchestra adapts to online learning

Chau Nguyen

How do you conduct an orchestra over Microsoft Teams? The Wilson orchestra is still in the process of perfecting this  “new normal” of virtual ensemble practice and performance. 

Orchestral playing requires much hands-on instruction, guidance and coordination. Besides Canvas and Microsoft Teams, two virtual learning platforms shared by all other classes, the Wilson orchestra has also been utilizing other music programs to simulate the ensemble practice experience. 

In the beginning of the year, students experimented with different multi-track recording and audio-mixing softwares, such as Mixpad, Garageband, Soundtrap or Playposit. However, Smartmusic, a web-based interactive practice tool that gives immediate feedback as students play, turned out to be highly preferred for its simplicity and efficiency. 

Ziaire Beckham, principal second violinist, explained how Smartmusic surpassed other apps. “It’s simpler to work with, and it marks wrong notes and missed rests to quantify into a percentage based on how close you are to accurate playing.” Other students also credit the app for helping them to be self-aware of the quality and progress of their practice, as well as relieving extra work off teachers’ shoulders.

Initially, the Wilson orchestra attempted to recreate the in-person experience by playing simultaneously online. However, after a month of having to deal with lagging Internet connections and poor audio quality on a daily basis, the orchestra came to a decision of splitting up sections and practice separately. 

With the 4×4 schedule, students practice every day with their respective instrument groups, namely violins, violas and cellos. Usually, each section has approximately 20 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday with Mr. Phifer, the Director of Jazz Ensemble & String Orchestra, for feedback on techniques and cohesion. 

Meanwhile, individual practice takes place off-screen, with students completing a practice assignment where they record their practicing time or an excerpt of a piece for an assessment grade. 

The new schedule has been effective in terms of personal improvements, as students can practice individually while reducing time spent in front of the computer screen. The orchestra also manages to incorporate all sections of the orchestra into the small time span of online classes. 

However, the question of self-discipline also arises with the largely individual schedule. “It’s fairly easy to procrastinate in this learning style, so the first challenge was actually getting around to practicing while balancing other school work and activities,” Beckham explained. 

For the final recording of a piece, each section records their individual playing, which will then be merged together into one performance representative of the entire orchestra. The outcome has yet been up to par, due both to the sometimes strenuous recording process and the synthetic sound as a result of blending separated audio files . Second chair cellist Camelia Terraza expressed her frustration with recording. “You have to record in different parts of the room, on different devices and somehow your best recording still has the sound of your sister’s math class in the background.” She also describes computer-generated classical music sound as “ugly it’s almost sacrilegious.” 

Many students also miss the community strength unique to the orchestra, when the pandemic hadn’t separated them with a computer screen. “Pre-Covid communication and camaraderie came easy when you literally sat with the same group of people for three days every week”, Beckham said. Citing the “revolutionary” performance of the Bach Brandenburg Concerto last year, Terraza also cherished the way different sections interact and how “every part layers to create a complex whole” – something impossible to replicate virtually. 

Nevertheless, students are appreciative of the collaborative environment fostered and maintained by members and teachers involved. “Communication is better,” concertmaster Natalie Sipress said. “Most of the sections have each other’s phone numbers and Remind messages so there isn’t really a problem with wondering what we have to do.” Njeri Brooks, first chair violist, also commend Phifer for helping him to keep track of “what our class time looks like on any given day.”

Overall, music teachers are optimistic of what the Wilson orchestra has been achieving so far. Reflecting on all the necessary changes made, Phifer regarded them as “representative of what the Music teachers and students have been doing very well.”