Clinics at a Distance
Clinics at a Distance: Using videoconferencing technology in your orchestra classroom or private studio.
With shrinking budgets and increased costs of travel, it becomes more and more difficult to bring guests into your classroom. This session will discuss videoconferencing technology, particularly Skype software, and will show you a few of the success stories from its use in my middle school orchestra classroom.
Reasons to use videoconferencing technology in your classroom or private studio.
1. Financial. No flight, hotel, or meals to pay your clinician. This saves lots of money.
2. Time savings. No transportation issues or trips to the airport. The time the clinician spends with your group is all the time they really need to set aside.
3. Convenience. Both the clinician and the audience don’t have to alter their location
4. Effectiveness. I have found that students really enjoy the sessions and are motivated to practice and explore both before and after the session takes place.
5. The “Cool Factor.” The students think it’s cool to Skype, and the administration loves the teacher’s integration of technology.
The Hype of Skype
Skype is a an excellent and free audio/video communication application. It runs on Mac or Windows and there are also mobile apps for Android and iOS. As of September, 2011 there were 663 million registered Skype users. It is free to use Skype to make audio/video calls when you call another Skype user. You can purchase Skype credit that allows you to dial a land or cell phone line for a very affordable cost. Skype is especially popular to use for international calls.
- Skype account. Free to register for a Skype account at www.skype.com
- Computer. Mac/Windows, it doesn’t matter which.
- Broadband Internet connection. Faster is better, but most broadband connections should be okay.
- Webcam or built-in laptop camera.
- It doesn’t have to be anything fancy.
- External powered speakers or connection to a stereo system
- Computer Projector or SmartBoard (essential when projecting to a large group)
- External microphone. USB microphones work well (unidirectional). I can recommend the Samson Go Mic ($40 street price on Sweetwater, Amazon, B&H Photo/Video, or Best Buy). The Samson Go Mic has a switch that allows for cardiod (unidirectional) or omnidirectional. It also includes a -10db pad that would help keep the mic from being overloaded by extremely loud sounds.
- Any high quality cardioid mic attached to an audio interface should also work well.
- Ask colleagues, set up a trial.
- Use conferences (like ASTA!) to meet new people
- Find people on social media networks
- Groups/Pages on Facebook like String and Orchestra Teachers v.2 group on Facebook (thanks to Gail Barnes!)
- Twitter (#mused, #musedchat, #musedtech)
How much will this cost?
The equipment for this project is very minimal and you may have most of what you need! Webcams can be purchased for under $20, the mic I recommended is about $40, and hopefully you have a computer. Clinician fees will vary, however. Some clinicians I have worked with did the Skype session for free, others charged a nominal fee. You might need to negotiate a price with a clinician, especially if they have never work via Skype before.
In the private studio
Some teachers use Skype to monitor a student’s progress between lessons or have found success utilizing the technology during extended vacation or travel time. Other teachers use Skype with students who live in rural areas, or are a long distance from any string teachers.
Other ideas for private teachers would include the ability to network with other teachers to discuss pedagogy or to hold masterclasses between studios.
The Orchestra Exchange
I have had excellent success hosting orchestra exchanges between two school orchestra groups. We have used Skype to share a new piece or new technique. It is helpful to allow students to play for an audience. Nothing puts students under more pressure than that of peer interaction. When I announced we would hold an orchestra exchange with another school, my students have never practiced harder!
In addition to the student benefit, holding orchestra exchanges allows for another set of ears in your classroom. I have received very valuable feedback from the teacher at the remote location.
Besides all of the learning that goes on, orchestra exchanges are lots of fun. Students have been able to share ideas, and compare geographical and cultural differences between schools. Nothing better than breaking “rehearsal rut” with a new kind of rehearsal!
With Skype, I have been able to bring in world-class clinicians to listen to, work with, and clinic my orchestras. Without this technology I would not have been able to provide my students with these great experiences!
Clinics can be extremely motivational and really change the level of experience students received. Students get really pumped up in preparation of the video session. Administrators love to see this type of 21st century learning in your classroom!
Inviting guest artists into your classroom can help inspire students and help guide student consider career choices, explore new musical styles/genres. I have used guest artists to help teach a quick technique lesson, such as chop technique.
- Schools sometimes block Skype connection ports. If this is the case, you should have a serious talk with your network administrators to see if the required ports for Skype can be opened.
- It can be difficult to get every student in the frame, especially with large groups. A wide-screen webcam may help, but often I find myself pivoting the camera so the online visitor(s) can see everyone.
- While I have had no major problems, you might expedience a lag or loss of video quality due to network bandwidth or traffic. If this is a major problem, you can run a speed test on your connection to see if it your problem of the person with whom you are connecting.
- Not using the right type of microphone. Be sure that your microphone doesn’t filter background noise, or it may be hard to hear the full range of sound.
- Timezones. I have found a few clinicians who would love to work with me, but are on the west coast. Because my classes meet in the morning, the time difference makes it very tough to set up a session that works for the clinician.
What does the future hold?
It is my guess that our school funding problem is not over. Money for music programs will continue to become increasingly tight. This may make distance learning even more popular. I hope that Internet speed and bandwidth continues to increase with time. Larger file sizes and throughput requirements, such as the introduction of streaming HD video, is helping companies and consumers realize the need fore more bandwidth.
The video compression technology used by Skype and other technologies will continue to improve, and along with increased bandwidth, will result in a more real-life experience when chatting online, with high quality sound and video. It would be really neat to have a 3D type experience with Skype someday!