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Music professors engage students online

Since mid-March, when Erskine College began presenting all courses online in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, faculty members have identified creative ways to help their students learn and finish the semester well. For Erskine music professors, strategies have included a variety of innovative approaches, including a music service project, online music software, and new ways of evaluating performances.

At the beginning of the spring semester, Dr. Deborah Caldwell, Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Instrumental Studies, had planned a concert at the Renaissance, a retirement community in Due West. With performance at the Renaissance no longer an option, Caldwell’s students recorded hymns and excerpts from their repertoire, and Caldwell compiled the music into a video to share with the residents of the Renaissance.

“I wanted to give students a chance to play their music for a bigger purpose than their grade,” Caldwell says. “I thought we could turn our ensemble assessment and culminating project into a service project.”

Sharalynn Hicks, Visiting Assistant Professor of Music, has also found new ways of bringing out the best in her students. For example, Hicks has located music software that enables students to continue learning, even if they don’t have access to a piano at home.

“One of my students really enjoys composing music,” Hicks says. “The program allows him to hear the notes that he enters on his computer’s keyboard. …This has been an opportunity to encourage creativity in the midst of unusual academic circumstances.”

Despite innovation and useful technology, the online format has sometimes been difficult for music instruction.

“In a discipline where intricate fine-tuning takes place as a part of daily music making, distance can prove to be a challenge,” says Dr. Keith Timms, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities. “Instruction actually becomes a little humorous at times when the music and videos stall while a student is conducting. It is just part of the current situation we are all enduring.”

To meet the challenge of online learning in performance-based courses, Timms flipped the script in his choral classes. Instead of preparing for canceled concert dates, Timms and his students watched videos of their concerts from earlier in the 2019-20 academic year and critically evaluated their own work.

“I have found that my students are extremely analytical in their evaluation process,” Timms says. “They are now having opportunities to use their knowledge of music terminology, diction, vocal production, and musical expression more as listeners than as producers of music. Very few mistakes make it past their ears!”

Timms has also used a computer program called “The Practice Room” to help his students with theory and sight singing. Students in his Church Music Methods and Materials course have turned to YouTube and other online resources to complete their performance observations.

“Several students have been quick to let me know that they have recognized a great deal of personal musical growth during this time,” Timms says.

He believes teachers are growing as well. “Many of us are now becoming the learners when it comes to the use of technology. This time of online instruction is just one more opportunity for both professors and students to stretch ourselves and to learn something new.”

Erskine and Due West Skyline

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