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Students explore new ways to create music

Music teacher John Blickwedehl said the biggest challenge he and his students face in remote learning is not being together.

“Music, as an art form, is something that happens in time. It’s the spontaneity of it. You hear someone else playing with you, and you’re listening to them and they’re listening to you, then multiply that times 50 in an ensemble, or 60 or more depending on the group. It’s a different level of human interaction,” he said.

While he is eager to have students creating music together in his classroom, he admits that the return of students to in-person instruction will also be challenging.

“It’s going to be logistically difficult because of space. We’re working on how to use larger spaces like auditoriums to be able to have classes in there. That with scheduling is a complex problem that we’re working on right now,” he said.

According to Blickwedehl, a significant amount of research has gone into the effect of aerosols produced by musicians and instruments, supported by organizations such as the New York State School Music Association and Band Directors Association to determine what is safe.

“We’re looking at ordering bell covers and musician masks that have a flap so a mouthpiece can fit through, so students are masked 100% of the time and you mask the instrument as well,” Blickwedehl said.

When teachers returned to their classrooms in September, Blickwedehl said many conversations focused on how to deliver content with good quality sound so students can hear music and play along. This required a lot of experimentation. In the end, it led to a rather elaborate setup involving microphones and electronic instruments.

“It’s a bit more elaborate than just a Chromebook,” he said. “The tech department has also been really great about providing us with software access to different programs so we can hear the kids. You can pretty much do everything that you would in a normal music class or music ensemble, except make music together, which is the thing. We have to find alternatives for that because on the Google Meet, you can’t have the kids all play something together because of the lag. Even the fastest computers don’t allow for that.”

Blickwedehl said use of programs like Smart Music and Sound Trap enables students to make music with others. He added that the district’s IT department Chromebook distribution was crucial for music students so that everyone has access to a microphone, which wasn’t the case when the district shut down in the spring.

Unlike previous years, students were able to play together on the first day of school. 

“Kind of a strange side effect of everything this year, on the very first day we actually played, which doesn’t happen and hasn’t happened in my 20 years teaching, because the students already had the instruments in their hands from last year. Silver linings,” Blickwedehl said. “There’s a lot of things we can’t do, but here’s something that we never could do before this year.”

He added that this was a jumping off point for students to take new avenues in making music.

“We’ve used recording assignments in different ways over the last few years. Kids now are a small amount of sound recording technician so we can hear them best. That’s one of the neat things about some of the software we’re using, for instance Sound Trap has some settings on the microphone that allow kids to record and sound better than just a plain recording through a Chromebook microphone,” he said.

While students were familiar with Smart Music prior to remote learning, Blickwedehl said it’s become a way for him to assess students individually and has altered the class conversation to relate to what they’re learning in this new environment.

“Some of our first recording assignments were really short. You have a microphone in front of you but depending on the instrument you play, you may want to be close to that or farther away. Aiming towards it or not. Trumpets, we found, need to aim away from the microphone, flutes and clarinets need to be closer so we can hear you better,” he said.

Another opportunity his class wouldn’t normally have is the chance to sit in on a virtual master class with “The President's Own” United States Marine Band.

“Talking to my colleagues in West Seneca, everyone’s found different, interesting, creative ways to engage with kids and keep them active with making music,” Blickwedehl said.