Tracy Wong, an assistant music professor in the School of the Arts, has had to navigate teaching music in the changing landscape of the last two years. Her four courses, History of Music, Vocal Methods, Conducting and Choral Singing, had to be adapted to an online environment and some of them have subsequently been re-adapted into an in-person environment for the fall 2021 term.
Tracy is wrapping up her time at McMaster University and is moving on to another institution in 2022. Before she leaves, we had a chance to speak to her about the unique challenges of teaching music in an online environment.
Q – What has it been like teaching music in an online format?
When it comes to teaching music, I realized that there were so many nonverbal skills and factors that are taken for granted in an in-person model that would have to be intentionally addressed once we moved to online lectures through tools like Zoom. At a very basic level, I had to teach how to properly check all the set ups on various at home computer environments. Dealing with microphone issues was a challenge. I also had to help the students understand the equipment they had and had to be empathetic that they all had varying technology they could work with. Basically, I had to consider how the tech set up could affect music performance. For example, the computer and internet setups didn’t always represent student singing effectively due to latency or various other issues.
Besides dealing with technology there was the issue of teaching singing in a group setting over a video lecture. It was challenging at times to help students stay engaged because if students cannot sing together there is little satisfaction in taking a singing class. I relied on student leaders to help me with smaller breakout rooms and other forms of support that were so valuable while we were online.
Q – How did you manage the technology element of online teaching?
It was very challenging at the beginning. I am quite capable with technology but needing to do it for teaching and using certain platforms that normally I wouldn’t be using (ex. Zoom or Microsoft Teams), took additional time training myself. I didn’t take much of a break over the summer of 2020 because I was continuously learning and preparing for the following school year. The burden on my shoulders was wondering how I could translate any of my music courses to an online environment.
I knew that my students would have to perform and record remotely and so I had to practice all these things ahead of time so that I could teach them effectively. When class started, I shared my bad takes with my students to show them that I am also making mistakes and learning along the way.
Q – How did shifting to an online environment change the focus of your choir course?
The course used to be focused on a big end of term concert and obviously that had to be changed. Instead, we worked towards an end of term recorded video project. If there was a theme of the year it was delayed gratification because we worked on a lot of elements separately and then would combine our work in a program called Soundtrap. This is an online platform for recording that also allows for easy commenting and collaboration. It gave us some semblance of singing together with other people.
Some students were more interested in audio editing and so I would work with them to focus on that and to clean up the quality of our recordings. Using this online platform created space for students to focus in on areas of music recording that we may not deal with in a face-to-face learning environment. Another benefit was removing the visual element of listening to music (seeing a singer sing). This was helpful with developing deep listening skills.
Q – How were the choir videos put together?
The students first recorded the audio tracks separately at home and then it was mastered and combined into a final audio file. Next, the students had to record video of themselves lip-syncing to their recorded singing audio. It’s like a music video idea and it takes out a lot of the pressure from the singers to need to get the right visuals, lighting, and vocal quality done at the same time. It can be a steep learning curve, but we do have more experienced students involved to offer support through the process.
Q – What were some of the positive elements of teaching music online?
The beauty of being online was that I got to be a lot more flexible with examples that I brought into class. There were more chances for us to explore music that is outside of our regular program. I was able to bring in a diverse group of musicians from a variety of cultural backgrounds to speak to my students and to broaden their knowledge far more than I would be able to do on my own. I did some of this back when we were in a strictly face-to-face environment, but it was limited by travel budgets and logistics. There was also never enough rehearsal time for students and so the structure of the course didn’t allow for it in the same way.
Teaching these courses online has also allowed for more in-depth and granular conversations about music. We’ve gotten to talk about things in greater detail and my students have gotten to pick the minds of a various external musicians that were brought in as guests.
Q – Based on your experience navigating the changing teaching landscape over the last two years, do you have any advice for other instructors?
It was helpful to just know that I can give myself permission to ask if I don’t know something rather than feel that I’m the bearer of all knowledge. I’ve spent time speaking to like-minded colleagues in different industries and have also spent more time speaking with folks about mental wellness. It has been a trying time and a lot of us have been through various emotional turmoil and I knew that I had to take care of myself first and understand what I’m going through before I could do that for others. Prioritizing down time and seeking additional help not only for our teaching, but for all our mental well-being is needed. You can’t be expected to perform all the time and to have all the answers and all the enthusiasm.
Q – What has it been like to have choral singing return to in-person this term?
I’m teaching both the University Choir and Cantemus Ensemble. I find that the students are as keen as ever, hungry to make music together. We embrace the collective voices in one space and have a good laugh at any singing glitches in our rehearsals – those are the nuances we realized we took for granted pre-pandemic.
Being online last year was a good time to focus on personal development, and this year being together again, we are back stronger and our values are redefined. The singers and I recognize the positive impact choral singing has on our mental health.
During rehearsals, choirs adhere to the health & safety protocols set out by the University: masked singing, single entrance & exit points, breaks for singers to head outside for fresh air, assigned standing positions. We are very appreciative of SOTA Director Dr. Stephanie Springgay and Dean of Humanities Dr. Pamela Swett for their continued support in live music making on campus.