Music With Mrs. Tanenblatt

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

My Back-to-School List for Virtual Teaching

When our school buildings closed in March due to COVID-19, none of us knew exactly when we would be getting back to business as usual. My school district implemented a continuity of learning plan which kept us in contact with our students and engaging in weekly lessons, but was more of a temporary stopgap rather than intentional virtual teaching.

I found out last week that because of the continued community spread in my county, we are going to be doing virtual learning for the entire first semester of the 2020-21 school year. Now that we know in advance, it's no longer a temporary contingency plan. It's time to be purposeful and plan meaningful lessons that we implement synchronously and asynchronously.

Usually this is the time of year that I start roaming through Target and my local thrift stores to snatch up new goodies for classroom decor and fun toys or manipulatives. However, this year it looks very different: instead I'm filling up an Amazon shopping cart with the tools I will need to set up my space for successful virtual learning this fall.

It is so great to be able to see my students' faces when we do our virtual class meetings. However, when I need to share my screen I have to choose between looking at the meeting or looking at the document I'm sharing. It's important to keep an eye on the meeting in order to monitor the chat and look for students who may be raising their hand for clarification. But then I can't see the song or presentation that I'm sharing with the class. 

The solution is to hook up a second monitor so that you can have the meeting on one screen and the presentation on the other. I know many teachers who use a TV as their second monitor. However, since I have small children at home I can't work in the living room where the TV is. For me, it made the most sense to purchase a second monitor for my workspace.

I'll admit it: my husband and I are pack rats. My "home office" (read: small desk that I've had since childhood) is up against the wall in a cluttered room full of children's clothes, board games, workout gear, my husband's recording equipment, and so much other junk useful stuff.

One way I was able to adapt my cluttered space to make it more useful with working from home was by turning my desk around. Now I have a plain wall behind me for filming teaching videos and participating in Zoom conferences. To jazz it up a little, I decided to purchase a wall tapestry to hang on the plain wall. Now I have the option to use a simple white background or a nice nature scene when I need to be on camera.

I am lucky to have a touchscreen device provided by my school system which functions as a laptop or a tablet. It's extremely versatile and I love using it as a tablet, especially to screen share with students and use tools like a virtual white board. However, writing with your index finger is clunky at best, so this year I will be investing in a stylus pen.

A major downside to having my workspace in the basement is the lack of natural lighting. With only the overhead light available in the room, I look like a dimly-lit pink blob. But with one click of the ring light, I can be in a video and look like a normal human!

One thing I learned from doing online grad school in July was that the blue light from my screens was really affecting me. I was getting headaches every afternoon and it was taking me hours to fall asleep every night! Fortunately, most devices have an option in the screen settings to reduce blue light automatically. However, that does affect the tint of colors on the screen. Many people opt to wear blue light filtering glasses instead.

None of us knows exactly how long this virtual learning situation will last. But, as usual, I plan to be prepared for anything. And also as usual, I prepared by doing some online shopping! If you're interested in the specific items I've been shopping for, the following are paid Amazon affiliate links for the things on this list:


Monday, August 3, 2020


When I signed up for the Kodály masters degree program from the American Kodály Institute four years ago, I had no idea that I would be completing my final semester over Zoom! It was somewhat surreal, after three summers of intensive work with my cohort, to finish our program as tiny squares on a screen. But we made it, and learned a lot from our professors during this bizarre time of pandemic learning. I am actually quite grateful to have had this experience of online learning from a student's perspective, because now I feel like I understand a little bit more about what my students need from me when we return to school virtually in the fall. 

One of my classes, Teaching Music to Students with Special Needs, was particularly eye-opening when we had a special guest teacher, Robert Hitz. He specializes in improvisation and creativity and absolutely leaned in to the challenge of teaching us via Zoom. He even coined the term "Zoomerang" to refer to music games played remotely via video conference.

Improvisation can be a scary thing for many students. Doing so over Zoom can feel even more daunting when everyone else is muted and you're just singing into the void. However, Robert facilitated an enlightening session where we got to have some fun shenanigans. 

I'm not going to lie: even with crazy lag times and poor audio quality, it felt good to be making music with my classmates again! I think that many of these activities can be modified and used with our elementary students and I'm looking forward to trying. Here's a recap of what we did:

Layered Ostinati
To play this game, everyone had to - gasp - turn ON their microphones! We embraced the inevitable fact that it would be messy and not sync with our classmates. One person started by creating an ostinato (we used a mix of vocal improv, hand clapping, and instruments) and after a phrase or two, they would add another person into the groove. We kept adding people until everyone was doing their own thing at the same time. 

Some things to consider: Obviously with the lag on Zoom you never really sync up with the rest of the group. The audio mix is wonky and you will only be able to hear a few people at any given time. It's not going to sound like a virtual choir, and that's OK. The important thing is to focus on the other people that you can hear and keep the music going. It might also be helpful to create the order of people ahead of time and type it in the chat, so participants will know when to join in with their ostinato.

Sound Relays
This activity isn't as affected by the inevitable Zoom lag because players take turns. One person improvises a phrase and then calls on someone else to unmute and respond with a new sound inspired by the one that came before it. Then they call on another person who responds with something related, and this continues until everyone has had a turn.

Some things to consider: I am 100% planning on using this one in my virtual teaching this fall. It is so empowering for students to be in charge of their music making with this kind of improvisation. For people who crave a bit more structure, like me, you could set it up as a rhythm or melodic improv activity and play it kind of like telephone. 

In my version, Student A would create a four beat rhythm pattern. Then, Student B would repeat that rhythm pattern and create a new one. Student C repeats B's pattern and creates their own. And so on, and so on... 

Alien Language
My entire cohort was CRACKING UP when we played this one. An improv classic whether online or off, in Alien Language you form a small group and speak to each other with entirely made-up sounds. We modified this for Zoom by only having a group of three or four participants playing the game while everyone else stayed on mute (and died of laughter.)

Some things to consider: This could be a really fun ice breaker. There's no wrong way to talk like an alien! The only challenge would be the maturity level of the group, because my cohort of 30-something-year-olds could barely keep it together.

Friendly alien | Free SVG

Student-Generated Games
The culminating activity involved breakout rooms, my new favorite Zoom feature. We were randomly split into small groups and Robert sent us a list of motivating quotes and reflections about music. We were tasked with the job of taking one quote and using it to make up our own improv game to play.

My group used this quote: 

"The notes I handle no better than many pianists.  But the pauses between the notes – Ah, that is where the art resides!" ~ Arthur Schnabel

We decided to create a variation on the relay game we played earlier in the session, but we intentionally left rests and spaces in between sounds. It was interesting to hear how our patterns complemented and inspired each others'. 

Takeaways From My Experience with Robert
I am so glad I got to participate in this session. Now I feel much more confident in the possibility of collaborative music making over Zoom. Last Spring, most of my live teaching sessions were just me singing while the rest of the class was muted and hopefully singing along with me in their homes. Now I feel like I can really open it up to include more students creating and improvising!