Play on: making music and teaching online
The past few months have been characterised by the biggest transformation in learning and teaching the College has seen in its history. Here, colleagues and students from across the Royal College of Music reflect on the experience and how the creativity and resilience of our community has ensured musical learning has flourished. First, Diana Salazar shares her thoughts on the challenges of delivering a curriculum online.
I wasn’t the only one who felt emotional when I left our beautiful building in South Kensington for the last time before lockdown. By that stage in mid-March the corridors had become quiet. The sense of loss was palpable: no concerts, no playing together, no conversation, no sound.
In the weeks that followed it was tempting to dwell on what we couldn’t do. Our student performers, composers, conductors, music educators and performance scientists thrive in a building filled with music-making, performance and collaboration at the highest level.
How could we ever begin to replicate the richness of daily life at the College through digital means? And how could we continue to support, teach and assess our students on their busy, practice-led programmes of learning at all levels; undergraduate and postgraduate students, but also our community outreach, junior department and research programmes?
What resulted was the biggest transformation in learning and teaching the College has ever seen. This past summer term, the College’s team of outstanding professors taught all of our students, who are now located across the world, via digital means.
Our faculties delivered a newly designed curriculum of specialist classes to reinstall a sense of musical community and purpose. Assessments were adapted in all kinds of innovative ways to enable online submission. Students worked together remotely to create new works and recordings, and our careers, counselling, and library services continued to support students from afar.
Yes, there have been limitations. But in this far from ideal situation we have found ways to enable our students to learn, progress and complete their studies and, crucially, to support them through these uncertain times. Our student musicians can and will flourish as they continue to be supported by a rich curriculum, their specialist teachers and their peers, albeit sometimes from a distance.
The pivot to digital learning and teaching sounds deceptively easy, but this period has challenged the entire RCM community in ways never seen before. How do we assess conducting digitally? How do we teach students in different time zones? What do socially distanced recitals look like? How do we use this experience of digital delivery to inform the conservatoire curriculum of the future?
To design solutions that enable the College to deliver its core work as an institution of learning, teaching and research, we have had to work together in ways never seen before, drawing upon all of our collective resources to deliver creative solutions. We are all novices in this situation, and we all need to be ready to learn. I for one have learned more than I could ever have imagined over these last months from colleagues and students across the institution.
The campus is now open for individual rehearsal, and some professors returned before the end of term. But as we transition back to working onsite, we will do so with newfound understanding of the possibilities of a digital conservatoire. Moving forward we have an opportunity to reimagine the ways in which we work, teach, research and share our music-making with others.
In these challenging times the RCM community is united by a common understanding of the value and power of music to inspire, console, nurture and to bring people together, even during times of lockdown. The sound of the College lives on in its digital community across the world, and we look to embracing the future of post-Covid conservatoire education with newfound skills, understanding, agility and optimism.
This is an edited version of an article published in The Arts Desk.
Head of Digital, Matt Parkin, faced the unenviable task of supporting the RCM community in making their transition to digital delivery. Here he tells Upbeat how he and his team rose to the task.
Even with the benefit of our well-established digital resources, abruptly moving all learning, performance and business operations online in March was an unprecedented task.
For teaching and learning two helpful things were already in place: learn.rcm, our online learning platform that provides a central hub for academic classes and faculty activities, and Microsoft Teams, a collaboration platform that allows face-to-face teaching and meetings to happen via video link. The digital learning team’s online training sessions have been especially popular, covering topics from running online classes to recording and filming yourself.
RCM students and professors have been innovative and resourceful. Professors have adjusted lesson times or recorded their classes, allowing students in different time zones to participate. Digital scores have become an indispensable tool for sharing repertoire and annotations. Students have assembled high-quality multitrack videos to share with their professors. Live collaborative recording platforms allow for recording and immediate playback during a class, so the performer can listen back with their teacher, then have another try.
As we refocus on opening the campus back up safely, we’re looking at a phased return, where some students will continue to work remotely, including overseas. We will need to equip our buildings, and train and support our staff to deliver a mix of online learning and offline experiences, known as blended learning, adopting well-established best practice from across the higher education sector.
A bigger question is: how can we sustain and build on the benefits of these new technologies in the long term? If we can, there’s every possibility we will deepen students’ learning, widen access and participation, and extend the RCM’s global reach and impact.
Head of the Historical Performance Faculty, Ashley Solomon, had to action a move to online teaching, coaching and rehearsal as seamlessly as possible, while also exploring technological possibilities to keep improving the student experience. Here he describes how the teaching and support staff and students have pooled their skills to make things work.
Like all Heads of Faculty and professors at the RCM, my Historical Performance colleagues and I have had to assimilate new skills and quickly learn how best we can deliver all aspects of our teaching online. For many of us this was a huge challenge, but the Studio and IT teams have been immensely supportive. There have been frustrations, of course, as there is no substitute for live one-to-one interaction, and real chamber music, which is an area where historical performance thrives, is almost impossible to achieve online despite the myriad of software programmes out there.
However, my students have demonstrated some wonderfully creative ways of making music through multi-tracking and they continue to learn an enormous amount about themselves as musicians through this process.
For example, for one-to-one lessons it does seem best to have a performance uploaded in advance of the lesson and use this as the basis for the session. Once the students are back at the RCM they will all benefit from the enhanced internet speed and technological capacity in the building.
In addition, the new HP performance class encourages up to eight students each week to upload their recordings in advance, and through Microsoft Teams the students go head-to-head to discuss and critically appraise each other.
These sessions are immensely enjoyable. Many students have uploaded interesting articles, documents and even books to share with others when we discuss specific areas of the repertoire or historical techniques for playing. This is something that would not be so user-friendly in the face-to-face class teaching scenario. Our repository for Historical Performance is fast becoming an excellent resource for the whole Faculty.
I think several of our less-outgoing students have found that the chat function gives them a new confidence to take time to express themselves and critically appraise performances, which they find difficult when put on the spot. These weekly 90-minute classes have garnered an average of 500-600 live comments. Not bad at all!
President of the RCM Students' Union, Joel Wilson, has played a vital role in leading the College’s student community as it adapts to distance learning. Here he tells Upbeat about how students have unlocked new motivation during this period.
The last few months have seen a huge degree of work, patience and understanding from every member of our community. Both students and staff have had to adapt over a very short time to a new process of online tuition, finding creative solutions to ensure the continuation of the best possible music-making and learning under extreme circumstances.
As one student said: 'Although the situation has been challenging for everyone, it has given the opportunity to embrace my creativity and to expand the borders of my musicianship.'
Over this period, it has become increasingly clear that the RCM’s primary strength is to facilitate and nurture the wealth of talent and already bubbling community of aspiring musicians at its heart. In some ways, this 'back to basics' approach to learning has provided students with an increased sense of self-reflection and an opportunity to focus on individual progress more than ever before.
This is only made possible by the significant hard work and enthusiasm of our professors. Another student told me: 'It's been incredibly inspiring to see the dedication and commitment of our professors who are going out of their way to support and give us the best education possible. It’s so nice to have such a sense of community within the faculty and individual instrumental classes.'
In many ways, online tuition has by necessity created a greater collaboration between individuals: sharing best practices and technological advice and broadening the discussion of the importance of wellbeing alongside instrumental practice.
Many faculties have made a huge success of this time, with some students feeling even more that they are a part of an international, inspiring community. One student from the Woodwind Faculty said: 'In the oboe department we have been having weekly classes on orchestral excerpts, technical challenges and Q&A sessions with oboists from across the world. We have been using all sorts of different apps and software so that we can play together even when we are apart!'
Of course, we can never replace our physical home at the RCM, but it is inspiring that the RCM family will always be resourceful and optimistic. We all look forward to the time we can be on campus together and share the amazing things we have learnt and experienced.