MOORHEAD — When classes went online and computer screens took the place of classrooms due to the coronavirus outbreak, educators and students had to adjust to distance learning.

Music teachers have found particular challenges to online lessons. From instrument accessibility to finding appropriate times and places to practice to technological limitations, e-education can hit a bad note for instructors.

“Sound quality is a real problem,” Jay Hershberger, piano professor at Concordia College. “I can tell if they’re playing the right notes, but you can’t tell the subtle nuances that go into the art.”

While he and many teachers say it’s great to see students again, platforms like Zoom, FaceTime and Skype are no substitution for side-by-side learning.

“They have the same problem. They can see the physical motion, but the sound is not great,” he says.

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Tiana Grisé, who teaches flute at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says there are limitations to distance learning for music teachers. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership
Tiana Grisé, who teaches flute at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says there are limitations to distance learning for music teachers. Ethan Mickelson / The Arts Partnership

Tiana Grisé, who teaches flute at Minnesota State University Moorhead, says the limitations to laptop microphones can be overcome with a higher quality exterior microphone, though not all students had the chance to get one before classes went online.

Hershberger says another major problem his students face is that not all of them have access to a piano where they are sheltering in place. While many have a keyboard, those are not a suitable substitute for the old ebony and ivory.

If getting piano students time to practice is a struggle, it's been a near impossibility for his organ students.

“I have six organ students and only one of them has access to an organ,” he says. “All six made arrangements to practice at churches and then almost all of the churches shut up.”

Sigurd Johnson, an associate professor of percussion at North Dakota State University and director of athletic bands there, can relate to the struggle of students not having the right instruments at hand. While students can work out rhythms on practice pads, not everyone has larger instruments like marimbas, timpani or vibraphones.

“It’s not easy to put them in the back of your car and take them home,” he says.

Even when they can get the instruments home, there are other issues. His son Kai is studying percussion at Central Michigan University, and he was allowed to take a marimba home.

“He didn’t get much past a day before the neighbors knocked on the door,” Johnson says.

Being a good neighbor isn’t just a concern for bigger instruments. While brass players can practice with mutes, woodwind players don’t have that option.

“The flute can be so piercing. It can carry through walls, ” Grisé says. “Students are scheduling practices and lessons around neighbors so as not to bother them. I had some students so worried about it that they went to MSUM to practice before they were locked out of the building.”

While music teachers say there are distinct limitations to the current methods of online teaching, Hershberger says he has learned a lesson himself.

“One thing I will say is having to teach through this interface has focused my teaching. I really strain hard on what I need to convey to them,” he says.

Now, he has upper level students record themselves and upload that video, which Hershberger watches while making notes, then gets back to the student with observations.

For students without access to keyboards, he’s giving them listening assignments and asking them to reflect on what they heard. Still, he says the current means of distance learning can only be a short-term fix.

“It’s not that it’s just not ideal, it’s unfeasible in the long term,” he says.

Johnson agrees and says there is no online substitute for in-person face time.

“We’re all going to have a much better appreciation of being with our students,” he says. “It will be a new appreciation of what it means to be face to face.”