Browsing the Digital Landscape for New Teaching Practices

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Browsing the Digital Landscape for New Teaching Practices

David Freeman, Faculty, Media, Communications and Visual Arts, Pace University; National Advisory Council Member, Teaching Artist Guild

07-09-2021

It would be an understatement to say that teaching artists and music educators had little time to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic. While we have watched the country begin to reopen in recent months, the pandemic’s ever-changing impact on the educational landscape has not subsided. Arts education workers have faced unrelenting challenges in this ongoing moment of adaptation and innovation.

As a jazz musician and teaching artist, I experienced this firsthand. And I had no experience in any kind of teaching that didn’t involve music students in a room together. Fortunately, I found three online platforms for jazz education that offer a wealth of good teaching and learning opportunities, and I spent some time this year trying them out with student-colleagues. In the hope that we can help steer other band teachers and jazz teachers toward virtual learning programs that suit their needs, we’ve selected three organizations who were able to tailor their programming to audiences and learners whose needs are constantly changing: The Louis Armstrong House and Museum (Queens, NY), the Preservation Hall Foundation (New Orleans, LA), and the interactive music education online platform Playbook. Though their practices are not one-size-fits-all, they do aim at educators and learners alike—and offer useful templates for band and jazz teachers in any area.

What follows is a brief review of those three platforms, taking stock of their pivots and practices in an effort to guide band teachers toward solutions that fit their needs. To compile these takeaways, Pace University Jazz Music History students Simone Gonzalez, Daniel Newell, and Angie Starn spent time visiting and observing each site before serving as a focus group for this article.

Louis Armstrong House Museum

The Louis Armstrong House Museum welcomes visitors in celebration of the life and legacy of jazz icon Louis Armstrong. Educational offerings here provide an extensive range of entry points, making visitors feel seen, welcome, and appreciated.

As a virtual museum, Louis Armstrong House offers several exhibits. Two video platforms stuck out as particularly useful for teaching artists. The first is the “Armstrong Now” video series, which shares modern artistic and collaborative responses by renowned Black artists to the newly digitized Armstrong Archives. The second is the “Voices of Freedom” series, which examines themes of social change through the prism of Armstrong’s life. The former is a four-part series; the latter offers five modules, taught by teaching artists and complete with pre- and post-workshop activities that deepen participants’ relationship with Pops’ life and legacy.

The author giving a pre-pandemic drum lesson. Photo credit Laura Foord.

So what makes them so useful? For one, these series lend themselves well to both independent and guided exploration, suiting most lesson plans. And, critically, the virtual exhibits make space for the modern viewer. Students can learn about—and even engage with—the life and work of a jazz luminary whose story merits study in any context. And then they can explore that context more deeply in their own lives, digging into themes such as segregation, protest, and self-expression. This process not only inspires but invites participation across fields and disciplines, so students at any level feel acknowledged.

Preservation Hall Foundation

The Preservation Hall Foundation upholds and promotes New Orleans’ musical culture through an ambitious and effective educational platform. Their online programming targets K-12 music teachers who want to elevate their lessons by including the cultural and civic narratives that have helped to shape the city’s treasured American music tradition.

Designed with teachers in mind, all content clearly identifies national core and common core standards, often going beyond music instruction to include English language, arts, and history. Still, lessons focus largely on the basics of music instruction, including instrumentation, technique, and repertoire. The website provides Google Slides and Google Docs for each lesson, and instructors are encouraged to integrate content in whatever way best serves their learning groups. In complementary video lessons, Preservation Hall Jazz Band members share their experiences that bring the music to life.

Preservation Hall has existed since 1961; its online platform was built well before the pandemic. And it became a critical tool for jazz teachers last year for exactly that reason: the heavy lifting had already been done for us. Lessons designed, slides and sheets created, flexibility built in—all by an established community organization.

Playbook

Founded in 2020, Playbook uses storytelling to provide robust learning experiences for middle and high school band students, as well as community college ensembles with limited access to instruction. The website is a playground for independent learners and instructors alike, offering supplemental materials such as sheet music, tutorials, and performance videos by an impressive roster of mentors. Curriculum and lesson plans include improvisation, small group and big band lesson plans, and music history.

What stands out about the platform? Above all, its playfulness. One highlight is the interactive digital mixing board that musicians can use to isolate individual instruments, explore the various brass, woodwind, and rhythm sections, and highlight solos—developing a deeper sensibility of composition, arrangement, improvisation, and dynamics. The mixing board is engaging and empowering for young musicians, who can explore and play alongside different combinations of virtual bandmates. Not every online mixing board can be this intricate, but most will foster a student’s sense of playfulness.

During this time of limited in-person learning and a shift to hybrid learning models, along with limited access to museum galleries, performances, and parks, teachers can feel both supported and inspired by the online learning platforms offered by cultural arts organizations like Louis Armstrong House Museum, Preservation Hall Foundation, and Playbook. The content is rich and can be used as pedagogical scaffolding that stands on its own; it’s also flexible, leaving room for academic freedom and creativity when integrated into pre-existing lesson plans. Either way, here we find cultivated spaces where learning takes place for both teacher and student.

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