In conversation with Tony Gomes, head of music for the Upper School.
How has UCC’s curricular music program adjusted to support remote learning during the pandemic?
The ability of our students to be who they are musically hasn’t missed a beat, because they’re focused on individual learning. And they still experience the excitement of playing for their classmates.
Year 8 and 9 students use an interactive platform called SmartMusic. It allows them to click on an exercise, play or sing it, and get instant feedback on missed notes, late entrances, etc. They record their musical assignments and reflect on their progress so we can evaluate their work. They’re mastering skills that they will need throughout their musical careers.
Year 10 students are jazz-focused and use a program called iReal Pro that provides backing tracks with hundreds of rhythm section options to accompany them in a variety of keys.
In Years 11 and 12, each student has an individual development program and submits recorded performances for their fellow students to hear, just as they would be doing in class. By this time, a diversity of instruments and styles is being showcased.
As a group, Year 11s are currently studying lieder (German art songs) and learning to analyze the form. Year 12 students are working on composition; they’re also required to prepare a 12-minute performance portfolio, playing their own compositions or other works.
What about the co-curricular program?
In a normal year, our bands and ensembles perform in festivals and for the school at assemblies and on other occasions. About 220 students take part across all grades. The challenge this year lies in the fact that there is no existing software that allows musicians to perform together synchronously. It’s a physics problem, not a music problem, that involves how sound travels and is reassembled for the ear. It’s affected by the quality of Wi-Fi each student has and how far away they are, which translates into inaccuracies. There is no good working model.
At present, our musicians are all working on specific pieces. We meet as a group to discuss the music, going through a piece section by section. Then, the students work on that section at home, record themselves individually and send the recordings to us for feedback.
Have there been any silver linings from a learning perspective?
Students have had to learn as much about music production as music itself. It’s what the environment requires, and now they have skills to add to their toolkits. We’re working hard to keep students engaged despite the inability to play together, which is one of the real joys of making music. We want to keep their interest going until we’re all able to be together again in one space to create sound.
How have you been documenting this very uncommon year?
The plan is to produce a musical journal, Lockdown Diary, to capture the essence of this year. It will incorporate the music we’ve been working on, as well as the stories and experiences of our students. We hope to release it sometime in April.