Photo Credit: Jon Upchurch
Schools are often an integral part of a community. Students tend to form communities inside of schools (e.g., classes, clubs, ensembles) and outside of schools (e.g., neighborhoods, community sports teams). Communities of place, or communities formed on proximity, have been very common in the past, and being in community with people who are physically near is perhaps easy. However, Collins and Halverson (2009) propose that society is heavily supplementing communities of place with communities of interest, sometimes replacing the communities of place all together. Communities of interest are communities formed by shared desires or concerns. Instead of relying on physical proximity, Collins and Halverson suggest students prefer to commune with people who share their interests, regardless of distance. Technology makes it relatively easy to find and befriend people who share interests, even if these people are thousands of miles away (Collins & Halverson, 2009).
As I read these ideas, watched my students participate in online activities, and even participated in online communities myself, I wondered about the impact of technology on musical communities. As a string player and orchestra teacher, I was particularly interested in how string students who already collaborate in place might view using technology to collaborate musically. String ensembles are a ‘community of interest’ already. They often form ‘communities of place’ out of necessity – they must be in proximity to rehearse. But rehearsals are not the only means of creating a musical community. The following questions came to mind as I considered string students forming technology-based, online communities of interest rather than communities of place. Which websites did they enjoy using and why? Which websites did they not enjoy using and why? Did they enjoy collaborating synchronously or asynchronously and why? Most importantly, are string students from existing chamber groups interested in forming online communities of interest? In this study, these online communities of interest will be in addition to the time spent as a community of place (rehearsing traditionally).
The purpose of this study was to observe how high school string players, from an existing chamber group, viewed online music collaboration. With this information I hoped to inform K-12 string teachers and help them encourage their students to continue the musical experience online, outside of class.
The components of this project were the chamber group, the technology, and how/why/if they interact.
Previous experience has taught me that students involved in a chamber group may not become best friends, but they learn to function as a unit and they learn to respect one another and the music that is being made. In an effective chamber group they will learn many valuable lessons and grow as musicians and as people. My experience is not unique. Many authors speak of various advantages of being part of a chamber ensemble including: the responsibility that one develops, the advanced musical skills that develop (intonation, balance, blend, stylistic considerations), the increased ability to listen and adjust, the ownership of the musical product, the independence (musical and otherwise), and the confidence that can be developed (Berg, 2008; Johnson, 2011; Latten 2001; Stubbs, 1983).
Online Collaboration Technologies
As pervasive as technology is, finding research on the effectiveness of online collaboration, much less musical online collaboration, was challenging. A broad consideration of online collaboration by Leonard and Guha (2001) examined how preservice teachers viewed online teacher education courses. The research questions were: “What are students’ beliefs and perceptions about taking online courses?” And, “how do students who have taken online courses perceive their value” (p. 52)?
Students 20-45 years old were enrolled in the courses. Quantitative data was collected through surveys and questionnaires initiated near the end of the semester. One particularly intriguing result came from the pilot study. The statement “I believe that chat rooms cannot replace the value of a good classroom discussion” elicited the following responses: 70% agreed or strongly agreed, 17% were neutral, and 13% disagreed or strongly disagreed. However, 50% of the students responding to the formal study believed that the online courses gave them more opportunities to interact with their classmates as compared to a face-to-face course. After participating in these online courses, students perceived online teaching and learning as exciting.
Reflecting on a music-specific example, Thalmann and Gaelli (2006) created a unique opportunity for large numbers of people to collaborate on a piece of music. They developed “software that lets users collaborate in generating multiple musical pieces simultaneously within a modern virtual world. People using this software will have compositional and improvisational possibilities” (p. 73).
This musical world was called Jam Tomorrow. The “virtual room” gave users space to work alone or collaboratively to modify an existing tune or start a new one. More than one user could be modifying the same tune at the same time so the changes were immediately audible to all users. The purpose of the article was to explain the technical creation of this software and what the users would experience.
The authors concluded there is still much to learn about the potential for online collaborative software. They envisioned developing applications for education. They stated there might not be a professional use for this particular software, “but in our time, open source online collaboration becomes more and more reputed among home users around the world” (p. 78).
Another music-specific study comes from Tanaka, Tokui, and Momeni (2005) who presented two electronic creations that facilitated collaborative online music. While the online medium was a recent innovation, the authors argued collaborative music with or without technology was not new. The authors described past musical work involving networks: composing, radio and telephone to include audiences, remote performance, and even the network created by communicative performers in the same room. Then they discussed the challenges of latency or delay:
It is the same musical concern as when composers consider the acoustical characteristic of the concert space in which their work will be performed… Network transmission latency viewed in this way becomes the acoustic of the network, to be recognized and exploited as one does when composing for specific resonant physical spaces. (p. 191)
Two projects were presented in the article. One project used an online music-mixing environment and the other involved a specially made mobile device. The first project they described was an environment for music-mixing using sources available through CC-Remix, a system that subscribes to the Creative Commons license. In addition to the mixing that is always available through the Creative Commons, this environment allowed for a collaborative element and the ability to track authorship and content reuse. The second project, Malleable Mobile Music, used devices on wireless networks to connect participants as they selected songs and used gesture to control the software (create loops, rhythms, melodies, change the tempo, etc.).
The authors concluded by looking at these creative projects and the ways they could change the roles of artist, composer, and audience.
We feel that notions of social computing coupled with artistic creation can combine to point out ways in which technology evolution can be assimilated directly in cultural production, ultimately leading to possible new forms of musical content (p. 197).
Giuli, Pirri, and Bussotti (1998) discussed the value of group music making over the Internet and also the challenge of exchanging synchronous audio data. While live performers receive immediate feedback from their own instruments, feedback from collaborating musicians (exchanging synchronous audio data) is delayed. It is possible to compensate for this feedback delay but the average delay caused by the Internet makes compensation impractical. Their solution for collaborating musicians to avoid online delays was Orchestra!
Orchestra! was the collaborative online environment created by the authors. The environment was designed to create the feel of an ensemble and real-time delivery of user-produced audio streams. The authors surveyed the users of Orchestra! “Three main users’ profiles have shown to be the most interested in collaborative distance working with music: 1. the professional user; 2. the user for didactic aim (teacher and student); 3. the amateur user” (p. 988).
Finally, McCarthy, Bligh, Jennings, and Tangney (2005) also saw a need for multiple users in different locations to be able to collaborate in the process of music making, primarily through composition. But they were not interested in using standard, Western notation. They were only concerned with the use of technology for collaborative music composition and they proclaimed composition as fundamentally different from performing or improvising since it involves reflection on musical materials. The platform they created to work with composition is called Networked DrumSteps.
The basic idea behind Networked DrumSteps is for two or more people to work together and build a set of steps and create percussion sounds by dropping a ball down the steps. Participants used and evaluated Networked DrumSteps by being given basic tasks (to drop the ball down the steps), being videotaped, and then interviewed. The data indicated Networked DrumSteps provided for positive interdependence among students and overall, working together provided more advantages than working alone. The students also enjoyed working together more than working alone, particularly so that they could consult and make “better” pieces of music.
This research seems to show that quite a few people value the idea of online musical collaboration but the difficulties inherent in the process (mainly lag time) require elaborate fixes of software and hardware. These programs go out-of-date quickly if not maintained or updated and none of the above-mentioned software are readily available today. There is excitement around the possibility of online musical collaboration, but there is little documented success in this area thus far.
A Change in Education
Some might ask, “Why does this technology even matter?” “Can’t the students just sit in the orchestra room and make music together?” Using technology to communicate is the way of the future (or perhaps the present) and many people are writing about significant changes to education in relation to technology. Firstly, Collins and Halverson (2009) shared considerable information about the relationship between changes in technology and changes in education (which often involve technology). The authors recognized views from “technology enthusiasts” (p. 9) as well as “technology skeptics” (p. 30) concerning the use of technology in education. They asserted that with the rise of available technology, people take education into their own hands to learn what they desire to know. Before technology provided so many opportunities to learn independently, students were fed information regardless of their desire. Opportunities to learn independently continually change the nature of education.
The authors presented the “technology enthusiasts argument” (p. 9), that outlines many ways technology can benefit education. First, enthusiasts recognize that the way people communicate changes daily. They argue society is moving from communities of place to communities of interest. No longer does physical proximity dictate community. Enthusiasts are excited for learner control, or people deciding for themselves what is valuable to learn. Enthusiasts champion the possibility for publication of student work (e.g. papers, poems, art work, musical compositions), and for sharing one’s work with the world, which could be a strong motivator for students. Lastly, Collins and Halverson discussed the role of technology facilitating the power of reflection for comparing work with others as well as the ability to save and revisit information.
However, the authors cautioned that the views of “technology skeptics” must balance the views of the enthusiasts. Skeptics did not believe technology would become prevalent in schools, partly because skeptics view schooling as a “practice of human improvement,” very personal and often very hard to reform (p. 35). Technology could also be costly and difficult for all to access. Lastly, skeptics were concerned about teachers no longer having supreme authority over their classrooms or controlling the flow of “legitimate” knowledge.
Final thoughts on the changes in education come from Thibeault (2012), who also wrote of an educational system changed specifically by technology. His basis for this change was
ubiquitous learning [italics his], a paradigm for learning transformed by the Internet and mobile computing (1 in draft).
He also indicated a shift from a performance era to a sound recording era, including the changes experienced by audience and performer, predicting a move to the computer paradigm, digital media.
The trajectory of music from performance to recording to data has changed music, musician, and audience. The locus of musical experience moved from face-to-face performance, to the world of tangible sound objects and commerce of sound recording, and to an explosion of synthesis and sampling through the rise of new media and computers within which music is digital data. Musicians moved from needing the ability to reliably perform live, to the high expectations and pressure brought about by recordings, to deep participation in creation environments that mix performance with virtual aspects. (10 in draft)
Thibeault went on to discuss the transition to ubiquitous learning. This era of learning sees students who learn wherever they are, mediated by computers instead of the teacher. Then he returned to musical influence and how ubiquitous learning can and will impact the music classroom.
Online lifelong-learning need not exist for every instrument. It may be more important that educators are attentive to new relationships and learning cultures made more probable via online learning communities, and that they consider how they can be incorporated into the classroom (13 in draft).
This notion of ensemble can be extended along the lines suggested by ubiquitous learning: ensembles can be anytime, anywhere, synchronous or asynchronous, and are not limited by geography or grade level. They can organize virtually but come together to play physically, or create a performance completely mediated by the Internet and studio techniques, as does, for instance, Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir. (14 in draft)
Thibeault concluded with a discussion on likely limits and possible problems of utilizing technology fully. These included race and identity, proprietary and commercial technologies, and intellectual property concerns. He concluded:
What is needed is for the music education profession to begin to take more seriously the need to go beyond performance, to reconstitute ensembles around ubiquitous opportunities, and to adjust practices to better connect with more generous conceptions of music, musician, and audience. (25 in draft)
Plan for Implementation
My participants were four high school students in a pre-existing string chamber group. “Iris,” “Charites,” “Athena,” and “Nereus” were all in Chamber Orchestra together (along with approximately 20 other students) but were all also involved in other chamber groups. Chamber Orchestra at this school was formed through audition and by decision of the teacher. These four students had been making music together in Chamber Orchestra since the beginning of the school year, approximately seven months. They ranged from sophomore to senior. They lived and attended high school near a large northeastern university. Many students in the high school choose to attend the university upon graduation, and many music students take lessons with the faculty at the School of Music. The students were identified by their location, willingness, and availability. I specifically sought out students participating in a chamber group because I wanted students who knew each other, who were comfortable making music together, who were content working in small groups (most online collaboration is designed for small groups), and who had fairly advanced musical skill and independence.
This was an interpretive, descriptive, qualitative study. It involved video-recorded interviews, journals, and reflections. It began with a pre-study group interview and instruction session (after consent/assent forms were signed). Each chamber group member expressed initial thoughts about the study and what they thought of “online music collaboration” as well as asked questions about the details of the project. The students were given written instructions (for later reference) that included: try to collaborate at least twice a week online; “collaboration” means at least two members of the group are working together; each time you collaborate each individual should fill out a journal form – fill out the “what did you think” section with enough detail so that you can recall the environment in later discussions.
During the pre-study interview, the students received two lists of online environments to try. One list offered synchronous environments like Google Hangout, Skype, and Soundjack. The other list offered asynchronous environments like Facebook, Noteflight, Spotify, and YouTube. The students were asked to try at least two environments from each list by the end of the project but they were also encouraged to find new environments on their own.
After the first two weeks, there was a mid-study interview with the chamber group, in which students discussed their thoughts on the websites they had experienced so far. The post-study interview, at the end of the four weeks, was a final recorded interview with each individual. This gave individuals a chance to share their personal thoughts about the online experiences and their thoughts about collaborating with this specific group.
Ideally the students were to engage in online musical collaboration at least twice a week, for a minimum of eight online sessions throughout the course of the study. “Collaboration” was defined as a minimum of two students interacting in a musical experience online. In addition, the students were given online access to a simple journal form. Each time two or more of the students from the group met online and collaborated musically they each completed a journal entry on their own. They completed a journal entry for each environment used. The form asked for: what website did you use? How long did you spend on the website? Who from your group was present? Where were you physically (library, school, home)? And what did you think of the website (with space to write as much or as little as they wanted)? I accessed these journals before the interviews to prepare follow-up questions to learn more about the students’ experiences with the websites.
For the pre-study interview the planned questions included: have you ever used an online environment to collaborate musically before? If so, what did you think of it and what environments did you use? If not, why not? Were you ever given the option? Are you interested in online musical collaboration?
Before the study began all four students already used Facebook with their small ensemble(s) to coordinate rehearsal times and/or share links to music. In fact Iris suggested, at the meeting, that the group create a Facebook page to coordinate their online musical collaboration for this project. Three of the four already used Spotify to share music with their small ensemble(s). These students have already used Google Docs, Prezi, Soundcloud, and YouTube in music classes and non-music classes but not all for collaboration.
For the mid-study interview the initial questions included: what environments do you remember using so far? Why were they memorable? (And more specific questions about the environments they mentioned in their journals.) For the next two weeks do you think you will use some of the same environments again or will you try new things? Why?
Unfortunately the students had not made much time for musical collaboration between our interviews. Athena was not able to attend the second interview so she answered a few extra questions at the final interview. Iris and Charites were the only two to fill out journal forms in the entire two weeks and they only spoke of Spotify and Facebook. Granted, we had good discussion at our meeting about Spotify because they were missing some of the collaborative options and I was able to assist with that. The second meeting also revealed a bit of trepidation toward synchronous collaboration. Iris in particular spoke of bad experiences with lag time and delays.
I think [live] music is really hard to do online. I know Skype always has some lag. Pretty much everything has lag. It’s also not as good at sound quality and you can’t really, like, if you’re in an ensemble you can’t look around and see what the other person’s doing so it’s hard to cue I guess.
I encouraged them to try some of the suggested synchronous websites because some are brand new and some are improved so it is possible the experience would be better if tried again. I also gathered their email addresses at this interview so that I could gently remind them about the project through the weeks.
The post-study interview guiding questions included: what environments do you remember using? Why were they memorable? (And more specific questions about the environments they mentioned in their journals.) Are there any environments you wanted to try but didn’t? Are there environments you wish existed but don’t seem to? Do you have any other thoughts or observations about your online musical collaborative experience? What, if any, of these websites would you suggest teachers use with their students?
The third interview was actually three weeks after the second (instead of two weeks) because of scheduling conflicts. Through the extra time, Charites was diligent in filling out journal forms and sharing opinions. She continued to utilize Facebook and Spotify often. She tried Chromatik (for organizing/saving/downloading sheet music) but did not find it friendly. Similarly she tried Soundjack (audio connector between collaborators that attempts to eliminate lag time) but the software did not think her microphone was good enough and would not let her proceed. Charites and Iris both filled out journal forms regarding their attempt to rehearse online. They tried Skype and Charites and Nereus tried Google Hangout. This quote from Charites sums up all their opinions:
Well, a lot of times I feel like it’s just easier to meet face-to-face and not have to worry about technology and lag time and stuff like that.
All three students felt the Skype/Google Hangout rehearsals were unsuccessful and indicated they would rather rehearse in person. Charites and Iris both mentioned the possibility of using online rehearsals to collaborate with other people playing the same solo repertoire as them. The chance to perform back and forth for one another, but not necessarily play at the same time, was seen as beneficial. Nereus and Athena never submitted a journal form but were willing to share opinions during the interviews.
Asking the students how teachers could use these technologies provided interesting responses. They see great potential in primarily the asynchronous websites. Some of their suggestions were for teachers to create a playlist to share with the class or assign YouTube videos to watch to copy bowings and “musical stuff.” Athena and Nereus both mentioned using video conferencing (Skype, Google Hangout) to enhance music theory classes. They both saw potential for that form of collaboration to help in traditional academic settings but not in rehearsal settings.
Overall, these four students used these websites and offered these thoughts (in order of popularity):
Facebook: mentioned by every student in every interview, used constantly to schedule rehearsals and be in touch
Spotify: mentioned by every student in every interview, used regularly to share playlists of relevant music
YouTube: mentioned often, used to share musical ideas specifically bowings
Skype: used by two students during this project, lag time made rehearsing impossible
Google Hangout: used by two students during this project, lag time made rehearsing impossible
Chrome Jam: used by two students during this project, seen as a fun toy but not a meaningful music-making experience
Chromatik: used by one student during this project, only useful if you are willing to pay and/or have easy access to a scanner (to scan in personal sheet music)
Soundjack: used by one student during this project, intimidating instructions and apparently demands a very good quality microphone
Google Drive/Docs: used by one student before this project to share musical links with friends
Soundcloud: used by one student before this project to collect music for use in an English project
Prezi: used by one student before this project to prepare a history presentation
Dropbox: used by one student before this project but he did not find it very useful
It is frustrating to not have more compelling data to report but I am grateful for what these busy high school students were able to do and share. It was clear that they enjoyed asynchronous forms of online musical collaboration e.g. responding to posts on Facebook and sharing playlists on Spotify. These were websites they were comfortable with and used in their everyday life, both musical and non-musical. The students were not as comfortable exploring unfamiliar websites. I was hopeful they might be excited by a list of “recommended sites” and be motivated discover new opportunities on their own. Instead they preferred to stay with what was familiar. Similarly, bad experiences with synchronous websites/music making frightened them away from this medium and they had little desire to give it a second chance. They preferred to use what they knew was reliable.
Though these data were limited, they confirmed an important fact. High school students are already using Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube to enhance their musical experiences. These services are free and many students already use them so teachers should be using them as well. I recognize that many districts have strict policies on social media but if there is an approved method of creating a Facebook page for a group (not an individual) and connecting with students that way it would be advantageous to pursue. And being able to share examples of all the music you want your students listening to, on Spotify or YouTube, is a no-brainer! Teachers should be taking advantage of these services.
Another important finding is if, like me, you are interested in having your students collaborate musically online, be prepared to lead them through the process. If I were to do this project again I would decide on several websites I wanted the students to try and arrange a time and space that I could meet with the students and guide the experience. With better guidance through some of the synchronous websites I think the students might have enjoyed some of these sites and found them useful for musical collaboration, if they only understood the sites a bit better.
Iris gave a quote in her final interview that is indicative of these students’ current opinions:
Um, so, I guess I’m wondering if music collaboration online at the same time is that great of an idea? It might just be better, um, for people to use it to, like, kind of plan outside of school. But I feel like if you’re actually playing music it should be in person.
I understand their frustrations with the online rehearsal aspect and agree that may not be the best use of online collaboration. I am impressed by their dedication to music and their attachment to the “feel” of a rehearsal. They are right in line with Thibeault’s thoughts,
Online lifelong-learning need not exist for every instrument. It may be more important that educators are attentive to new relationships and learning cultures made more probable via online learning communities, and that they consider how they can be incorporated into the classroom (13 in draft, 2012).
Every instrument does not need to be able to rehearse online. But there are truly great opportunities for learning through online musical collaboration (not necessarily rehearsal). Advances in technology will make this prospect even more feasible over time. But even today I see ways for teachers to incorporate online musical collaboration into their students’ lives and encourage music-making experiences outside the classroom.
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