Online Learning: Often Solo

As an orchestra teacher, it is interesting to observe the variety of ways orchestra students learn. They learn in formal ways: lessons, small groups, rehearsals, and hopefully in informal ways, on their own, as well. In addition, there are many ways a student can learn to play a string orchestra instrument using online resources. A simple YouTube search returns thousands of videos with lessons on each string instrument. There are also websites like[1] that are designed to help a student on a specific instrument. Quite a few method books now feature an online companion as well. Essential Elements 2000[2], Sound Innovations[3], String Basics[4], and String Explorer[5] are just a few of the method books that invite students to participate in online communities and use online resources to improve their playing.

Most of these resources are interesting and encourage students to practice and learn while in an informal setting, but they are also fairly commonplace. Discussion boards, pre-recorded videos, and drill and practice games are antiquated technologies. These activities are primarily designed for students to participate individually. Online collaborative learning and music making is more contemporary. When possible, collaborating online in real-time is showing great musical benefits. 

Online Collaboration: Synchronous

There are recording studios and pit orchestras who are perfecting the art of real-time synchronous collaboration from a distance. For example, the musicians for “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” were split between two rooms in the basement of the Foxwoods Theater, NY. One of the rooms had to watch the conductor on small screens attached to their music stands. (Healy, 2012) There is debate about the quality of these types of performances but the collaboration between musicians and actors/singers in these stories is successful. However, real-time synchronous music making is not a current reality for the general population.

Online Collaboration: Asynchronous

Musicians who are interested in real-time collaborative music making, and do not have money to spend on Broadway-budget technology, will often turn to commonly available videoconferencing technologies. These services provide users the ability to both see and hear each other with the help of computers and the Internet. Many people are familiar with mainstream videoconferencing services like Skype[6], FaceTime[7], Google+Hangouts[8], or GoToMeeting[9]. Unfortunately for musicians desiring synchronization, many users of these services will experience lag time.

Latency is the proper name for the time it takes a packet of information to be sent from the sender to the receiver over a network. Lag is what it is generally called and more specifically when it is noticeable. If the latency is low, you don’t notice any lag, the longer it takes a packet to cross the network, the more lag you have. (Howland, 1999)

Howland’s descriptions of latency and what causes it are thorough and understandable, but too lengthy to relay here. This author accepts that the general public is still some time away from experiencing real-time synchronous collaboration and will now discuss other possibilities for online music making. Online collaboration and even real-time collaboration can still happen and be incredibly effective in an asynchronous manner. The following will outline just a few of the notable options currently available for online string instrument collaboration.

YouTube Symphony

The second YouTube Symphony was created in 2011. Musicians from all over the world uploaded audition videos to YouTube and were judged and voted on by YouTube viewers. The 101 winners, from 33 countries, were invited to Sydney, Australia to perform a live concert together after two days of rehearsal. This concert was infused with video clips of auditions and other technological displays and was streamed live on YouTube with 33 million streams worldwide. There were also musicians performing electronic instruments as part of the Symphony. (“YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011,” n.d.)

In terms of online collaboration, this event begins in an online community of thousands of people. And although the musicians do meet face-to-face instead of through videoconference, the spirit of the entire event is the weaving of music and technology. Real-time musical collaboration began online and culminated with an online concert. Perhaps in the future the event will utilize online collaboration even more with online discussion, rehearsal, and listening sessions before the face-to-face rehearsals begin.

Guests in Rehearsal

Videoconferencing gives teachers the opportunity to invite guests into their rehearsal or classroom with little effort. This can be very beneficial to both parties. Students at Pioneer High School in Michigan were able to work on a world premiere piece, perform it for the composer through Skype, and receive real-time feedback before the concert. And the composer was able to hear his piece in progress without having to travel. (Glawe, 2010) Similarly, students in Ohio were able to work with guest artists, like jazz violinist Christian Howes, to learn new techniques. These students might never have met Howes if it wasn’t for the convenience of Skype. And to demonstrate the involvement of even more students, this Ohio orchestra partnered with an orchestra across the country to play for one another over Skype and offer feedback. All students in both classes were involved and collaborating. (Laux, 2012)

The students in both of these schools experienced real-time online collaborative learning. These opportunities have potential to greatly enhance the education of music students and as technology expands, so will the possibilities.


Similar to the group rehearsals mentioned above, it is also becoming common for private teachers to videoconference with students. This can begin with young students who may not have a teacher close by or who may have to move away and do not want to change teachers. (“SKYPE viola lessons,” 2010) At the collegiate level, one of the most traditional conservatories in the country, the Cleveland Institute of Music, offers seminars and master classes via high quality videoconferencing equipment. (Chakerian, 2006 & Howe, 2012) Many adults are interested in taking lessons online as well. Their reasons range from not wanting to commute to lessons, to playing a rare instrument that is not taught locally (bagpipes). (Louis, 2012) All of these real-time online collaborations are likely to grow in popularity as people become more familiar with the technology.

Supporting Research: Why These Opportunities Matter

There are a plethora of online collaborative options available and surely more to come. Some teachers will be excited for these opportunities and some teachers will be hesitant to try new things. Research indicates that these opportunities are not only good and exciting, but they are necessary.

Collins and Halverson (2009) show that education is changing in many ways, often dictated by society. Society is shifting from a focus on communities of place to communities of interest. Students who are interested in music do not think that there have to be musical opportunities in their place, their local community. These students believe that they can seek out musical communities online because they can seek out so many other communities online. If these online collaborative experiences are not encouraged, students who have no place to play music may be needlessly lost.

The notion of students seeking out communities of interest is in direct correlation with how students currently take control of their education, discussed again by Collins and Halverson (2009). Modern students are more likely to take education into their own hands and pursue what they really want to learn – whether it is in a classroom or not. The ability to customize has become engrained in children. Websites “learn” preferences and store them, customers download only the music they actually want, and consumers can always shop at their preferred time of day at “Enthusiasts believe that the ultimate effect of customization technologies will be to break the lockstep of school curricula” (Collins & Halverson, 2009, p. 17). If the enthusiasts are right and the lockstep is broken, educators need to be prepared to offer students the kind of curricula and experiences that they see as valuable and that they want to pursue. Students like using technology to learn. They feel it gives them authority over their learning as opposed to yielding to the teacher’s authority (Baytak, Tarman, & Ayas, 2011). They also enjoy working collaboratively in online music projects. (Finney & Burnard, 2007) They enjoy being part of communities of interest. If, as Collins and Halverson indicate, the customization of education is coming, educators must prepare to offer online collaboration in music, in the many forms it presents itself, so that students can be part of the custom community they desire.

Thibeault (in press) sums up this technological situation concisely. He does not believe that the notion of an ensemble, as a collaborative creative work, needs to be abandoned; the notion just needs to be expressed in a new way.

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… (p. 14)

And lastly, Thibeault recognizes the changes occurring in society and that it is imperative for music educators to change as well, or risk loosing students who deserve excellent musical opportunities.

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. (p. 25)

As the music education profession looks for ubiquitous learning opportunities, they must recognize that collaboration is key in online music making. It is no longer enough for students to practice solo with online accompaniment tracks or play drill games to memorize key signatures. If working online, students must be involved in meaningful online collaborative communities to thrive musically.


Works Cited

Baytak, A., Tarman, B., & Ayas, C. (2011). Experiencing technology integration in education: children’s perceptions. International Electronic Journal of Elementary Education, 3(2), 139-151.

Chakerian, P. (2006, October). Cleveland Institute of Music: On the Cutting Edge with Distance Learning and Expansion. Cool Cleveland ArtsTech. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from

Collins, A., & Halverson, R. (2009). Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

Finney, J., & Burnard, P. (Eds.). (2007). Music Education with Digital Technology. New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Glawe, J. (2010, February 5). Concert Orchestra’s Skype Rehearsal. Blog from the Podium. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from

Healy, P. (2012, March 23). Moving Orchestras Out of Sight, Maybe Even Out of the Theater. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Howe, G. (2012). Cleveland Institute of Music: Distance Learning. Retrieved from

Howland, G. (1999, September 14). What is Lag? Retrieved April 15, 2012, from

Laux, C. (2012, March 26). Clinics at a Distance. String Education Tech Blog. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from

Louis, C. S. (2012, January 10). Music Lessons on Webcams Grow in Popularity. The New York Times. Retrieved from

SKYPE viola lessons. (2010, April 3).Suzuki Association of the Americas. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from

Thibeault, M. (in press). Ubiquitous Music Learning in a Postperformance World. NSSE Yearbook: The Place of Music in the 21st Century: A Global View.

YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2011. (n.d.).YouTube. Retrieved March 15, 2012, from