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Teaching music over Zoom is hard, but Drexel app makes it easier for Philly high school students

Music teachers realized It is hard enough to guide one musician over Zoom. When multiple people try to perform in unison, with delay upon delay across every connection, it is worthless.

Jay Fluellen, music teacher at Northeast High School, goes through singing warmups with his his choir class from his home in Elkins Park, along with co-teacher Patricia Betcher, using Zoom.
Jay Fluellen, music teacher at Northeast High School, goes through singing warmups with his his choir class from his home in Elkins Park, along with co-teacher Patricia Betcher, using Zoom.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Jay Fluellen moved his hands in a graceful, downward sweep as Breyanna Hernandez, a senior in the Northeast High School choir, began to sing:

She sounded great, as far as Fluellen could tell. But as with so many interactions during the pandemic, teacher and student were miles apart, connected through Zoom. The audio quality was limited by the speaker in Fluellen’s laptop. And because of the time lag on the connection, Hernandez was seeing his hand movements a split-second after each beat, as were her classmates watching from their homes. Not ideal for conducting music.

As Fluellen and other music teachers realized from the start of the first shutdown in March, remote learning is a particular challenge for their field — perhaps as much as in science classes deprived of lab equipment. It is hard enough to guide one musician using video conferencing software. When multiple people try to perform in unison, with delay upon slight delay across every broadband connection, it is worthless.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia harp society teaches students via Zoom in pandemic

Still, Fluellen and colleague Patricia Betcher are making it work at the Philadelphia high school, adapting their teaching styles in various ways to engage students who are trapped in front of a screen for hours every day. And now, with the help of an app created by a Drexel University computer engineering professor, they are putting together a joint virtual performance with counterparts at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

“There’s all of this maneuvering around not being able to do real-time music-making,” said Fluellen, an accomplished composer who has taught in city schools for 16 years. “It’s crazy, out-of-the-box things that we’re just trying.”

As students near the midpoint of a second school year marred by COVID-19, educators say the need for creative approaches remains crucial, with children at risk of falling behind academically and in terms of their mental health. The challenge can be particularly hard in a big-city school district, where funds for innovation are scarce and students with lower incomes may have less access to digital devices and high-speed connections.

One answer, Betcher and Fluellen say, is to forge partnerships with others.

That is the approach behind the project with Springside Chestnut Hill, which in turn enlisted a third partner: an acclaimed, Philadelphia-based professional choir called the Crossing.

Ellen Fishman, who teaches video and music production at SCH, asked Donald Nally, the choir’s conductor, whether its members would be willing to record high-quality “guide tracks” to help the students at her school and Northeast High learn a series of pieces.

That would allow the high schoolers to practice on their own, singing along with the recorded voices of the professional choir members while watching their screens to see video of Nally conducting.

The Crossing said yes, so Fishman arranged an all-day recording session for a dozen of its members. To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, they came in four at a time — soprano, alto, tenor, bass — spaced 30 feet apart in a large room at her school. (If a person is infected, singing spreads virus particles much farther through the air than normal speech does.)

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An engineer wired up the choir members so each could hear the other through headphones as they watched Nally conduct. The resulting tracks are now in the hands of the high schoolers, who are using them to practice at home, Fishman said.

“For our students to have that guide of this very high level of singing is amazing,” she said.

More than 40,000 downloads

The next step requires the help of yet another partner, Drexel’s Youngmoo Kim.

In addition to being a computer scientist, Kim is a trained vocalist who sings with an area a cappella group called the Tonics. Like so many other musicians, he started in the spring to look for ways that he and his fellow singers could collaborate in socially distanced fashion.

He found plenty of software for playing videos and plenty for recording them — but none that could accomplish both feats at once.

That meant musicians typically had to watch a conductor or accompanist on one device, listening on headphones while recording their own track on a different device. It was cumbersome, at best, said Kim, director of Drexel’s multidisciplinary Expressive and Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center.

“I thought I should be able to watch a video while recording a video,” he said. “So I combined those functionalities into one app.”

The result is Virtual Chorister, which has been downloaded more than 40,000 times for iPhones and iPads since Kim published it in late August. He recently created a version for Android devices and also continues to add new features. One allows musicians to stream videos straight from YouTube as they sing or play in unison. Another, added this month, gives iPad users the option of viewing the sheet music alongside the reference video.

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“It’s not a miracle,” he said.

Fluellen, the music teacher at Northeast, disagrees.

“Youngmoo is a genius,” he said. “There’s no other word for it.”

Get the blood moving

The combination of simultaneous playback and recording in one app makes it accessible to those who own just one device, Kim said. To increase access even further, he decided to make the app available for free, though donations are welcome.

The 70 students at Northeast High and Springside Chestnut Hill now have downloaded the app and are getting to work, starting to record their parts while listening to the tracks from the Crossing as a guide. Once the students record their own tracks, an engineer will mix them together into one seamless whole.

The first piece they are tackling is “The Storm Is Passing Over,” a gospel classic.

“It’s so perfect for our times,” Fishman said.

Along with making use of technology, teachers at the two high schools are innovating in low-tech ways, as well.

» READ MORE: How teachers are using technology to keep in touch with students during coronavirus school closures

Given the challenge of singing in unison through Zoom, the teachers at Northeast High have tried to find classroom exercises for which precise timing is less of an issue. One option is a call-and-response piece, in which a leader sings one musical phrase and others answer with a different one.

Another option is for students to sing one at a time, allowing classmates to join the teachers in evaluating their peers. With no live performances to prepare for, there is more class time to simply listen and learn, Betcher said.

“We can really give independent feedback,” she said.

Students also can sing along with each other during class, but only if they place themselves on mute.

And because so much of remote schooling involves sitting in front of a computer, Betcher and Fluellen insist that students be on their feet. There are exercises to improve breathing and relax the muscles, and lessons in how to hold one’s hands when conducting.

“We get the blood going,” Fluellen said.

It is not the same as being in a classroom. But as the forced separation of COVID-19 continues, these musicians are determined to keep the beat.