Getting Comfortable In The Digital Rehearsal Room
Updated: Mar 26, 2020
Transitioning into digital rehearsals can be rough. In this post, I focus on what I have done to make the transition smoother with an emphasis on mindset and pedagogy, as well as a few practical hacks.
Setting the foundation
Accept and embrace being online
Being online is a completely different medium than meeting in person, and it for sure challenges the routines we've built up face-to-face. In stead of trying to make the online space what it is not, try to accept and embrace what being online entitles. This goes for both us facilitators as well as our singers; if we decide upon detesting the new environment and continuously comparing it to its' real life equivalent, we will probably be even more uncomfortable. Setting the tone in the space starts with how you approach the matter, so try to present it to your group as a possibility, rather than a restriction.
This also ties together with the contents of your rehearsals. In stead of taking what you've done in the real-life classroom to the virtual one, think of the unique possibilities that the virtual space offers. A practical example: dividing into groups, giving a task for the groups, setting them off & gathering the group together afterwards is logistically a hugely time-consuming task in flesh. In digital format, the transitions can be incredibly smooth, and the virtual classroom provides the facilitator with handy control f. ex. over when to end the group meetings and invite everyone to the main room.
Give everyone some time to adapt
When transitioning to new mediums, a common fear is to, on one hand, appear unprofessional whilst tackling the virtual space for the first time, and on the other, not being able to immediately serve the students "their moneys/times worth". To tackle these concerns, I would suggest to kindly and firmly acknowledge the situation to your students, without making too much of a fuzz about it. "We're facing a new challenge together as a group, and it'll probably take us all some time to adapt to this new environment. Let's give ourselves that time, perhaps a few meetings, for beta testing this new format. I am confident in my ability as a professional educator/musician/artist to find the ways and means for us to continue learning about music via this new medium."
Invite your singers to support the group together! Personally, I would not encourage lowering wages or offering out lessons for free due to this virtual environment; after all, adapting to it has required much more preparation than any lesson before, and the basic musical knowledge and expertese that the students are paying for remain the same.
Preparations on your own
Get to know the environment on your own
I found that a test call set up with colleagues was an efficient way of experimenting with different features in a safe peer-environment, although my partner/mom/friend would probably have been willing to help me out with that, have I not had the colleagues to rely on. Check out beginners guides on Youtube, solve your immediate questions by googling the right keywords - get yourself the elementary knowledge, so that you are comfortable enough to guide your students through the basics when they arrive in the rehearsal room!
Inviting your singers to the classroom for the first time
Send out clear instructions of the technical requirements and how-to's of joining the first virtual class. Groups of different ages and previous skills probably differ quite a lot in what needs to be explained and what doesn't. If I need to choose, I prefer to be overly clear than overly ambiguous in my instructions. The people in the group who experience most technical obstacles might not dare to ask "stupid questions", and taking them into account is therefore even more important. As long as the instructions are clear and the concise, the more tech-savvy singers can easily skim through them and pick out the relevant information for themselves to join. I have shared the basic instructions of joining Zoom that I've created for my students (both one-to-one and groups) as a Drive document - at the moment this is only available in Finnish. Feel free to copy-paste and adapt this template to suit your own needs!
With the students
The first things to teach your students
From this point forwards, I will proceed with the presumption that we're in the Zoom video conference environment. For the reasons behind that choice, check out my previous post on the gear I am using. Having that out of the way - in the beginning of the very first group class, I teach my students how to use the mute/unmute-function. I have found it immensely helpful to assign the responsibility of muting themselves each and everyone themselves. In a discussion setting, the talkback-function of the space bar is handy to teach out, meaning that when you're muted, holding space down will temporarily unmute you, similarily to a studio talkback button.
There is a function for the host to control single / all mutes and unmutes of a group, which is handy when someone forgets their unmute on with a lot of background noise, but I prefer in general to have one technical thing less to worry about while leading a session. If you opt for using the mute / unmute all, remember to select the option of "allow participants to unmute themselves" (see previous link); otherwise you could end up in a situation where the participants cannot notify you of possible technical difficulties by talking.
Enhancing the feeling of being connected
I also teach my students how to change between the different layouts of the conference view. The two main options are named "gallery view" and "speaker view". I usually prefer the former one, as it divides the screen up between as many participants as possible. Seeing each other on screen strengthens the feeling of sharing this moment together, and makes f. ex. singing together feel much less lonely. I have experimented with using the visuals in different ways, as asking for a thumbs up or down or a number from 1-5 as answers to specific questions. Also, in one of my groups, we accidentally started the habit of waving to each other when we introduce ourselves in the beginning. It might sound a little silly, but seeing an entire screen of friendly faces reacting with these gestures feels very nice and reinforces that feeling of connection.
Facilitating a (bigger) group discussion
If you want to discuss a topic in a group with more than a handful of participants, facilitation is the key to a pleasant experience. With the latency and challenges with internet connectionts, people otherwise easily talk simultaneously, and the interaction can feel strained and superficial. I've tried to keep this in mind with, on one hand, being super clear with whose turn it is to talk at any given time, and on the other, prompting questions that encourage slightly longer answers (full sentences rather than two words). Short yes-and-no's can be done by thumbs up or down, as explained above. Also: ask insightful follow-ups and encourage people to share their thoughts! This format is by no means a solve-it-all; it can also feel overly formal and as something that disencourages spontaneity and casual conversations. I hope to explore different ways of setting the tone for these online discussions in the very near future! More than anything else, I try to remind myself of being extra kind to everyone in my surroundings, including myself. Our job as the conductor / instructor / teacher is ultimately about connecting with our singers and supporting them, and this is a time when those aspects are more needed than ever before. There is little else that really matters. ♥️