Students make music at home, but together at Pickering College

·4 min read

Music has brought people together for millennia, but when present health restrictions discourage public singing and the playing of brass and wind instruments, what can be done?

Technology has come up with some answers and faculty and students at Newmarket’s Pickering College have embraced the possibilities as they continue to make beautiful music together – but safely apart.

When the school year resumed this past fall, Pickering College (PC) adapted their music programs to in-class lessons on music theory and history, along with rhythm-based activities, tasking students to practice their instruments and voice at home and submit videos for further instruction.

As a result, students and teachers alike are flexing new creative muscles.

“The original lockdown was the initial spark that made us start to think about how to creatively get a music program online, which has been one of the most challenged departments,” says teacher Patrice Barbanchon. “In society right now, especially in a pandemic, music is the first to go, it seems, and will likely be the last to come back. Unfortunately, with the data that is out there in terms of the virus spreading, we had to quickly come up with something to make the program meaningful.

“We [teachers] got together and started considering what we could do in a quick amount of time and one of the things we wanted to do was just maintain a level of playing online, which is difficult to do as well given the lack of technology in being able to play together at the same time. We’re all Zooming all the time and doing virtual meetings and things. If someone has their microphones on, it is chaos and very difficult to maintain a conversation or even to play music. You can’t have synchronous rehearsals on these platforms.”

The solution was to have synchronous rehearsals with everyone turning their microphones off. Teachers conduct and direct repertoire, music theory, exercises, and other components of the curriculum, with the teachers’ audio coming through the students’ system at home.

“It keeps everyone together and everyone is able to participate in that way,” he says. “There are some great online theory programs that we use, but the bottom line is the playing aspect of music is what really draws interest in the subject – playing together – and that is one aspect that is not there. Through these types of synchronous rehearsals, we’re at least rehearsing and playing together.”

To underscore the success of the program, Pickering College didn’t put their annual holiday concert on ice until they can all play together in person. Instead, they pooled their talents – whether vocal, instrumental or technological – to bring everyone’s individual performances together for a video performance, featuring students playing in harmony from the safety of their own homes.

“Even though this is a very different school year, our instrumental music program has continued from Grade 4 and beyond where a lot of schools have had to discontinue it,” says PC’s communications manager Naomi Cote. “For a lot of schools it has not been possible because they share instruments whereas out students lease theirs for the year.”

Braedon Joanisse, a Grade 11 student, is, along with his saxophone, featured in the holiday concert.

He tells The Auroran that playing his instrument on mute as his fellow students did the same was challenging at first, but has helped them feel a sense of new normal.

“When we first started doing online music back in March in the first lockdown, we didn’t actually play our instruments all that much,” he says. “Now that we’re actually doing rehearsals online, it was a little bit confusing at first [and] I tend to be less confident when I am playing because I feel I am going to mess up, even though no one can hear me. Now, I have gotten more used it, it is getting a bit better, but it was definitely a challenge.”

Mr. Barbanchon agrees he is “hugely missing” live collaboration but the present circumstances have brought out some positives that might stand the test of time.

“The digital music thing will stick around,” he says. “I think there is a lot of value in that, especially given the interest in students and society right now, and given Spotify, Apple Music and all the digital platforms where students are able to upload even their own singles. There are a lot of really cool things you can do there and I think that is something that will stick.”

To view the Pickering College Christmas Concert, visit youtu.be/pZmS9IluMQg.

Brock Weir, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Auroran