I am excited to introduce the author of this guest post, Jennifer Bowman. She is a composer and piano teacher who organized a fully-online piano workshop with composer Christopher Norton. Please enjoy Jennifer’s article on how she arranged this highly successful online event for her piano studio in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Online Workshop with Christopher Norton
During the spring when COVID-19 hit and I was swiftly thrust into teaching online, my main focus was to keep the students in lessons for the rest of the school year. I was frantically honing my ZOOM skills and learning music tech skills as fast as possible.
Luckily, our end of the year theme was “hits,” which in my studio means Für Elise, Clair de lune, that sort of thing. So, that worked well for our May Zoom recital because the audience was familiar with the music, and we ended the school year in as positive a way possible.
Summer moved along briskly. Every week I am thinking that the fall is going to be better than the spring, we can do recitals, competitions and the like. But as the cases grew nationwide, I came to the realization that the fall was not going to bounce back to normal.
I started brainstorming ways to keep students engaged with a clear goal, as my students usually participate in both master lessons and a city-wide recital in late October.
I had already decided that the fall focus was going to be really digging into rhythm, getting the students more comfortable with subdivisions, playing or clapping along with tracks, etc., because this is an area that doesn’t suffer as much with online lessons.
When I began choosing the repertoire for the fall, after a little while I noticed that in all of my students’ piles are pieces by Christopher Norton. I have taught his music for years and always enjoyed the sense of creativity and exploration, as well as sound pedagogical principles.
So, I thought, “Why not just reach out to him and see if he would be interested in an online workshop?” I had attended a workshop he had done in the past on improvisation and it was so great, I thought it’s worth a try!
I was able to easily find and contact Christopher on Facebook. He agreed to the master workshop, and we discussed all of the details (format, timing, business).
When the students came for their first lessons at the beginning of September, they (and the parents!) were so happy to have a real event for which to prepare. Being able to play for the composer himself gave the workshop more authenticity somehow than another online recital.
We got to work preparing. Luckily, Christopher has done a great job making lots of information available on his various platforms, and my students were able to watch videos of him both playing the pieces and talking about them.
I think having access to these tools made things a little less intimidating because then they knew what he looked and sounded like for the workshop.
I will also mention that Christopher has been a pioneer in bringing music tech into teaching studios. Therefore, several of the pieces from “Connections” have MIDI tracks available which means if you as a teacher are comfortable with programs like GarageBand, LogicProX or ProTools, you can import the MIDI files and adjust the tempo so the students can get used to playing with the background tracks from the absolute beginning.
This was very fun for the kids because they were able to get used to playing with background tracks even as they were slowly learning the notes.
To prepare for the big day, students did about 5 weeks of lessons and then we had a Zoom practice run-through for them to make sure their camera and sound worked, as well as to get a chance to play in front of an audience. Earlier in the week, I had communicated with Christopher as which pieces were going to be played.
The event lasted two hours on a Saturday morning, and the 14 participants were able to invite their extended families. Even my own parents were able to attend on Zoom! We had the usual online experiences of some sound not being loud enough, or people unmuting and talking about their coffee, but that just kept the mood light.
The workshop itself was a huge success!
Besides being prepared with an online slide show with information about each piece, Christopher had two cameras set up from his end so he could both talk and demonstrate.
Some students used music, some played by memory, some used backing tracks, some didn’t, some played at tempo, some were slower. Regardless of the level of preparation, Christopher was able to quickly give the students positive feedback, chose a few things he thought could be improved, and had each student try them.
He was very respectful of my role as a teacher and reinforced many of the concepts I am working on, as well as brought up new ideas. Because he did not take the same approach with each student, and rather mixed it up, the two hours flew by.
To keep the students engaged when other kids were playing, I had them each fill out a “positive comment” sheet for their fellow students.They had to write one thing they thought was good about their fellow student’s performances and then one thing that Christopher Norton liked about the performance.
It was so fantastic the next week to see their faces light up as I read the comments to them. It was also great to have them write down concepts from all of the performances that I will now reinforce in their own playing.
In closing I would like to say that this has been a difficult year for all of us but many positive things have happened out of it. I would have never had the courage to reach out to a top-level living composer and ask them to do a studio event pre-COVID.
My students were able to do something meaningful on many levels—play for a renowned composer, really learn how to use the backing tracks, solidify their presentation on an online platform.
I am grateful for this new “Connection” and hope to collaborate with a few local piano stores, as well as my own local chapter of MTNA to bring Christopher and his wife Wendy (who is also a very gifted composer) to the Pacific Northwest once we can all travel and interact safely.
How have you adjusted your studio events as a result of the pandemic? How did it go? What are your takeaways from the event? Leave a comment below!