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UNC's music department gets creative to teach students remotely

DTH Photo Illustration. Musicians at UNC have moved to virtual learning and virtual ensembles amid the pandemic.

Teaching music is generally a hands-on experience — but the Department of Music is experimenting with new methods and working to keep teaching students safely amid the pandemic. 

The University delayed the start of in-person undergraduate classes until Feb. 8 as COVID-19 cases rose in North Carolina, and most music classes this semester are set to be fully remote. 

After moving online last spring due to COVID-19, the department will continue its effort to keep faculty and students safe during this spring semester. While Department Chairperson David Garcia recognizes this decision might be disheartening for some students, he sees it as an opportunity to advance music education.

“I’m amazed at the level of quality and innovation in students’ work,” Garcia said. “I look forward to more exciting performances and projects being shared online throughout this coming semester.”

To this end, the department has introduced various forms of new technology. One notable innovation was an audio/video pod system with no latency, engineered by production manager Jesse Moorefield and multimedia technician Jay Harper. 

Garcia said the system provides a safe way for masked and unmasked musicians to record live performances together. For example, an unmasked woodwind player in one room would be able to record live and synchronously with a percussion or strings player in another room. 

“While we will not host live audiences for performances, our music ensembles will perform throughout the semester by either live streaming or airing pre-recorded performances from the department on our YouTube channel,” Garcia said. “In addition, we are considering the possibility of some ensembles performing live outdoors on campus.”

Individually, faculty members have also been working hard to make classes more accessible for online learners. For professor Jocelyn Neal, the process involved prioritizing the safety of faculty, staff and students, while also ensuring students can grow as musicians — even on Zoom. 

“I feel good about taking on the challenge to redesign my classes for remote learning this spring, implementing new technologies and new course content and working on strategies so the students and I really get to know each other and fully master our learning objectives for the semester,” Neal said. 

While most music classes will be online, there are safety guidelines for students and faculty to follow for in-person meetings. The guidelines can be found on the music department’s website and include precautions such as wearing masks, social distancing of six feet and hand sanitizing.  

Matthew Budidharma, a junior from Charlotte majoring in chemistry and minoring in music, said access to the department’s resources is crucial.     

“We all rely on going there to practice, because for the most part it’s kind of hard to really play music at our dorms or at our own apartments and such,” Budidharma said.

For Budidharma, taking music lessons was a great change of pace from his course load as a chemistry major. However, switching to online classes in the middle of last spring presented the limitations of online learning for a percussionist like himself. 

“I was working on learning an instrument called the vibraphone, and of course I had to rely on the University to use that,” Budidharma said. “I had to completely change what our lessons were going to be about.”

In these uncertain times, students like Budidharma are especially reliant on music as a creative outlet. 

“I’m used to going to Kenan Music Building to destress,” Budidharma said.  “It’s a nice way to just separate yourself from other academics.”

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