Online Classes Are Having People Hit the Wrong Note

Flute player and recent Oregon State Alumni Stephanie Hanson playing the flute through her Oregon State Band mask in front of Bexell Hall. To reduce the likeliness of music students spreading COVID, Oregon State music students use special masks that allow them to play and filter the air they breathe.

If you were a band kid, maybe you remember sitting in class and blowing into your instrument while watching the conductor direct the band. 

Over the past year, that’s been replaced with computer screens and a lagging internet connection. Music instructors and students have had to make a big transition and adjust to a virtual world which isn’t very rhythmic at times.

When the pandemic first hit, the methods of instruction had an impact as everything moved online and music classes experienced significant changes. Oregon State University’s Native American Flute instructor, Jan Looking Wolf Reibach, was able to prepare for these changes in teaching. He said he had maximized his use of Canvas and the technical functions of the eBook he wrote in his course. 


“Over the course of several years we worked to develop an eBook for the course that includes interactive hyperlinks, external hyperlinks and content formatted so it corresponds with the course curriculum which is based upon oral tradition, cultural diversity and musical self expression,” Reibach said. “The eBook is provided for free to our students.”

A cultural diversity baccalaureate core course, Native American Flute course has been successful remotely during the pandemic and the students are thriving, according to Reibach. 

There are challenges he has faced with his instruction though, such as meeting the high demand of course registration and a general fear of the unknown from the pandemic. The university was able to support Reibach through this process by providing tools like instructor trainings, policy guidance, and technical assistance.

“I have found that obtaining input from the students to develop class activities in remote modality can really help with the course,” Reibach said. 

Marin Monteith, a second-year student studying biochemistry and biophysics with a minor in chemistry and music performance, said they think music classes can be especially challenging in this online format. 

Monteith said small details when performing fly under the radar and are much harder to correct since instructors can’t really identify them in the first place. They also said there is a lot of trial and error when trying to source out problems, since they hide in camera angles and microphone blips.

“Playing an instrument, especially one like the cello, is a very physically involved activity,” Monteith said. “Posture makes perfect and sometimes every millimeter on the string or the minute finger positions of the bow hold can be the difference between shrieks and masterpieces.”

Stephanie Hanson, a soon to graduate student studying music, said music classes like aural skills, conducting, band, choir and orchestra are incredibly challenging to navigate online, especially for professors. Those difficulties include WiFi connection, lag in audio and how it now takes twice as long to learn new material. 

Hanson said those who are pursuing a music education degree have been able to learn firsthand how to teach over Zoom as well, which has given those students a taste of what it’s like to be their professors during this time, which isn’t easy.

“Another challenge is practice [and] class space,” Hanson said. “Many students live in apartments or dorms on campus. Thankfully, the Memorial Union has practice rooms available and there are tents available outside of Community Hall. No one wants to listen to their neighbor practicing piccolo or singing opera for hours every day!”

According to Reibach, the in-person connection to music is very important for his students. He said it is valuable to the learning environment for students to hear each other play with no latency or issues with synchronicity. Reibach has worked to replicate that experience successfully by using Canvas and high quality studio equipment.

Reibach learned some advantages to being remote, such as how students are able to make their own music and improvise. This process is easier for students in an isolated environment,

which allows them to experiment and express themselves. He said he plans to continue using Zoom for those class sessions where students have to practice techniques and create their own music.

According to Hanson, in-person classes for music students are vital to the degree program and education of students. She said it takes longer for professors to provide individual feedback which keeps students from learning efficiently. 

For band and choir to operate on Zoom, everyone needs to mute themselves while a track or piano is played by the professor. Professors can only hope what they are teaching is being absorbed by their students until it’s exam time or videos are due.

“Unfortunately, not everyone can sing, play their instruments or conduct all at the same time while unmuted,” Hanson said. “It takes longer to provide individual feedback, and students aren’t able to learn as effectively.”

During a normal school year, students of the Native American Flute class participate in a flute circle near the end of the term. This usually takes place at the Student Experience Center plaza on the Corvallis campus and includes students from all of Reibach’s sections. He said that his current students will receive a special invitation to join the first flute circle when it returns and that they are always welcome to stop by one of his classes.

“You really cannot replace a physical event with 600 plus students at the event, but what I’ve done with my students during the pandemic is I made sure that even in the subsequent terms I’ve stayed in touch with them. They will be invited to the first flute circle that we can have, hopefully spring of next year,” Reibach said.

Monteith said so much of the physicality is lost when not in person, as it’s infinitely harder to build a relationship with the instrument and the piece of music. In ensembles, they said there’s much more guidance playing with other musicians with timing, pitch, dynamics and the general feel of the piece. 

“When I sit in a room and play my cello or listen to my friends play their drums or pianos, you can literally feel the music and the vibrations,” Monteith said. “Online, you’re alone at sea.”

Although the nature of online music classes presents a struggle, Monteith said they have been trying to focus on the positives of it. They said they are grateful for being able to play music and improve their skills during the pandemic.

“I must also give immense credit to my instructor, Anne Ridlington, for making the online format an absolute pleasure; if anything can make or break an online class, it’s the instructor,” Monteith said. “I’ve been extremely fortunate in that regard. 

Even though the format is funky and a lot is lost in translation, my experience with OSU’s virtual music classes has been a very pleasant one and I’d recommend it to anyone. Music has been my solace in the pandemic and I can’t imagine not having that space throughout this last year.”