Jeremy Swider doesn’t believe in out-of-body travel. But when the music instructor worked with orchestra students in Grand Rapids this week, he was 175 miles away.
Swider is part of an experiment that brings professional musicians from Minnesota’s oldest music school — the nonprofit MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis — to classrooms in rural Minnesota through real-time video instruction. Think video conferencing, but with excellent audio and visual capacities on a 40-inch screen.
Launched in 2011 to help cash-strapped rural school districts boost their music programs, it’s grown from a pilot project in one school to 17 school districts and 1,500 students. And the numbers keep growing.
The program is one of the first of its kind in the nation, said MacPhail President Paul Babcock. While a handful of the nation’s premier music schools for advanced students have tapped the technology, it’s never been available to ordinary — and often lower income — students in small-town bands and orchestras.
With the holidays approaching, music directors across the state are getting guest teachers to help prepare for their December concerts.
“For me, it gives another perspective on how to teach [music] concepts,” said Dan Alto, director of instruction for the Itasca Orchestra and Strings Program, which was working with Swider this week on the big screen.
“It’s really nice to do something different,” added Rachel Hagen, a viola player at Grand Rapids High School who is part of his group. “You learn new techniques.”
The instruction, so far, has been free to participating schools and students, thanks to underwriting from the Minnesota State Arts Board’s Legacy funding, the National Endowment for the Arts and foundation grants.
That’s been an added bonus for teachers such as Pam Diem, school band director for several farm communities in western Minnesota that make up the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg School District. Tight budgets mean that Diem teaches music to children from knee high to high school, from marching band to jazz band.
“I have more than 250 students,” said Diem. “You’re stretched to the max. You’re giving lessons before school, after school, during lunch, during prep. This [project] is like having two of me.”
Diem taps MacPhail instructors to work individually with some students, with sections of the band, and with entire bands. She consults with them regularly.
“It’s like I have a department now,” she said. “And the students are really enthusiastic.”
Earlier this week, Swider walked into one of the instruction rooms at MacPhail, arranged his music stand and sheet music, took his violin out of its case, and positioned himself in front of the video screen that soon would reveal his Grand Rapids students. He checked that the camera was positioned correctly. At 4:40 p.m., the screen clicked on, revealing six strings students and Alto, their teacher, sitting around a large table in a school media room.
‘Barely touching down’
After practicing a piece by composer Edvard Grieg, Alto told Swider that the students were preforming Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” for their holiday concert. Could Swider work on that a bit?
The students then played the entire piece, and Swider said they were sounding good.
“But I think we could make it a little more mysterious at the beginning,” said Swider, demonstrating on his violin. The students followed his lead.
When the students moved to the next section of the piece, Swider had another suggestion: “These are fairies,” he reminded the students. “They fly above the ground. Your stroke has to be like that too, barely touching down.”
Similar scenes are being played out in cities such as Thief River Falls, Montevideo and Wilmar, as well as dozens of small farm towns in Minnesota.
Babcock admitted that MacPhail had some reservations before launching the project, which is part of its growing community outreach efforts.
“Can video conferencing be as effective as in-person instruction?” he asked. “By not being able to touch and adjust [students’ grips on their instruments], how would that work out? And what about the teacher not being able to simultaneously play with the students?”
The options weren’t ideal. MacPhail previously had partnerships in outstate Minnesota, but they were often time-consuming for teachers and costly, said Babcock. For example, a residency program in Thief River Falls required an instructor to spend a week there once a month, costing about $40,000 a year.
Teachers also had some concerns.
“Being from a little town in southern Minnesota, I was a little nervous about playing with the professionals in Minneapolis, said Nicole Boelter, music instructor at the Yellow Medicine East School District around Granite Falls. “But it’s been wonderful.”
‘A master class for me’
One of the challenges for Yellow Medicine East has been the sheer size of the district, about 30 miles from east to west, which means many students depend on buses, she said. Coming in early for music lessons, or staying after school, wasn’t an option for many. The MacPhail lessons are built into the school day, she said, which makes them accessible to all students.
Meanwhile, Boelter has enjoyed an unexpected perk. “I sit in the back and take notes,” she said. “It’s a master class for me. I have a binder full of notes that I hope will make me a stronger teacher.”
Bob Adney, who coordinates the project at MacPhail, said the project is designed “to be a resources for teachers, not a replacement.” Teachers set the agenda, ask for what they need.
This year, for example, MacPhail ramped up its offerings for choirs and string sections, in response to demand.
“We have a great tool for music,” said Babcock. “We want everyone to have access to it.”