In tune with the times
19 Oct 2021
Walk into Professor John Winzenburg's conducting class and you'll quickly feel the energy in the room. It's the energy from Professor Winzenburg's enthusiasm for teaching and directing, from the student conductors' connection with the ensemble, from the group's excitement to sing together and their determination to sound as good as possible.
However, not too long ago, the class grappled with ways to capture that energy amidst an escalating pandemic.
Choirs and musicians around the world face a challenging situation as they try to continue performing without being able to get together. With an ambitious rethinking of choral activities and the curriculum of his conducting class, Professor Winzenburg has devised ways to keep students' learning experience intact, and he believes that some of the current innovations will leave a positive mark on post-COVID-19 music education. "What started as crisis management in teaching and learning actually became new opportunities and creative outlets for us," says the Associate Dean of Research of the Faculty of Arts and Professor of the Department of Music.
Changes, challenges and unexpected positives
The Department of Music maintains two orchestras as well as several choirs and ensembles for students to refine their skills and gain experience of performing. In view of the changes brought on by the pandemic, the instrumental ensembles and orchestras have adjusted to the new realities and held virtual concerts, and later performances for a live audience. The choirs, in the meantime, have faced some unique challenges.
"Choral music is all about the dynamic of people responding invisibly to each other and interacting through their body movements, breathing, tone production and facial expressions. When we moved to online learning in early 2020, the situation was extremely challenging for the choral ensembles and the conducting class," says Professor Winzenburg, who is also the music director of the Cantoría Hong Kong, an HKBU student music ensemble.
While normal choral practices were temporarily halted, it wasn’t long before Professor Winzenburg made use of technology to serve the students’ needs and his teaching mission. Instead of meeting in-person to sing in groups, the students received recordings, in which Professor Winzenburg sang the different parts of the piece or played the notes on a piano, so they could independently practice singing in tune. Professor Winzenburg and his colleagues also set up new discussion sessions where the students with the same vocal range could gather virtually and take turns to perform and offer critiques of each other.
"The idea was that the students could still rehearse together and improve while working remotely. They were also given regular assignments, such as recording videos of themselves singing at home, so we could review their work and tailor individualised coaching," says Professor Winzenburg. He also used other media and outlets like online surveys to encourage the students to think through some of the components of their coursework and projects, thus helping them feel engaged and building up their critical thinking skills.
Besides the increased attention on the students’ individual development, another unexpected positive was that student conductors had to learn to sing and conduct simultaneously without a choir or orchestra. "As a conductor, you have to internalise the music so your gestures and cues become a natural extension of your internal musical process. If you can sing the part and conduct it, you can more easily show the players as well," says Professor Winzenburg. "Some of the student conductors are not confident about their voices, so the shift to online and the mixed-mode classroom offered a chance for them to take this necessary step."
Rising to the occasion
In the spring of 2021, when it became clear that the choirs would not be able to perform in public, Professor Winzenburg and his fellow choral staff organised an internal concert featuring HKBU choral ensembles, as well as a Student Conducting Project, in which student conductors led the Cantoría Hong Kong. The performance was recorded in front of fellow choral students to an almost empty City Hall and segments of it will be released digitally. Not only did the spring concert motivate the students to train hard and maintain focus, but the Student Conducting Project also presented an invaluable opportunity for those in the ensemble who have completed conducting classes to take turns conducting and gain actual experience in a live setting.
From being a performer to taking on the role of a conductor, the students are able to acquire a new perspective and learn how to make leadership decisions that can influence the ensemble’s performance. "One of the important experiential aspects of learning for the conductors is having time to practice their gestures with the singers or players and see what the real responses are. I try to give the students more opportunities to get real feedback, whether it is podium time in front of the other students or individual online coaching with me," Professor Winzenburg says. Apart from giving students intensive training to prepare for the concert, he also pre-recorded his lecture content and systematised conducting preparation approaches to reserve class time for more experiential learning.
Enhancing the learning experience
As students return to campus in the new school year, safety measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing remain in place. To help students get used to singing in masks, Professor Winzenburg has devised smaller projects, such as recording sessions in the University's Academic Community Hall. The Department has also launched a one-year pilot programme, which combines different choirs into a Choral Union Choir to perform a larger choral-orchestral piece.
Another remarkable change in music education at HKBU is the revamping of the conducting curriculum in recent years. Previously designed to be two core courses for music majors, students now have the option of taking an additional credit-bearing Conducting III class. The class time for each of the courses has also been extended from two hours to three hours. The aim of expanding the class content and time is to give students extra practicum opportunities.
The student conductors also have the chance to conduct a newly formed Conducting Lab Choir. Professor Winzenburg says, "Conducting a big group of students is a huge confidence-builder that most undergraduate students in other institutions do not get. By the end of the semester, these student conductors will have obtained the general ability to lead any kind of music group, which is an essential skill to have if they want to pursue a career in music."
While singing and performing for a live audience is something that is difficult to recreate, Professor Winzenburg is pleased to see technology being used in new ways to provide creative solutions to the current challenges. "We had to make a lot of adjustments and explore new pedagogies in the COVID-19 era, but I can see that there are positive benefits from using new media technologies. I would like to make these innovations part of our ongoing activities to enhance the choral and student conducting experience," he says.