Text: Johanna Lehtinen-Schnabel
“The online version is a kind of support for me because it is a frustrating time – everything is broken, like life rhythms. The choir was something that existed, something that was persistent. We do it anyway.”
This quote is from a participant in an adult choir that I lead, and which is also the focus of my research project at Uniarts. It describes the sudden change faced by the members of the choir during the Corona pandemic in the Spring of 2020: the drastic shift from face-to-face practices to an online routine. This digital shift has caused paradoxical effects in teaching and learning in music. On the one hand, music-making is hard, almost impossible, to implement in an online context, but on the other hand there are aspects of and novel opportunities in online practices that go beyond musical expression. In the light of this blog, these aspects have a starting point in Gert Biesta’s (2017) educational concept of interruption. After considering the diverse experiences of my choir members (and myself), I will argue here that amongst all educational contexts the collaborative forms of music-making are, indeed, in perhaps the most vulnerable situation as a result of this digital shift.
A shift into the unknown
When the closure of schools, universities, and other educational institutions started after the COVID-19 virus reached Finland in March 2020, the majority of teaching and learning was shifted to digital environments at a very fast pace. Consequently, teachers and students had to quickly absorb new online platforms and other digital working methods to be able to continue teaching and learning during the quarantine. Thus, the teachers and other educational staff had to take ‘a great leap to faith’ to generate new teaching materials and modify their pedagogical approaches in order to transform them into digital forms. Simultaneously, public teaching and learning environments shifted into domestic spaces, that often lacked sufficient equipment, such as a workable network, suitable digital devices, functional furniture, or the physical and mental spaces to work or study in peace. When taking all the aforementioned into consideration, it is no wonder that the educational philosopher Gert Biesta (2020) refers to “a potential increase in educational inequality” (p. 1) when reflecting on the impacts of the pandemic on education at a societal level.
An interruption to the ‘normal’
According to Biesta, the COVID-19 pandemic has managed to capture our attention and to interrupt our everyday lives globally more than any other ongoing crisis in modern times. Indeed, the COVID-19 virus has also brought “death to the doorstep of our comfortable lives of the global North” (Biesta 2020, p. 2) and put all of us under a dire threat for which we had little protection. However, according to Biesta, arts education was in crisis already prior to the Corona crisis. In his book “Letting art teach. Art education ‘after’ Joseph Beuys” (2017), he argues that art education is in crisis because it is only emphasizing self-expression without challenging students to look beyond themselves, and to recognize the other, others, or the world around them. Biesta suggests that interruption as an educational gesture can steer and confront students’ attention in a gentle way “to come into dialogue with the world” (p. 87).
To adapt the words of Biesta in the context of this blog, the digital shift that occurred as a result of Covid-19 has interrupted the ‘normal’ face-to-face orientation and forcefully redirected the attention of students and teachers towards novel, thoroughly digital approaches. However, it could also be said that this change was welcomed in a way by some policy-makers and other advocates of digitization, datafication and learnification (see more Biesta 2005) who have dreamed about such a change already for decades.
Pro et contra features
In line with the thoughts of music sociologist Tia DeNora (2013), music has unique interrelated qualities that make it a special human resource. One of these qualities is communicative synchrony, referring to “being together in time” (p. 3). This feature makes online teaching and learning in music very complex, and is emphasized in collaborative forms of music-making such as a choir, band, and orchestra, where many people synchronize their actions simultaneously with each other through a common pulse, embodiment, harmony, etc. Due to the disturbing delay in sound transmission in online environments, it is impossible to hear diverse voices simultaneously without experiencing ‘a cacophony of unsynchronized voices’. This is why everyone sings or plays alone during such sessions, muted from each other, and only able to hear one sound at a time. Therefore, it can be claimed that communicative synchrony, the core feature of collaborative music-making, is missing in online contexts at the moment.
However, as Biesta remarks (2020), “the interruption of the normal order literally makes us think” (p. 1). Accordingly, we may ask: are there novel aspects of online platforms that can offer new affordances to teaching and learning in music? One choir participant stated that “I can sing in my own home without having to get up and get dressed to go. And still being united.” Another participant emphasized the improved accessibility: “If you have a difficult situation at home…I might have skipped otherwise. But I managed now. It is more accessible.”
Another specific quality of music denoted by DeNora (2013) is the embodied character of musical activity within “spatial relations and sense of touch” (p. 3). An online context may represent, in a surprising way, a specific opportunity for perceiving one’s own gestures and movements, as one of the choir members noted: “The possibility to look at my mouth while singing and to understand what kind of movements I do to make the sounds come out”.
Towards the unpredictable
Due to the multi-faceted nature of this digital shift – a direct result of the large-scale interruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic – many of the online opportunities in music teaching and learning thus generated appear to be contradictory because of their complex and pro et contra features. For instance, for collaborative forms of music-making such as a choir, it is an online paradox to sing and express music together without hearing others. However, it is not yet possible to predict how (or whether) the shift to digital environments has changed education permanently, or what the ‘new normal’ will be after the pandemic has been defeated. In any case, the corona crisis has shown us something important, depicted in the words of one choir participant: “That people can adapt to new circumstances so quickly”. Is this a sign of the more educational or ‘world-centered’ thinking that Biesta (2017) is looking for in art education?
1 The choir participants were interviewed online at the end of May 2020 after seven online lessons. Within this framework, they also participated in doctoral research that faced a sudden interruption in the middle of the data collection process.
2 See https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-3-319-32001-4_332-1
Biesta, G. 2020. Have we been paying attention? Educational anaesthetics in a time of crises. Educational Philosophy and theory. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131857.2020.1792612
Biesta, G. 2017. Letting art teach. Art education ´after` Joseph Beuyes. Utrecht: ArtEZ Press.
Biesta, G.J.J. 2005. Against learning. Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning. Nordisk Pedagogik, 25, 54-66.
DeNora, T. 2013. Music asylums: Wellbeing through music in everyday life. Ashgate.
Johanna Lehtinen-Schnabel is a doctoral student and research associate at the MuTri Doctoral School of Music Education, Jazz and Folk Music, Uniarts Helsinki’s Sibelius Academy.
Music Education AMP
The purpose of this blog is to serve as an amplifier for critical statements and openings for discussion in the field of music education. The blog publishes texts in Finnish, Swedish and English. The writers are students, teachers and researchers in the music education degree programme and MuTri doctoral school.