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Teaching Choral Literature as an onlline web course

Dear colleagues,
Several semesters ago I did a directed-study of Choral Literature with a student entirely on line.  With access to the Naxos Listening LIbrary through our University Library and access to pdf files of many scores through CPDL and my own copies of public domain materials, I found it to be a successful experience for the student and myself.  Our University employs the Blackboard distance learning portal which makes online chat and discussions possible, so I am considering offering Choral Literature in a few years as a completely web-based online course for all students.  I think a History and Literature course such as this offers the best opportunity for me to develop an online course.  I use Blackboard to supplement all of my classes but have never offered a course exclusively online for the entire class, so this will be a first if we go through with it.
I would like to hear from any of you who have experience with this or any other music class as an online course.  What was your process?  How did it work for you?  Have you continued to do that with the same course?  Have you added more courses as online courses - if so what courses?  Could you share with me your syllabi and class schedules and the types of assignments you have used successfully?
How was your experience in the online class?  Did you feel that you were able to master the material as well as if you had been in a traditional classroom setting?  Did you take the course in undergraduate or graduate classes (or both)?  What do you recommend as good procedures for student learning in such a class?  Can you send me a syllabus or other materials (with the instructor's approval)?
This is the world in which we teach, time to find a way to benefit from the new technologies.
Grace and peace,
Larry Smith, Professor of Music
Missouri Baptist University
One College Park Drive
St. Louis MO 63141
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on November 5, 2010 7:15pm
Hi, Larry.  With the resources you mention, it seems as if an on-line Choral Lit course could be possible.  I'm not sure, however, that it is desireable.  That might be simply because I, myself am pretty conservative and a bit slow to adopt new ideas.  But for me, I would REALLY prefer face-to-face contact with my students in such a course, and minute-to-minute comments on what we're listening to.  And to me, a discussion or chat on line simply is not the same thing as class participation, and never will be.  (I did teach Choral Lit for several years, but no longer do.)
As it happens, I've been teaching my very first on-line course this semester, and it has been a disaster.  It's Music Appreciation, and after looking at a couple of on-line courses that were supposed to be turnkey and ready to go, I adopted the Norton On-Line Music Appreciation Course.  We have had problems since day 1, when none of the Registration Codes that came in the textbooks were accepted for Registration on the website.  There have been hardware problems (their server slowing down to a crawl or stopping responding altogether, the clock on their server being an hour off from Eastern Time) and software problems (they use Moodle as course management software, and it's very slow and has some funny quirks).  Some of my students ended up registered on the wrong website and one even at the wrong school! (which should not have been possible), and there is apparently only one person at Norton acting as Website Administrator, and she is terribly slow at answering questions or helping out with problems.
Needless to say, I'm dropping Norton like a hot potato, and trying one of the other companies for spring semester.
Interesting that you call Blackboard a "distance learning portal."  My understanding is that it was designed as course management software, although it certainly has distance learning possibilities.  And that it was designed for high school classes, and not for university classes.  And of course their Gradebook was unusable for years because it was impossible to freeze the students' names on the left, and they seemed to be unable to fix that problem.  We used it here for 8 or 10 years, but the university got tired of paying their rather large annual fees and of their lack of response to problems, so we have developed our own system called "Scholar," which is a version of "Sakai," and it has replaced Blackboard this year.  And it's so complex and non-intuitive that I've tried to avoid using it at all!
It may be necessary to go the on-line course route in the future, and this university is pushing hard to make it possible and to make it effective.  Our demand for Music Appreciation is incredibly high.  This semester there are 3 of us teaching 4 sections of at least 200 students each, and serving well over a thousand students.  One problem with classes that large is the inability, at least on my part, to deal with written assignments, which I would otherwise consider necessary and desirable, without having grad assistants.
Before this semester, I was told that administering an on-line course, if you want to do it right, takes about 4 times as much faculty time as teaching a face-to-face class, and I think I would agree.  That, of course, is if you develop your own course and set up all your own matierals for it, and do it the way it should be done, which it sounds as if you plan to do.  But I certainly wish you all the best, and I hope you'll come back and let us know how it works out for you.
on November 6, 2010 5:47am
I continue to enjoy the challenges of teaching Choral Literature live and in person. Online, there is less opportunity to take advantage of "teachable moments" in a discussion, to detect the moment of a student's new insightful, and spread the insight to others as fast as lightning across the room. There is power in learning in groups, using peer influence to point out the best in each student to reinforce success in every student. Also, I don't teach the course like a simple survey of music, but instead like a voice teacher would teach a singer or a conductor may develop a choir to respond in sight, sound, thought, and emotion. As we proceed through historical examples, I work to pass on the perceptual and analytical skills required of a choral conductor, modeling my own critical listening and score reading skills, which are at first very foreign to students and at different moments come into focus for different students, moments I want to recognize and foster as they happen. And have you ever sent a simple Internet message to a student just to find out that your words have been misconstrued by an unintended emotional tone read into it? This happens in this ChoralNet forum all the time, one person happily sharing thoughts intended to be helpful and sincere and yet read with an unintended malice. Speaking in person conveys emotion and intent through facial expressions, hand motions, body language, etc. Of course, a teacher will never be fully and accurately understood the same by any two students even in a classroom, but I like the odds of live teaching better. Live or online, you gotta know what you're asking for and know how to get it in the process. That's just good teaching in any form.
on November 6, 2010 7:40am
Without discussing all of the pros and cons of an online course, I will only say here that if you exclusively use Naxos recordings to teach a Choral Literature class, you will be limiting the aesthetics that your students will hear.  The same ensembles who are recorded on the Naxos label will keep reappearing as you present music throughout the academic terms.  This is just one factor to consider, but it is a big one - and one that I have consciously chosen to avoid in the face-to-face Choral Literature class that I teach (using Blackboard to post recordings so that students can listen 24/7).
Amy Goodman Weller
Northwestern University
on November 6, 2010 11:40am
Hi, Amy.  And thanks so much for your post.  I'd like to pick up on your comment about posting recordings on Blackboard.
Our Humanities Librarian, who is very helpful to us, was all set to post recordings from a published set that went with my Music History textbook (Stolba, now out of print).  But when she did an informal survey of peer institutions, she found a very wide range of practices.  Some schools had ongoing projects to put all of their libraries' recordings on line.  Others had decided that posting ANY commercial recordings on line was a violation of copyright, and forbade it.  Most did not have a policy, or had one somewhere between those extremes. 
Her final decision, which was taken in consultation with our library's administration but without obtaining legal advice, was that she could stream individual recordings, but not full recorded sets like the Stolba or the Norton recordings because they MIGHT violate copyright, and she didn't want to be the focus of a court case if one were brought.
So I would ask both you and Larry, how does your institution regard this question?  And Larry, how does your school handle access to the Naxos library?  I feel very restricted by the choices that have been made in the Norton Recordings, concise version, and I am very unhappy with the way they are broken up into little pieces for no good reason.  But of course, Amy, any listening set keyed to any textbook is going to be restricted and restrictive, but when I taught Choral Lit one of the greatest frustrations was NOT having a listening set keyed to a textbook, something that no publisher seems to have dealt with.
All the best,
on November 6, 2010 2:49pm
Hi John,
I'm just now seeing this post.
I so share your frustration with the lack of a listening set keyed to a textbook.  In fact, I wrote to Dennis Schrock earlier this year with high hopes that his new Choral Repertoire book that is published by Oxford might in the future have a listening component.  Alas, it appears that such a set of accompanying recordings is not in the works.  I have also contacted Michael Anderson here in Chicago who is an officer with IFCM to see if another country has a choral literature text/recording set.  No such luck.  I would actually go one step further and suggest that there ought to be a 3-pronged Choral Repertoire resource for Choral Literature classes that includes not only recordings and text, but printed scores, as well.  Right now I am piecing together elements of the old Norton Choral Anthology with more contemporary excerpts of my choosing.  (Students are reading various texts.)  The recordings that I am selecting (from our university library's cd/record collection and from the Naxos online library to which the university library subscribes) to have placed in my course site on Blackboard more or less correspond to these excerpts.  I can tell you that  problems have arisen when the media players that are used by the Digital Media Services department of our library and by the online Naxos collection aren't the same (I have been linking the Naxos excerpts to Blackboard so that the students can access all of the listening assignments from one site).  Other problems have also cropped up depending on whether students are on campus or off campus when trying to access the audio files.  VPN doesn't always work, depending on whether students are using Mac or Pc's.  
Thank goodness the students and the subject matter make all of the trials and tribulations worth the effort! 
on November 6, 2010 3:48pm
Amy:  Yes, I used the Robinson Norton Choral Anthology back when I was teaching Choral Lit, and it was a wonderful resource except for one thing.  Ray said right in the Introduction that he was deliberately omitting the well-known literature, assuming that anyone could get ahold of that.  I simply can't imagine a Norton Anthology of English or American Poetry, for example, that didn't include the canon, and it was very annoying in the Choral Anthology.  Plus which, when they have been publishing Listening Sets for Grout/Palisca for YEARS, why couldn't they put together a Set for Robinson?  And once you work your way out of the renaissance and high baroque, there's very little choral literature included in any of the standard recorded anthologies.
I guess there just aren't enough Choral Literature courses across the country to justify the expense, compared with the Music History courses.  And that's a real shame.
on November 7, 2010 5:18am
I wonder if there are any potential authors and/or publishers reading these posts.  Maybe other organizations that have a choral constituency share our frustrations and maybe together we can demonstrate that there is a real need for such a 3-pronged choral resource (text, recordings, scores) to be developed for choral literature lovers everywhere!
on November 6, 2010 9:05am
I agree that I would prefer to teach it as a traditional class but I did find that the directed-study online worked well and my assessment of that student's learning was that she did as well as students who had taken the class the previous semester - as well as most.  I would like to teach for a good many years yet and distance learning is certainly here to stay.  This is about the only kind of music class I can even imagine teaching online at this time and the way technology is advancing even greater things may be possible in the future.  Our students are currently more adept at this than I am so I believe that good choices and good planning can make it possible.  We also have students every year that have to take this and possibly one or two other courses required for teacher certification.  In many cases these are teachers already teaching one subject who are seeking vocal music accreditation and cannot take off time from their assignments to attend a class that meets during the school week - even though I typically teach those classes in late afternoon.  It is just the nature of the beast.  My plan is to still offer the course as a traditional class for the time being (I teach it this spring) and also have it as an online course available other semesters whenever there is an adequate demand.  Eventually we hope to develop a Master's program (we have none in music at this time) in Conducting and this is the kind of class that might be very useful there, as many of our prosepctive students would be from around the Missouri and southern Illinois region and most would be currently active teachers.
Just a note on the Naxos Music LIbrary - it has recordings from all labels and just about every period including some older historic recordings as well as a good variety of the best modern performances.  They don't have everything ever recorded but it is a very broad-based database of recordings from different performers, conductors, and labels.  We have found it an invaluable tool for all courses that have listening requirments.  Students access it as they would any database like Oxford Music (Grove's) or IIMP and can listen anytime and anywhere.  I think it solves many problems, including copyright issues related to posting performances online for student listening (that's a whole new conversation).  If you have not checked it out, I highly recommend it - it can save thousands of dollars in acquiring CDs and is so much more convenient for teachers and students.
Grace and peace,
Larry Smith
MBU, St. Louis
on November 6, 2010 9:59am
Hi again, Larry -
I have tried using the Naxos Music Library and appreciate very much its offerings and convenience.  Nonetheless, I still prefer to be able to choose and present from an even wider representation of recordings, especially for multiple recordings of a single composition.  The contrast between an all-treble recording of a Renaissance motet and a mixed-voice recording, between a more straight tone rendition and one that incorporates more vibrato, etc., can be eye-opening for students.  I realize the variety that the Naxos library affords - but I also realize that this library offers me preselected options.  I like to combine its offerings with others of my own choosing, having the university library help me with the digitization process so that all of the audio samples can legally be either posted or streamed in Blackboard.
Amy Goodman Weller
Northwestern University
on November 8, 2010 7:44am
After two days of Football focus and keeping up with this discussion, I'm back and very thankful for everyone's offerings.
I have had some success posting individual tracks from CDs that I own but there is a variety of recording formats now in use and many are not in a format that allows for re-posting.  I also still have some questions about the legalities of doing this.  I've goten conflicting information on this.  Some say that as long as the recordings are on a program such as Blackboard that is password protected, it amounts to the same thing as playing the recording in class.  Others say that posting copyrighted material is not acceptable regardless of the format.  This seems to be an evolving legal area.  I've also have students download individual movements from itunes and other sources on occasion.  They don't seem to mind spending $1 here and there.
As for the discussion about the Robinson Choral Music collection, I find it very useful in the earlier periods but the more contemporary offerings are not so contemporary anymore.  I suspect the problem with putting together a comprehensive anthology with recordings is related to costs.  I know that the access to any currently copyrighted music can be costly.  Getting mechanical licensing rights can be costly as well.  That's why the Naxos Library is a good option.  They have tweaked their system several times over the years to make their interface more convenient and easy to access from all different kinds of computers.  In addition, they have taken care of all the rights - which is undoubetedly passed on through their access fees.  I also use the Homer Ulrich Survey of Choral Music book but I'm hopeful something better will come along soon - it's a good outline and starting place but not much else.
I don't know if there is any way to have a really up-to-date collection of choral music that is representative of the latest styles without doing it as an online, constantly updated database.  It's easy enough to collect octavos of repertoire but when it comes to getting full scores of choral/orchestral works for student access is the hardest thing with the most contemporary works.  This sounds like a job for ACDA.  Perhaps they could set up some kind of online score depository that would be accessible to members.  With the rise of technology like the ipad it's only a matter of time before scores are available in both paper and electronic formats that are totally interactive.  I know the Music Pad Pro offered great promise but has never been priced to the level that it has become the industry standard.
Still, as long as this is an undegraduate Choral Literature class I think I have the necessary resources for a useful online structure, and it appears no one has really done this, yet - at least no one who has responded to this thread.
CPDL has also been a great asset for some of the smaller works - Schutz Symphoniae sacrae, Mendelssohn part-songs, and all manner of Renaissance music.  The CPDL also allows for a chance to get students comparing editions, especially when it comes to early music.  Students have to compare and contrast editorial practices as well as ease of use issues.  Above all, it gives them access to this good resource that has a wider variety of choral works by great composers that are more immediately useful in school and church settings.  I want them to hear and understand the Schutz Psalmen David and Musikalisches Exequien but in their first high school job they are more likely to find some the 2 and 3-part works from the Cantiones sacrae or Symphoniae sacrae more performable.  I want them to understand Mozart's Requiem, Vespers, and Masses but they are more likely to find the 6 Notturni more program friendly in those first jobs.  In other words, I want them to have something immediately applicable in the realities of a first teaching job from the great composers as well as an appreciation of the great Masterworks that they are more likely to sing than conduct any time soon.  Naxos has been useful in this area as well, providing recordings of some of these works.
I do hope to hear from others who have offered ANY kind of music class as an online course.
Grace and peace,
Larry Smith
Missouri Baptist University
on November 24, 2010 1:23am
Hi, Larry.
A friend of mine forwarded this to me because I have been teaching an online Music Fundamentals course for the past 10 years or so.  All of my colleagues thought it couldn't be done, but I have had great success using the course developed by Dave Megill and Done Megill of Mira Costa College (it is now owned by Coast Online Learning).  It is fully customizable and a great resource, but you do have to be open to the online format.  I spend a great deal more time online than I do with my traditional on-campus classes, but it is much more accommodating since I can do this from home or on the road, no subs required.  I have been careful to format it so that the students have an assignment due every week (a "learn at your own pace" system can be a disaster because half of teaching this kind of course is motivating your students to attend class).  My students have to read a "Lecture" every week, do practice skills tests and graded quizzes every week, as well as submitting a written discussion of the material every week.  All of the listening and skills tests for this course are embedded, but I typically recommend other things on the internet for them to view and discuss.  They get extra credit for answering questions posted in the class chat room, and some semesters the students make good use of this forum to help each other.  I also am available on campus if anyone feels like they are drowning and needs some face-to-face time.  Typically I will have 3/4 of the class make use of this opportunity at least once during the semester.
I have had students from all over the United States, as well as Great Britain, Ireland, Israel and the United Emirates.  I have also had students traveling in foreign countries during the semester and able to keep up with class.  There has been an interesting mix of undergraduates, professional musicians, hobbyists and even music teachers taking my course as a refresher.  It has been quite fulfilling.
I have a colleague at Cypress College who has enjoyed teaching an Honors Opera course online.  I will forward this blog to her and suggest she make some comments on her experience.
Best of luck - I know you will enjoy this tremendously and be very successful.
Linda Noble Brown
College of Marin 
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