Class piano connections: A Brazil-U.S. group piano project
Collaboration between two foreign countries can be fraught with deadly secrets, dangers, and mysterious politics. Fortunately, in the case of piano classes in Brazil and the United States, these were not the circumstances. In fact, our collaboration fostered creativity and relationships among the students in both countries.
When colleague Fernando Corvisier suggested to Simone Gorete Machado of Brazil that she try an online collaboration, Simone had the idea to connect her piano class in Brazil with a class in the United States. Each class would compose a keyboard ensemble and perform it for their counterparts on another continent. This was done via videoconferencing, and the name "video recital" was born. The purpose of the project was to provide students an opportunity to perform for, and interact with, colleagues of a similar skill level—despite the fact that group piano classes usually do not have performance as their main goal. Since none of the students was a piano major, they would feel more comfortable sharing their progress on solos and ensembles with others of a similar ability.
Simone's first experimental connections were made in Brazil during the spring of 2010. Her graduate classes at the University of São Paulo in the city of Ribeirão Preto connected with classes taught by Carlos Costa at the Federal University of Goiás, located in a different state in Brazil. The connections were made using Skype, which resulted in poor sound quality. In 2010 and 2011, new attempts with videoconferencing equipment made by Polycom increased the sound quality considerably, since this system provided a more secure and faster connection. Later at a conference in the U.S., Simone told colleague Shana Kirk about her experience and her desire to connect with a teacher in the U.S. who might be interested in such a project. Shana introduced her to Linda Christensen, who was at that time, a professor at Wayne State College in Nebraska. The partnership developed, and the first video recital was prepared.
In the first experiment, each class prepared one keyboard ensemble to perform for the other class. The class from Brazil chose to arrange Brazilian folk songs, while the Nebraska class chose to arrange "Bring Him Home" from the musical Les Misérables. As the project progressed, the students added more creative and enriching aspects to the interactions, and each class was inspired by the other. The exchange went beyond just sharing performances, since these happened during class time with both teachers guiding the activity for their own class. By muting the microphone, each teacher could give comments to her students while the other end performed, explaining and reinforcing aspects appropriate to her class. Students introduced themselves in the other language by saying their name, main instrument, title of the composition, composer, and even some interesting aspect of the work. The exchange of knowledge, therefore, was extended to fulfill not only performance but also pedagogical and cultural purposes.
In a following collaboration, the classes decided to prepare and play solos for each other. For this project, connections were made using Internet MIDI, a program that can connect electronic keyboards and transmit MIDI data between them. This allowed for an almost real-time experience, and most importantly, the sound of the piano was heard on the instrument rather than through the conferencing speakers. The students on both ends were amazed at what the software would allow them to do, and they asked to continue connecting in future semesters.
Challenges and benefits
The project was not perfect. Beyond the network and connection difficulties, other challenges arose such as time differences, daylight-saving time changes, and academic calendars not matching between institutions.
However, the results exceeded expectation, and the teachers observed the following:
Increased student motivation before and after the event, including students not registered in the specific class sections.
Class enrichment from the teacher interactions and comments.
Opportunities for the students to learn how to present themselves and their work/culture in another language with immediate feedback.
Exchange of pedagogical material and musical scores, including student compositions and arrangements.
As teachers, we were delighted that the students took it seriously. In fact, the students asked afterwards for more practice time for the next video recital, and for the next semester, the Brazilian class asked to have the curriculum expanded to add more class time (from one 50-minute class per week to two). Despite the collaboration being a non-required activity, they all wanted to participate.
Most telling are the reflections written by the students.
I believe that last semester's collaboration with the piano class in Brazil was an outstanding learning experience. First of all, music is such an amazing tool. With it, one can bridge what can seem like massive cultural gaps. Once these unknown students appeared on our screen, we could sense that, ultimately, we're in the same boat. No matter how many miles may separate us physically, we share many thoughts, passions, and emotions. We all love music, and we have the desire to learn more about it by becoming better musicians.
It was so cool to be able to connect with someone across the world and hear folk songs from their country. It truly opened my eyes to just how versatile music can be.
The rehearsals were important to learn how much the individual responsibility affects the group's result, understand that the "playing together" is a level after "knowing the piece very well," learn to be punctual, and learn to listen to yourself at the same time you are listening to the group. Playing for North American colleagues showed us how to present in an organized manner, respect each other's work, and be more confident to show our own work, even though we were presenting for a public we consider of a higher level.
I think the experience to play for our North American colleagues was unique and wonderful, and there should be more opportunities like these in the whole music department. We should have even more time available at the group piano lab to rehearse with the whole group. It was a very good experience to compose music as a group for different voices.
Simone Gorete Machado holds a D.M.A. from the University of Arizona (Piano/General Education). Presentations include the EPTA and TEDxPhoenix as a Biosphere2 artist-in-residence. She is currently a tenured professor at the USP, Brazil.