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'We would rather be together': ETSU choir instructor talks about online course challenges

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 26, 2020 at 8:00 AM

East Tennessee State University President Brian Noland’s decision to keep classes online for the rest of the semester to limit traffic on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic affected some courses more than others.

For courses like those in the humanities, students can resume required readings and video lectures and submit assignments much like other online classes offered during a normal semester. But for more hands-on courses, like technical and arts courses, professors and students run into additional obstacles.

Perhaps the best examples of this are the courses taught within the ETSU Department of Music, chaired by choir instructor Matthew Potterton.

“It’s been more challenging for some than others. Much of what we do is one-on-one lessons we call ‘applied lessons.’ Whether it’s guitar lessons, voice lessons or flute lessons or whatever, they’re one-on-one with the teacher and the student,” he said. “Those have had to move to either Zoom, Skype or FaceTime, which is working at the moment, but it’s not ideal.

“You don’t get the same kind of sound and therefore can’t give quite the same kind of instruction as you would in person,” he continued. “A lot of that depends on the equipment that both the student and the teacher have, so any issues we’ve had with that so far has to do with the speed of internet or whether they’re using an extra mic. All of those things play into how successful these one-on-one lessons are.” 

For the most part, courses like history and English have seemed to make the transition more seamlessly than music and arts courses. 

“The teachers are either recording lectures and posting them online with some sort of interaction, or they’re actually meeting at their class time using Zoom, holding a class virtually,” Potterton said of the first week of online-only courses at ETSU. 

When it comes to choir classes, it’s often important for instructors and students to be together in one room. With in-person classes suspended, Potterton said he’s doing his best to virtually conduct voice lessons and assess student progress online.

“What we do is based on all being in the same room and listening and creating music. You can’t do that on Zoom because of the time delay, so it’s impossible to hold any sort of rehearsal that way,” he said, adding that some instructors have to overcome a technology learning curve to continue their courses.

“In terms of putting a choir together, it’s nearly impossible.” 

Potterton said he’s planning on putting together a “virtual choir” to post on each of the university’s music and choir social media pages. He’s also asked students to record themselves for social media to show that “music is still happening” at ETSU.

To keep the music playing, Potterton has had to find ways to get instruments for students in his department as well. 

“We have piano classes, and that’s tough to practice if you don’t have a piano,” he said. “We have eight students who had no access to a piano, so I called Guitar Center and worked out a nice deal with them. They’re actually going to ship out keyboards to students who don’t have access so they can practice and still finish this class.”

Potterton said the transition to online-only courses has been particularly tough for seniors, who will not be able to perform their final choir concert in the spring.

That concert, which was originally scheduled in April before public events were canceled, is usually the last time students with the ETSU Chorale, Greyscale, East Tennessee Belles Women’s Choir or Bucsworth Men’s Choir perform together. The story is much the same for other music students who were set to perform later in the spring semester. 

“What I've heard so far is, ‘We would rather be together.’ This isn’t the ideal situation by any means,” he said. “I feel very sorry for my seniors because, in music, the very final concert is one that often brings tears to the seniors because they realize this is the last time they’re going to perform with this group, and it’s often an emotional time.

“Those seniors are kind of cheated in a way of not having that,” he continued. “They’re not going to have an opportunity in April to give their concert.” 

Potterton said he is considering plans to invite “anybody who is still around” after graduation to hold a concert together at the beginning of the fall semester to sing “at least a couple songs one last time.” 

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