May 1, 2020

CIM Guitar Ensemble Gets Its Groove On in an Online Learning Environment

guitar class
Top row: Tom Ray, Colin Davin; Middle: Kevin Covney, Calvin Beck; Bottom: Alejandro Rodriguez, Jason Vieaux. Photo courtesy of Colin Davin.

How do Cleveland Institute of Music faculty continue to teach music when they and their students are required to shelter in place and practice social distancing?

Like all of the teachers at CIM, classical guitarist Colin Davin had to think fast.

When the coronavirus pandemic necessitated the switch to virtual learning, the CIM Guitar Ensemble, made up of students Calvin Beck, Kevin Covney, Tom Ray and Alejandro Rodríguez – taught by Davin and Grammy-winner Jason Vieaux – had been working on a guitar quartet version of Gershwin’s Three Preludes, originally written for piano but arranged for four guitars by Jeremy Sparks.

They were off to a great start, Davin says. But when COVID-19 hit, he had to come up with an imaginative solution that would work for each student.   

“Obviously, the lag time in a video conference doesn’t really allow for effective chamber music collaboration, so we had to come up with an alternative,” Davin said.

So he created three click tracks for each movement – a “slow”, “medium” and “concert” tempo – and instructed each student to record their part individually, playing along to the click track in their headphones. He then lined up the parts in Pro Tools – a digital audio workstation used for music creation, production, sound recording and editing – and sent the final MP3 back to the students.

“We would then discuss what worked well, and what needed improvement,” said Davin. “While this project certainly didn't replace the ‘real thing’ of in-person ensemble playing, it did provide us an opportunity to practice new skills. Playing to a click track – especially one that has some rubato programmed in – is a distinct skill not often addressed in traditional teaching settings, yet shows up in many professional environments like studio sessions, certain new-music applications and live music to accompany a film, among others.”

Furthermore, the rigidity of a steady click highlighted for the students the extent to which their rhythm was truly precise, and different subjective understandings of the groove in this music, Davin explains. Making those adjustments over the course of a few takes was an interesting challenge – and a useful jolt out of everyone’s comfort zone.

While recording from home with limits on technology and coordination didn't produce anything like a professional studio soundtrack, the quartet made great progress and found themselves engaging in new thought processes and problem-solving in a collaborative setting.

“While you lose something without in-person engagement, you also gain something,” Davin said. “Our aim was for our students to make measurable progress through this new way of learning, and that’s exactly what they did.”