The art and science of teaching music online: Dr Carol Johnson at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music

Dr Carol Johnson. By Rod McGaha.
Dr Carol Johnson. By Rod McGaha.

Lockdown has accelerated the shift towards online music teaching, making Dr Carol Johnson’s expertise in the field, earned over nearly 20 years, more sought-after than ever.

Last year’s rapid shift to online learning left many teachers and lecturers reeling. And while the challenges were many and varied, one was constant for most: there’s nowhere to hide when you’re teaching online.

“Remote learning certainly puts your teaching under a microscope,” says Dr Carol Johnson, Senior Lecturer in Music (Online Learning and Educational Technologies) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, who teaches into the Master of Music (Performance Teaching).

“The way you organise your lessons is laid bare for everyone to see, and it’s essential to get your planning right. It’s a really exposing experience.”

For music teachers, whose background is often in performing rather than teaching, online learning presents a distinct challenge. How do you teach a discipline that thrives on live experience through a screen?

In many ways Dr Johnson, who is based in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, has been preparing for this challenge her whole career. She has been teaching music online since 2003, the same year Mark Zuckerberg wrote the program that would become Facebook and long before most of us ever considered connecting with friends and colleagues online.

Unsurprisingly, her hard-earned wisdom has been in demand recently. A 2017 paper she wrote on changing music teaching approaches for online environments has clocked up 25 citations in the past few months alone, and her PhD dissertation on the same theme has been downloaded more than 2,000 times. The prestigious Royal College of Music in the UK has even produced a video for music teachers based on a book chapter she co-wrote, which will be published in the Oxford Handbook of Music Performance later this year.

“It’s been an overnight success 15 or 20 years in the making,” she says, laughing.

Dr Johnson started out experimenting with MSN Chat to deliver remote music lessons to underprivileged musicians in Latin America while teaching at Belmont University in Nashville. That led to her establishing the Virtual School of Music in 2006, which offered online lessons with around 20 different instructors.

She was well ahead of her time; her most recent paper shows the number of universities offering online music courses didn’t really take off until around 2012 (at least in the United States). But now others are catching up, with online music courses becoming more mainstream and a growing number of instructors keen to learn how to teach online.

Even before COVID-19 hit, momentum was growing so much that Dr Johnson launched the Teaching Music Online in Higher Education conference call in late 2019 (with her colleague Dr Brad Merrick). Last year saw delegates from 66 universities and 12 countries log on from around the world, and this year’s conference is expecting to have a similar impact.

The pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already happening.

Teaching music online

In her 2017 paper, Dr Johnson found that instructors use various approaches when teaching music online, and some are more effective than others. The best strategies encourage students to interact with their instructors and each other.

“Creating opportunities for students to learn through interactive and social exchanges is really important,” she says.

“We take little bits of information from all of the social interactions we have to build our world, our experiences and our understanding.”

This fundamentally social, collaborative approach lies at the heart of human learning, whether we are three or 30. The best kind of online teaching, says Dr Johnson, acknowledges that this is how we learn, and doesn’t let “the sparkly technology tool” interfere with the process.

For example, Dr Johnson has seen students’ learning flourish when they film their practice sessions and watch them at a later date with their teachers, to encourage reflection.

“Because practice is quite a vulnerable time, recording it means they can see when they’re learning on a deep level and when they’re getting distracted,” she says.

“It’s a great way to help students become self-reflectors. It helps them get to a place where they can support their own learning and become lifelong learners.”

In Dr Johnson’s own class last year, she experimented with placing students in Zoom breakout rooms to work in pairs when learning a second woodwind instrument.

“First, they played for each other and gave each other feedback,” she says. “Then one played with their sound on, while the other accompanied them. This meant one student could experience performing solo while the other had a duet experience. They were both learning music, but from different perspectives.

“We then placed another person in there to conduct, which became quite a complex learning activity, but everybody was learning a differentiated aspect of music skills.”

A better option for some students

Considering online teaching as an inferior alternative to in-person learning neglects the many benefits it can offer, says Dr Johnson.

“We have two places where we can have great music learning experiences now: online or in-person. Some students prefer online while others prefer face-to-face.”

There are the obvious practical benefits to online learning, including the flexibility it offers students with work or family commitments, and the opportunity to keep overseas students connected.

But Dr Johnson says she has found benefits extend beyond the practical, with online teaching providing an opportunity to build stronger learning communities and also to care for students in a more considered way.

“Everyone shows up to my online lessons because they feel like they’re part of the experience and there’s a heightened sense of community,” she says.

“My students say they’ve gotten to know their classmates better – particularly the quieter people.”

And while it might take more conscious effort, Dr Johnson says caring for students from a distance requires a more deliberate approach, which can mean issues are identified sooner and fewer problems slip through the net.

Next up: online assessments

One of Dr Johnson’s new projects is a University of Melbourne funded Early Career Researcher grant investigating online music assessment.

“It’s really important we change assessments to be online-compatible, while still being authentic” she says.

“There are a lot of issues to sort through – for example, how do we use video in assessments and how do we re-create ensemble performances?”

Having fostered her love of teaching online for nearly 20 years now, Dr Johnson is well-placed to find solutions to these, and other, challenges. And with online music education settling into its new position firmly in the mainstream, it’s likely her expertise will be in-demand for many years yet.