446This post was written by Julius Williams, Professor of Composition and Conducting at Berklee, Artistic Director of the Berklee International Composers Institute, and Music Director of the Trilogy Opera Company. He is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning composer and conductor. He has conducted countless orchestras around the globe, and his compositions have been written for and performed by major symphonies, opera companies, film, and musical theater. He is also a recording artist, educator, author, and pianist. His career has taken him from his native New York to musical venues around the globe, and he has been involved in virtually every musical genre.

I started using Google Hangouts for the first time this semester as a way to teach conducting class COND-212-W001 Conducting 2 to students who were not on campus. It has been an interesting learning experience to use a web conferencing tool to teach an art form that always has seemed to require the physical touch of the teacher and student. To learn the art form of conducting, students need to look at and mimic movements. They need to learn how to listen to breathing, and also understand the sense of collaboration and energy of the music that is being made. Learning to conduct with a teacher is a sometimes an intimate experience. Conducting students have to learn leadership: they have to simultaneously find that inner sense of being connected to the music and have an understanding of what they need to do to conduct an ensemble.

The big question I asked myself was, “How am I going to make this work over the Internet?” I quickly realized that it might be best to work with more experienced students. They would have the necessary fundamentals and background in conducting.

There were several other factors to consider for this experiment. Ordinarily, I have to see the student conductor make motions in real time but online, I would have to address the potential delay from the video stream as well as optimize the use of my computer video screen, microphone, and speakers so that we could see each others’ physical movements clearly.

Ensuring that I had a fast Internet connection helped tremendously, as using wifi was not always the best option to give a good, clear video connection. Also of note is that even though the camera in the computer is HD quality, it will look only as good as the connection. I realized I had to hook up to the ethernet, which gave a faster and more secure connection. I urged the students to use same setup on their end because of the potential delay for me to hear and see them, and vice versa. To teach conducting on Google Hangouts, I must see the students’ torso, so I myself had to have a large-screen TV hookup for my laptop. It was also a good idea to have a bluetooth keyboard and mouse to be able to stand away from the computer. Finally, a decent set of speakers hooked up to the computer was necessary for listening to music.

Part of my method was to have the students practicing from a recorded source. I had the student play the recordings on their end and I was able to follow and listen from the source on their computer. I also realized that the light and background in the students’ and teachers’ rooms was very important. The surrounding must be clear, with a light-colored background. The room must not have sounds emanating from other sources, which would potentially cause problems in the learning environment.

Once I worked out these details, I found that Google Hangouts was a convenient way to work with the students, especially those who have packed schedules that conflicted with my available times, or who were otherwise unable to come to campus. The Google Hangouts interface was easy to use. The connection instructions were simple so it worked very well, and the faster the Internet speed, the better the video. Hangouts provided a place to organize the students individually or in classes, and it is simple to create a direct connection to the students. We also used Hangouts in conjunction with Inside Berklee Courses (our learning management system), where they could quickly download materials and assignments.

I find the use of Google Hangouts a good tool for online learning. The jury is still out on whether I will use it to teach conducting to students who are on campus but it did work very well for students who could not otherwise come to campus.

I must say, I have had fun so far.

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Looking for more information and training on using Google Hangouts with your Inside Berklee Course? Here’s a video from Faculty Technology Services that will take you through the process, step by step: http://berklee.edu/fts/tutorials

For more general information, Google provides a tutorial for Google Hangouts: http://www.google.com/+/learnmore/hangouts/

Read over the Digital Learning Department’s guide to Use Google Hangouts to Hold Online Class Meetings (you must have berklee.edu access): download the PDF

You can read more posts on Digital Learning here:
http://www.berklee-blogs.com/category/digital-learning/