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The ALIVE Project and You

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While giving a presentation in Stockholm for the Swedish chapter of the Percussive Arts Society’s Day of Percussion in 2004, Allan Molnar stated, “Back in the 1980s, musicians began taking computers to gigs so they could replace live musicians with MIDI instruments. Now musicians can take computers to gigs and replace MIDI instruments with live musicians!”

He recalls, “The virtual musicians I took to that gig were from Kansas State University. I played vibraphone onsite in Stockholm with the Kansas State University Latin Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Kurt Gartner. The gig was very traditional in every way except for the fact the KSU musicians were in Manhattan, Kansas. They joined me via videoconference in perfect real time.”

This performance launched the Accessible Live Internet Video Education (ALIVE) Project, under the direction of Allan Molnar and Stewart Smith. This series of videoconference presentations used these trans-Atlantic performances as a vehicle to demonstrate the potential for working together on musical projects. Allan Molnar says, “Today, we are challenged to integrate technology into our teaching methodology without compromising the traditional music education paradigm. Just imagine: where would you go if you could take your students on a field trip anywhere in the world? If you could invite anyone to teach a lesson to your class, whom would you ask? Imagine the ability to connect your students with students from other schools in distant cities and countries. One of the technologies the ALIVE Project uses to bring these ideas to fruition is the technology of computer-based distance learning!”

For the past 15 years, I have been intrigued with the capabilities of video conferencing and its instructional benefits with guest lecturers without the complications of travel, housing, meals and timelines. Colleges have advocated for distance learning as a surefire delivery system for asynchronous lecturing. Today, interactive synchronous instruction over the Internet is readily available as Internet bandwidth has increased and cost is more attractive. Opportunities for videoconferencing have also become realistic because computer hardware, operating systems, and software applications are more powerful and practical. For example, since 2003, Skype, a quality delivery software system for Internet videoconferencing, is free for both registered PC and Mac platform users, allowing two locations to interact via simultaneous, two-way video and audio transmissions. Family and friends obviously benefit from skyping, and music educators can, too.

Consider the following venues for videoconferencing that the ALIVE Project has featured since 2004:

#149; Choir rehearsals with guest conductors
#149; Day-long events with multiple guest artists
#149; Individual lectures on a variety of topics
#149; Show choir rehearsals and clinics
#149; Joint performances spanning continents
#149; Lecture series culminating in live performances
#149; Interviews with renowned vocalists
#149; Live concerts to remote locations
#149; Vocal master classes
#149; Music technology classes
#149; Private lessons
#149; Section rehearsals
#149; Supervision of student teachers
#149; Combo rehearsals and workshops
#149; “Virtual” music festivals

In October of 2010, Dr. Fraser Linklater and the University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble spent about 75 minutes via Internet communication with Allan McMurray from the University of Colorado. Dr. Linklater remembers, “I was quite excited about the outcome of this first distance ensemble workshop. I had previously spoken with Allan McMurrary about the repertoire to be rehearsed and given him a brief history of the group. Prior to this rehearsal, Stewart Smith was in contact with him regarding the audio and video aspects of the session. Consequently, the technology was seamlessly integrated into the workshop and it was as if Mr. McMurray was in the room with us, listening and commenting. Granted, he wasn’t conducting up at the front of the ensemble, but his perceptive comments told us that he could distinctly hear the sounds we were producing.

“This kind of interaction allowed us to access the talents and experience of someone who, due to cost and time factors, would normally be unreachable for our ensemble. It was also a challenge for me to conduct and make happen the suggestions that Allan provided. The students were intrigued and focused. They enjoyed the experience and everyone grew musically. We will be doing this again in the second semester with H. Robert Reynolds from the University of Southern California. I would definitely encourage ensemble conductors at all levels to consider the possibilities offered by distance learning of this type.”

General Video Conferencing Equipment Options

The component parts required for a video conferencing system include:

#149; Video input: video camera or Web cam
#149; Video output: computer monitor, television, or projector
#149; Audio input: microphones, CD/DVD player, cassette player, or any preamp audio outlet source
#149; Audio output: loudspeakers associated with the display device or telephone
#149; Data transfer: analog or digital telephone network, LAN or Internet

There are basically two kinds of videoconferencing systems: dedicated, sophisticated and expensive systems often used by businesses, and portable desktop systems, which are perfect for educators. Allan and Stewart both use the Apple platform, but have also successfully made the Mac to PC link. The ALIVE Project primarily utilizes the technological resources that already exist in most schools.

Imagination and Video Conferencing

At the 2011 Jazz Educators Network (JEN) National Conference in New Orleans, Stewart Smith, who teaches at St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg, Canada, Providence College, and the University of Manitoba, and Allan Molnar, who lives in New York, teaches at Lehman College, runs www.percussionstudio.com, and freelances with KoSA (www.kosamusic.com), presented a clinic on the ALIVE Project, “Jazz Education via Distance Learning.”

Through the medium of Internet videoconferencing, they presented concepts and examples of live Internet links for musicians and students around the world. Over the past seven years, they have nurtured relationships between teaching artists and schools worldwide with classes in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools and universities using iChat, a free conferencing application for Mac users.
Allan and Stewart demonstrated how they took their iChat-equipped laptops to their respective schools, plugged in, and began team teaching music classes. It’s really that simple, and to date they have been involved with well over 100 training sessions throughout the U.S.A., Canada, Europe, Australia, and Asia. They created ALIVE because they found that previous videoconferencing initiatives that had been explored in some districts were cost-prohibitive to all but a few schools. However, this has changed dramatically as technology has continued to develop. The vast majority of the schools now involved in the ALIVE Project have never invested in dedicated video conferencing equipment. By and large, the technology costs are nonexistent because schools can employ existing infrastructure. Most schools have high-speed Internet access and personal computers with cameras, and the iChat and Skype software is free.

The cost for professional artists will be a budget consideration. This expense will vary based on the demands of the artist and any technical support that might be needed. Many schools have some kind of clinician fee structure in place. Yet, because transportation, accommodations, meals, and so on are no longer an issue, bringing in a guest artist will be more affordable than ever

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