Facing challenges of online music education, Algonquin comes up with unique solution

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Northborough – Algonquin Regional High School Band Director Eric Vincent wanted to celebrate a student’s birthday by having his class sing “Happy Birthday” at the beginning of a video meeting.

Poor connections, however, left students’ audio cutting in and out.

“It sounded awful,” Vincent said.

Technological difficulties like that hit music departments particularly hard after COVID-19 forced schools to transition to online classes back in March.

Persistent, however, Vincent salvaged some of the semester with a unique workaround – the virtual concert.

“When this pandemic hit, every band, orchestra and chorus was like ‘how do we do that?’” Vincent said. “That’s really the only way we can play together.”

Algonquin’s take on the trend features 80 student musicians performing their school song. Vincent has shown the video internally to his classes, while also pushing it out to the community via social media.

Released in mid May, it’s an audio-visual collage that required Vincent to compile submitted video recordings from students each playing their parts of the song. Vincent then shipped the massive collection of files to Northborough’s Cable Access station which edited it all.

“It’s not going to replace playing together, but it’s one way to come up with the same product,” Vincent said.

Vincent leads 90 student musicians in two band classes of about 45 each. While he was able to teach more scholarly topics like music theory sufficiently via the internet, he said it’s impossible to replicate the atmosphere of a band room music rehearsal without being able to gather everyone in one space.

“It’s really all about playing together live…that’s what we thrive on,” he said. “It’s been very difficult for me and for a lot of my students not being able to do that.”

Traditionally a busy season of performance opportunities, this spring was hard as Vincent and his students watched date after date pass without the previously scheduled shows taking place.

Though they squeezed in their annual Central District Jazz Festival competition, winning a gold medal, the Algonquin band program missed their chance to play in the statewide festival they had qualified for in late March.

This year was also the first in recent memory that students did not attend the Massachusetts Instrumental Choral and Conductors Association Festival in early April or participate in Memorial Day parades in Southborough and Northborough.

In a spring of frustrations, Vincent is frank about the current situation, particularly relating to online music education.

“It’s a tricky format especially for this content area,” he said.

As uncertainty surrounds the future, however, Vincent and his students are finding a shred of joy in the project they’ve created.

“We’re all kind of itching for some kind of feel good escape from this weird time that we’re living in,” Vincent said. “Any bit of positivity helps.”

To see Algonquin’s band video, click https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZMWr5h8Tsw