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Difficult times call for inventive measures: cue the Tablet Orchestra

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: April 9, 2020 2:30 p.m.

Students in Tablet Orchestra performing a live improvised concert over Zoom and YouTube
Students in Tablet Orchestra performing a live improvised concert over Zoom and YouTube Credit: Screenshots by UAC

Emily Richards, a third-year Music Education student, makes electronic beats with an app, while Kendall Allin, a third-year Music Education student, responds to the music by drawing with the app, Silk.
Before a live online audience, Campus for All student Lucas Fay dances to the electronic beats he created on an app.

From living rooms, bedrooms, and basements, 17 University of Regina students in Tablet Orchestra, a course within the University of Regina’s Creative Technologies program, recently made use of the Zoom and YouTube platforms to perform a live, improvised, and unique concert using iPads, smartphones, laptops, and musical instruments.

The interdisciplinary course, co-taught by Dr. Rebecca Caines (Creative Technologies) and Dr. Helen Pridmore (Department of Music) in the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance, typically culminates with a face-to-face concert on campus, but this semester, with social distancing a public health order and U of R courses now offered online, Dr. Caines and Dr. Pridmore decided these difficult times called for inventive measures. 

On Sunday, March 29, almost 50 viewers, from as far afield as Australia and Ireland, as well as many throughout Canada, logged in to watch the improvised concert, which was broadcast live over YouTube.

With an iPad strapped to his foot, David Shannon, a mature student, played the guitar while tilting the iPad with his ankle to make a melodic electronic sound with an app. As David played, the other students listened across the Zoom platform and sporadically joined in, together creating a hope-themed jam session like no other. Aiden Hugg, a third-year Music student, played the trombone from his bedroom while others used apps to make electronic beats. Laura Bacon, an upper-level Creative Technologies student, offered a visual element by drawing a picture with her index finger on an iPad, responding to the performance in real time.

Throughout the two-hour concert, students also collaborated in small groups and shared videos of assignments they had completed throughout the semester. A mixed media assignment required students to create a piece using an app and one other medium of their choice. Aiden used a beatboxing loop app to record sounds that he had made with a book (i.e. tapping the book and flipping the pages). He then voiced a motivational speech that he had written and combined it with the looped soundscape.

“I don’t think the students would have done the same things in the classroom if they hadn’t been at home in their rooms trying to work out what to use around them,” said Dr. Caines.

In its seventh year, CTCH 202: Tablet Orchestra is a partnership between Creative Technologies, the Department of Computer Science, and the Music Department. The course has as a major component improvisation theory and activities, involving deep listening, collaboration with people of varying abilities and backgrounds, and risk taking – all of which the students engaged with, in order to adapt to the current situation.

“We’ve been learning together how to improvise, how to listen to each other, and how to collaborate, so it’s kind of the perfect class to have to suddenly shift formats and move online,” said Dr. Caines.

However, the shift to online wasn’t without challenges. Once courses at the U of R moved online, students had to make do.

“Some of the students were using computers with Windows 7 on them,” said Dr. Caines. “They were using old phones. We weren’t live streaming from a professional venue. We didn’t have time to get cables to plug their iPads or phones into their computers. People were holding them up with shaky hands as close as they could to their webcams. I found that really interesting and creative and difficult. But helping everybody reach a level of being able to share, no matter what technology they had, seemed like a really fantastic pedagogical outcome, as well.”

“I think it really kicked up the students’ ability to be creative and to make the best of what they had around them, which is a wonderful life skill,” said Dr. Pridmore.

Both Dr. Caines and Dr. Pridmore were initially apprehensive about going ahead with the concert under such complicated and stressful circumstances, but they wanted to provide their students with the opportunity to showcase their semester’s work.

“I think students are facing a lot of challenges right now generally,” said Dr. Caines. “They’re looking after children or siblings, they’re losing their jobs, they’re using equipment they have never had to try and use before. They’re stressed and anxious like we all are. I felt very anxious that I didn’t push them too hard in any direction, not asking too much of them at a time when we’re all dealing with so much. So, it was very stressful and tricky to make sure that we were giving the right kind of technical support, and the right kind of pedagogical support.”

Audience participation was encouraged and students received immediate feedback through YouTube’s live chat function. U of R Campus for All student Lucas Fay, performing as “DJ Lucas,” danced to the electronic beats he created on an app and was treated to, “Go, Lucas, Go! Great dance!”

“I think it was so powerful for some of the students who are used to doing creativity in a very particular way to realize that creativity can look like live music and painting. It can look like dancing along to somebody’s piece. It can look like putting a funny emoticon on your Zoom feed to let someone know that you’re listening,” said Dr. Caines.

Behind the scenes, students were encouraging one another through Zoom chat. “It really led to a nice camaraderie that had been building in the class but somehow intensified strangely when we were all separated,” added Dr. Pridmore. “We had cats wandering through people’s rooms. Our student, Jason Worm, majoring in Creative Technologies, brought his little two-year-old onto the screen to say ‘hi' to everybody. Someone’s mom was in the background. It felt like we were creating community.”

After the concert, Dr. Caines and Dr. Pridmore debriefed with the students over Zoom.

“There were a lot of very excited, animated students who felt really proud of themselves and really excited that it had happened,” said Dr. Caines. “I think the students felt that buzz, exactly the kind of buzz you get from doing a live performance. That’s one of the things we wanted them to experience as part of the concert.”

Clearly that buzz made a lasting impact. Reflecting on the performance, Laura wrote in a blog post, “Being a part of this wonderful concert has given me a feeling of hope that we will all get through this tough time together.”

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