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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Reimagining our music classes for Zoom

Let’s start our Zoom session with a warm up for your musical imagination:


  • Hear a single note in your mind, played on a violin without vibrato
  • Now hear the violinist add vibrato
  • The note begins to crescendo
  • Now it is fortissimo
  • Now hear the note played sfzpp and held with a fermata
  • The note slides upward in a glissando and fades away into silence

All of us who are devoted to music education are facing new challenges due to the pandemic, and while we are lucky and grateful to have extraordinary technology at our disposal, it is undeniably frustrating to be isolated from each other, to deal with inadequate sound quality, poor connections, and time delays. We cannot actually play chamber music in a satisfying way on Zoom or on any other digital platform with players in different locations. We need to temporarily but urgently reinvent how we teach and connect with students.

To deal with this, musicians everywhere are coming up with creative responses, structuring courses in new ways, and devising thoughtful and compelling blends of performance issues, history, score study, watching videos, and listening to historical performances. For me personally, this crisis has given a new purpose to the synthesis of theater games and music exercises that I have been using to teach for over 40 years.

For music students, the word technique means physical dexterity, virtuosity on an instrument, and excellent intonation. For drama students, the word technique is not only about good diction and fluid body movement, but more importantly it is about the availability of emotion and memory. For many years, drama teachers have used theater games to help students access their emotions in order to really feel rather than merely indicate feelings. They also use theater games to access memories as a way to fuel their imaginations, so that they can bring their own experiences to interpretive challenges.

In the 1980s, I studied and practiced theater games—and I have continued to do so—in order to reimagine them as exercises and games for musicians. I started my explorations with writings of Konstantin Stanislavsky, Lee Strasberg, Jerzy Grotowski, and also by following the ideas of their students. More recently, I added the important work of Viola Spolin to my arsenal.

Here is one of my theater-inspired games that you can vary to fit your Zoom needs:

  • Take a line from a play or make up a line of text
  • Say the line in different ways, with different emotions, giving it various subtexts
  • Pick one line reading that seems convincing
  • Write the words on paper, adding rhythmic notation that reflects the reading
  • Add dynamics and articulation markings that fit the emotion of the reading
  • Give the line, now notated in detail, to someone to read who did not hear your reading
  • Does the notation convey everything you hoped it would?
  • Does the reading based on your notation sound as you had expected?
  • Now add musical pitches to the words and remove the words. Now you have a musical phrase based on that line reading. Does it capture the feelings you had wanted?

The “musical imagination workshops” I have been leading for the last 40 years have served to augment and enhance traditional approaches to teaching performance and composition at conservatories, university music departments, and community workshops throughout the US, starting with Juilliard (where I developed the concept in the 1980s in my weekly seminar).

Due to the pandemic and our temporary but essential reliance on technology to replace in-person classes, the approach of using theater-inspired imagination games offers a compelling solution to a serious problem. Many of the exercises I have developed do not require instruments, as they explore the ability to hear sounds in the mind (The Mind’s Ear), to imagine solo instrumental timbres and orchestral colors, to compose in various ways using sounds heard only in the mind (including rain, footsteps, sirens, glass shattering, etc.).

In this exercise, we take ordinary sounds and imagine a narrative structure:

  • Sound of nail being hammered into a wall in a steady loud rhythm
  • Sound of a siren in the distance getting louder
  • The nail hammering gets faster and lighter
  • The siren continues to get louder
  • The hammering gets faster but now louder
  • The siren is very loud and the hammering is now slow and loud
  • Silence
  • The siren fades away into the distance

Select a set of sounds and construct a scenario, as above.

These games and exercises work on Zoom without compromise. In addition to imagination games, there are improvisations that can be done without instruments, as well as solo instrumental improvisations that each class member can try, while the rest of the class listens and reacts. There is no need to be an experienced improviser for these games, and no particular musical vocabulary is required because the exercises focus on accessing and expressing emotion and on narrative strategies. One might improvise a given exercise in any musical style or in no particular musical style. Technique, for these games, is about the ability to communicate genuine feeling, to let the imagination take over.

For a while, perhaps for half of every Zoom session, we can forget our instruments and repertoire and concentrate on exploring our musical imaginations and accessing our emotions.

In my experience, students benefit enormously from these exercises and games, and they become more resourceful, creative, and independent artists.


Feature image by Gabriel Benois

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