Music to my ears: how to improve the Zoom experience for student musicians & multitask with technology

Teaching during the pandemic has been hard on everyone. That is a massive understatement. Regarding my own circumstances going back to the fall of 2020, I chose to teach in person as much as I could. My teaching load each semester typically involves directing three musical ensembles (Concert Band, Wind Ensemble, and Handbell Choir) in addition to teaching one or two other courses. After having “managed” my teaching during that semester, I was frustrated with how I had to use my laptop to Zoom my classes and rehearsals for those who were attending virtually, consequently losing the ability to use my laptop computer to access and display documents and websites in class. If there was an easy way to manage that, I had not discovered it.

Another logistical complication was the fact that the members of the Wind Ensemble did not all fit in our socially distanced rehearsal room. The best I could do under those circumstances was rehearse half the group at a time and set up Zoom video for the half of the band that wasn’t in the room. The other piece of the puzzle was the occasional student quarantine, although the most I experienced at any one time was three students. Massive problems abounded with Zoom video and members of musical ensembles. I could not realistically expect students to play along with the video and be heard (at least by me) in the rehearsal room. The lag between live sound and video images was too much. The best I could expect from students on video was to watch what was going on and perhaps “play” along silently. The goal, however, was to give students who were not in the rehearsal room the opportunity to stay connected to the music as we worked toward a few opportunities to play together on stage at the end of the semester. One feature of Zoom that I quickly discovered was the ability to “Turn on Original Sound.” This is a critical feature for anyone listening to music. If you do not have this feature activated, the Zoom software will use a limiter on the audio that it picks up, so that you end up hearing very little dynamic variation in the video. Without “Original Sound,” Zoom tries to eliminate what it perceives to be background noise. This is obviously problematic for musicians, since we rely on the impact of dynamic variation in almost anything that we play or sing.

For the spring 2021 semester, after brainstorming with Taylor in Instructional Technology to problem-solve my technology issues, I applied for a grant to get another computer to serve as my dedicated Zoom machine. This seemed like a very logical step forward, and I have used my additional laptop (an iPad Air) with great success. The extra computer did not have to be the biggest machine with the most bells and whistles, but it needed to be a solid, dependable machine with a good camera and good processing speed. Having the extra computer to serve as a video camera while using my other laptop as my regular teaching support system has been liberating. The iPad has been a tremendous help, since I could simply have a shortcut on my desktop that took me automatically to a Zoom link I had set up in Moodle. Also, with the unpredictability of students going into quarantine, it was reassuring knowing that I had a solid technology setup on which I could depend.

Early on I discovered, however, that the Zoom setup was going to get even better…

Zoom vs. Zoom


In January 2020 [pre-pandemic], IT did significant work on the technology in three main teaching/rehearsing spaces in the Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. As part of our technology upgrades, the Music discipline was the recipient of two handheld, multitrack audio recorders made by a company called Zoom – no relation to the software that has been omnipresent for the past year. I have known of this company and their products for many years. They have a stellar reputation for the small, portable recording devices they have been producing, so I knew the audio quality was going to be first rate. Taylor recommended using one of our new audio recorders as a super-charged microphone for my new iPad Air during my Zoom video sessions, particularly for when I needed to show band rehearsals online. Consequently, we now have Zoom audio for our Zoom video – no corporate connections whatsoever – and the potential for enhanced audio for our video sessions has dramatically increased.

Results: Pros and cons

I believe the concept of the additional technology delivered as promised. As I mentioned above, having the additional computer to use as Zoom camera allowed me to regain the freedom of using my primary laptop as I normally use it for accessing documents, websites, and other teaching materials in the flow of teaching a class. Having the audio boost of the Zoom H6 audio recorder clearly made for higher quality videos throughout the semester. The audio quality was naturally a significant concern for me and the students who were watching the video, so I am pleased that students responded favorably to the audio quality of their Zoom videos.

The primary downside of the situation is having to set up all the extra equipment, although I am fortunate to have two band assistants who were able to quickly take charge of managing the Zoom setup for rehearsals. I am not lucky enough to have those students in my other classes, but having them manage the setup for my ensembles throughout the spring semester was definitely a time-saver.

The Future

Having the additional laptop as a standalone camera can prove useful in any of my classes, since I can run recordings through Zoom as well as manage Zoom meetings for courses through Moodle. Pandemic or no pandemic, I can see where this technology can continue to be beneficial in my classes.

While there are distinct benefits to using the high-quality Zoom H6 audio recorder as a standalone recording device, it is obviously of great benefit to maximize the audio quality on any video recording. The use of the Zoom H6 remains a highly viable option for future videos.

As we look toward emerging from pandemic restrictions for faculty and students alike, a question that looms large in my mind pertains to teaching at all levels: Considering the modifications that teachers have made in the past year (from small to gargantuan), how will these new and modified teaching strategies impact our individual course designs as we move forward? What ideas worked well during the pandemic, and how will teachers incorporate some of these strategies into their teaching when our circumstances return to (mostly) normal?

Speaking for myself, I will be more thoughtful about using this technology to help out students dealing with a family or health emergency that keeps them out of classes for any period of time. That’s certainly a reasonable place to start.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *