Video Conferencing for Music Performance Education at the Manhattan School

Manhattan School of Music (MSM), an international music conservatory, began exploring the potential of Internet2 for music performance education in 1999 through a series of collaborations with Columbia University. Utilizing Columbia’s advanced, high-speed connection to the "Abilene" backbone of Internet2, MSM had the opportunity to expand and extend the conservatory’s previously established music performance distance learning program through the technological resources of its academic and community neighbor.

At the time of these initial forays into Internet2, the MSM had already established itself as a leader in music performance video conferencing, having the distinction of being the first conservatory in the nation to use video conferencing technology for music performance education, as early as 1996, and offering regularly-scheduled video conference master classes, coachings, one-on-one teaching sessions, educational and community outreach programs, and professional development programs.

From these beginnings, the educational benefits and enhancements of video conferencing technology for music performance education were quickly apparent—offering greater access to world-class musical artists while also accommodating world-class touring schedules. However, the inherent technological limitations of ISDN-based video conferencing were a constant and ongoing challenge to the program’s future development and sustainability. Elements critical to music performance education—sound, rhythm and timing, visual imagery, movement, and the like were almost completely compromised within this environment, and although MSM developed many technological innovations to address these limitations, it was apparent that this technological infrastructure could not ultimately support the delivery of high-quality music programs.

It is the advent of Internet2 and the capacity of its technological infrastructure that has the most vital and far-reaching impact on the long-term prospects of Manhattan School of Music’s burgeoning distance learning program. Through a series of pilot music projects, MSM determined that Internet2 had the technological infrastructure to truly support, develop, and expand the delivery of high-quality video conference music programs.

For example, Internet2 has a technological infrastructure that can support low-latency, high-bandwidth transmissions of high-fidelity, stereo or multi-channel sound with accompanying full-motion video using broadcast-quality standards. Overall, faster processing along with lower compression ratios and higher bandwidth allocations to audio information make Internet2 an environment conducive to music performance applications.

Moreover, musical exchanges developed and delivered on this high-speed network either via point-to-point connections or multicast can simultaneously be made available to regular commodity Internet users with variable bandwidth capabilities through interoperable systems such as H. 323 and H. 320 videoconferencing integrating ISDN gateways, Web casts, and chat-based interactions."

As commodity traffic migrates towards higher-bandwidth capabilities, end users will eventually be able to take full advantage of the high-quality programming that is being developed.

In October 2001, Manhattan School of Music collaborated with Columbia University and the New World Symphony in presenting a conducting masterclass over Internet2. Within this program, New World Symphony’s Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, stationed in Miami, Florida, offered a conducting masterclass to MSM conducting student, Donato Cabrera, who led the School’s Chamber Sinfonia in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in New York. Utilizing MPEG-2 codecs, transmitting at a rate of 15Mbps, the full-motion, and broadcast-quality video transmitted over Internet2 enabled Maestro Thomas to acutely observe and analyze Cabrera’s conducting technique. Similarly, the CD-quality sound transmission gave Maestro Thomas the high-fidelity required to assess the student’s ability to lead the orchestra effectively. A notable moment within the class came when Maestro Thomas wished to conduct the Manhattan School of Music orchestra from Miami. Due to the low-latency transmission of Internet2 networks, Maestro Thomas was able, in effect, to conduct the orchestra remotely. Maestro Thomas humorously remarked that the remaining residual latency still found in MPEG-2 transmissions was similar to conducting a "large German orchestra." Thus, due to the high-bandwidth/low latency transmission of high-fidelity audio and video signals, Internet2 enabled a virtual teaching and learning experience that simulates and in many ways enhances the live experience.

At present, Manhattan School of Music, a sponsored participant to Internet2 through Columbia University, is actively pursuing direct connectivity from the conservatory’s campus to Internet2. In so doing, MSM will be able to regularly produce and deliver high-quality interactive music performance and education programs over Internet2 networks to participating institutions on the K-16 level. Collaboration with peer institutions within higher education offers students new learning and performing opportunities while simultaneously developing and expanding music performance applications over the advanced high-speed networks of Internet2.

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