Video Conferencing and Music Performance Education

Around the world with the Manhattan School of Music

By Christianne Orto
Manhattan School of Music

Distance learning in music education, how is this possible? Skeptics wonder if videoconferencing technology can capture superior sound quality or has the necessary clarity for tracking minute movements during performance. The surprising answer: Yes, to both.

The Manhattan School of Music (http://www.msmnyc.edu), a preeminent international conservatory of music offers bachelor, master and doctorate degrees in music performance. The school hails as the first conservatory in the country to incorporate videoconferencing into its music performance education curriculum.

Founded in 1918, the Manhattan School of Music is dedicated to the personal, artistic and intellectual development of each of its students who range from pre-college through postgraduate levels. In addition to approximately 850 students from over 40 countries in the College Division, the school serves about 450 New York-area students ages 5 to 18 in the Preparatory Division; almost 2,000 New York City school children through its arts-in-education program; and approximately 1,700 college and K-12 students worldwide through its distance learning program.

The school trains students in performance and composition, while providing a broad-based education in music theory, history and humanities. Under the leadership of Robert Sirota, the school employs a superb artist-teacher faculty of 250 professional musicians and presents over 400 public performances annually. Manhattan School of Music's more than 10,000 alumni remain active in every aspect of American musical life. Many are among the most distinguished artists performing in opera houses and concert halls, and on jazz stages throughout the world today.

We initially explored videoconferencing technology to accommodate the touring schedule of world-renowned violinist, conductor and MSM faculty member, Pinchas Zukerman, so that he could teach his students while concertizing around the globe. The program proved so successful that Manhattan School of Music decided videoconferencing presented great opportunities for the conservatory environment. We have since expanded our program to include master classes, workshops, clinics, one-on-one teaching, education and community outreach, professional development, coaching and the creation of a new elective class, 'Videoconferencing for Performers & Educators,' designed to expose students to the virtual learning environment.

Searching for Quality Audio and Video

As we searched for the right solution, our staff faced technology limitations with videoconferencing. Most systems proved inadequate for the high fidelity sound and acoustical requirements of music instruction. Finding a suitable system involved a long search for the best sound quality and greatest flexibility.

In the past, videoconferencing provided only monophonic sound, which was unacceptable for delivering the superior quality necessary for music education. In addition, vendors did not allocate extra bandwidth necessary for high quality audio. Since sound is a paramount requirement, the school thought existing systems were unacceptable.

Then we discovered the Polycom VSX 8000, which offers 14kHz StereoSurround capability that can allocate 96 kbps of sound quality, including full-duplex stereo echo cancellation. The VSX series also maintains unsurpassed video quality, allowing students and teachers to see the minute details of the physical performance such as fingering and bowing. Plus, Polycom's technical support staff equipped the VSX 8000 with features tailored to the school's music application. Louis Brown, chief audio engineer at the Manhattan School of Music and an innovator in adapting recording techniques for music performance videoconferencing noted, "The Polycom 8000 allows me to create a greater depth of sound and image providing a more realistic virtual environment. I am now able to explore and utilize more creative audio techniques, never before imaginable, with impressive results."

Additionally, Polycom's VSX 8000 rack mountable unit gives us the flexibility and mobility we need for presenting videoconference performance or teaching events in different venues, and meets our standards--high quality audio and video. We can now teach music performance education on a high level suitable for our esteemed artist faculty in a virtual environment. We're now collaborating with Polycom by providing suggestions and improvements to help better serve the music education market.

Videoconferencing and Music Education

With Polycom's technology, Manhattan School of Music exports and imports music education to master classes at institutions of higher education including the Cleveland Institute of Music and the New World Symphony in Florida. Jazz clinics, workshops and music enrichment classes for K-12 students are also given across the country to schools from Alabama to Wisconsin.

On a daily basis, the school imports information from national and international institutions, providing the faculty an effective way to lead classes at the institution. Guest artist teachers are available via videoconference from remote locations.

The school applies the technology in many creative ways to build a pathway for the future. On one occasion, the school used videoconferencing to present an honorary doctorate degree during a commencement ceremony. The recipient, Mstislav Rostroprovich, renowned laureate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., is one of the most sought-after cellists in the world and highly regarded in the music world. His inclusion in the ceremony through videoconferencing proved moving and inspirational for both faculty and staff.

Our music programming was always ready for us to deliver to remote locations, but the technical limitations of the technology for music performance education were of great concern. Polycom's solutions saved the program because of their ease of use, reliability and quality. We can now look forward to expanding further with the possibility of remote auditioning for prospective students. Its use has enabled the school to extend its distance learning program and the global reach of the musical arts.

Other Considerations

For those looking to start similar services, the Manhattan School of Music recommends:

1. Invest in advanced, high-quality equipment that is easy to use; ease of use is critical to both faculty and staff acceptance.
2. Secure support on many institutional levels. It's vital to receive backing from senior administration, faculty, and student leaders before implementing a videoconferencing program, especially in the performing arts.
3. Educate and inform as many people as possible to help ensure buy-in from a large constituency. Once people understand the benefits of the technology, they're more willing to accept and support its use. Demonstrating its potential is essential.
4. Integrate distance learning with recording and audio services. Convergence of content and technology is the key to superior sound quality. Similarly, incorporating institutional video technology services is necessary to ensure the highest production values for music performance videoconferences.

Christianne Orto (corto@msmnyc.edu) is Assistant Dean of Distance Learning & Director of Recording at the Manhattan School of Music.

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