Andrew Bain Revisits the Fundamentals of Teaching During COVID-19

Horn faculty Andrew Bain leads a virtual studio lesson on Zoom with guest Sarah Willis, a member of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Transitioning fully to online learning has been a new experience for faculty and students alike. Although not without its challenges, the new way of teaching has given horn faculty Andrew Bain an opportunity to revisit fundamental skills best developed without the pressure of an upcoming performance. Bain’s goal is to help students structure their practice and development method so they are better prepared for life after COVID-19.

This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

How has online teaching been so far?
It’s been really good actually. We went through a period of some experimentation, but I think it is actually very productive using a combination of different things.

What are some of those things that you’ve done to transition online?
First, I had to work through some technical requirements and try to work out what the best system is. Now I’m basically working just off the laptop or the iPad through Zoom, Facebook Messenger, or Skype with the student.

In terms of our structure, we have a class every second day at 8 o’clock in the morning. We’re normally joined by half a dozen to ten students and alumni every second morning. Those morning sessions are basically a warm-up session we all do together, so that everyone is playing regularly and able to have as much human interaction as possible.

And then we sprinkle other sessions in there. We recently had a session with Janice Ying, who’s the Colburn physical therapist. We were talking about posture, injury prevention, stretching, and a whole bunch of other things.

Every day, the students in the studio will upload a video of their playing to our own private Facebook page for feedback within the group and obviously from me. It’s also really helpful for their regular lessons because the sound quality is quite good, so I can hear what they’re actually doing instead of it being directly over the internet.

We are working on a couple of projects at the moment using iMovie and the Acapella app. We’re in the process of recording a six-horn arrangement of a piece. It’s a fun project for everyone to get involved in. It keeps the students motivated, interested, and doing new and different things.

Who are some of the guests you have in your classes?
We’ve had former students come in on a fairly regular basis. What’s pretty interesting from a learning point of view is that they’ve been through the Colburn experience, so they know what the current students are going through. They have the advantage of perspective from having had a job for a period of time and seeing how learning at Colburn may have changed since they’ve left. I think that it’s really valuable for the students to see that people who are no longer students and are in the professional world have questions and things that they’re working on too. It’s a continually evolving process that will probably never end.

It’s something we stress a lot to the current students, that we’re not setting them up to be complete at the end of Colburn, we’re setting them up so that they can use life outside of Colburn to continue their development and to accomplish what they want to achieve.

We also have Sarah Willis, who is one of the horn players in the Berlin Philharmonic, drop by probably about once a week. The students have worked with her quite a lot at Colburn, and everyone knows Sarah in the horn world—she’s quite a significant figure, so it’s great for her to drop by. They get to ask her questions and she adds her input to the situation. We look forward to continuing that with people outside of the studio and Colburn; I think it’s just great for the current students not to see the same five faces everyday too.

How have you found that the students have been reacting to this change and this new way of learning?
They’ve been very positive. I’m very mindful of making sure that they’re feeling good about things and it’s not all about the mechanics of playing a horn. We spend a lot of time just discussing how to best use this time and just normal reactions that people will have when they’re stuck in isolation and unable to perform with others.

I also think it’s important to address what’s going on in the industry and the concerns that everyone has at this time about what’s happening  in orchestral music and freelancing and how that’s going to play out.

One of the main points that we’re discussing at the moment is using this time to set up your way of operating and improving, and also that it’s okay to not feel 100% motivated when you don’t have a performance coming up. So the focus is not on, “I’ve got to use these three or four months to fix all of my problems”—that’s not going to happen. But what can happen is you setting up really good habits and a really good plan for how you’re going to continue to develop without the stress of having a concert tomorrow or an audition in two weeks. The students have embraced that very well I think, and I’ve actually noticed a lot of significant development in their playing without the pressure of having to perform regularly.

We’re also spending a lot of time discussing mental training and the mental side of performance, because it’s a very important skill to have. It’s something that I find a lot of students and professionals really struggle with, dealing with the pressure of performance, nerves, and the potential anxiety. And even though we don’t have that environment at the moment, it’s a great opportunity to practice and develop those skills. Recording something every day gives them that opportunity to test them out in a reasonably safe environment.

The great thing about Colburn is that it provides a lot of resources. So I’m also encouraging them, if they are finding things difficult or having struggles, to reach out to those resources. That’s important, considering that they are quite isolated at the moment.

Are there any other things that you now have the chance to discuss that maybe you hadn’t had the time to before?
What’s been interesting in terms of the teaching is that we can really dig deeper into the actual individual areas that need development. There are certain areas in horn playing that can be really well-addressed when you don’t have the pressures of performing—like posture. Being able to spend time focusing on that and really addressing the fundamentals has been great.

The thing that’s interesting with teaching online is because the audio is generally not as good as it is live, there’s a lot more observation from my side of what’s happening visually. And you can ask a lot of questions, and it requires the students to even be more aware of what they’re doing, because they have a greater responsibility for problem-solving than they do if you’re in the room with them.

Have you had a chance to think about ways you might carry on this different style of teaching once we are back on campus?
I think the idea of presenting something that the students have been working on on a daily basis has been a really useful thing. It’s been helpful to have them spending five or ten minutes at some point during the day recording something they’ve been working on, just so they can feel a little bit of pressure to produce something in a real sense.

The interesting thing I’ve found with recording is that no one ever likes listening back to their own recordings—and I would certainly be in that category—but it’s the best teacher. I actually do these recordings with the students, and it’s helped my playing a lot. The way that you approach something when you know that someone else is going to listen to it is quite different than just playing it on your own sometimes.

One of the really good things that we have at Colburn is a nice camaraderie between the students and within the group. This situation has highlighted how important it is for everyone in the studio to feel involved, and that we’re there to support one another. Once when we come back onto campus, continuing to focus on that will be the right direction to go.

What are you most looking forward to when we’re able to be on campus again?
It’s funny because it seems so far away that I haven’t even thought that far ahead. Of course, the thing that you look forward to the most is hearing other people playing around you, hearing the group play together, and playing with them. So the nicest thing is probably going to be hearing nice quality sounds around you. Being able to play a duet with someone would be good too.

Any other insights to share?
What’s really interesting is that a situation like this, especially in a learning environment, makes you assess how can you do things better and the other ways that we can do things. So I think it’s really great for the evolution of learning and teaching.

I think what will happen when we go back—obviously there will be elements from this time that we’ll use, and there’ll be elements that we’ll probably prefer not to use—but it’s certainly going to help us be more creative and more flexible moving forward, understanding that there’s more than one way of doing something.

Nothing like a global crisis to help you shift your perspective a little bit.
Yeah, because if you think of all the things that are not great, you’re not going to be in a happy place. So keep moving.

But I will say, I think my students are doing a fantastic job and managing this extremely well. They are doing really, really well. and I see a lot of positive growth in their development.