Remote Musicianship Tips with Randy Kapralick

January 28, 2021

We can hardly call the end of 2020 a “shift to remote learning” anymore. Without the ability to perform together, you may be wondering how on earth music students have been honing their skills at home all this time. UArts spoke with School of Music Assistant Dean and Trombone Department Chair Randy Kapralick in December to find out how he and his students have adapted to remote learning, the effect he's seeing as a result, and to learn a few tips for remote musicianship.

UArts: So you're teaching Freshman Musicianship and Junior Musicianship this semester?

Kapralick: [Yes. Junior Musicianship is] called Comprehensive Musicianship. These are juniors I’ve known for a while and a lot of them have been in Transfusion [Ensemble]. 

Comprehensive Musicianship is open to Composition, Instrumental Performance and Vocal Performance majors, and is a synthesis of theory and musicianship content. The course covers advanced aural development through sight-singing, dictation of multiple parts simultaneously, transcription and analysis of songs and improvised solos, and composition and arranging of original material based on the analysis. 

Kapralick: In their curriculum, they don't have a ton of core music classes as juniors. So they have all said that this class has been their savior [this semester]. They got into the habit of trying to one-up each other and it’s been a real nice, friendly competition.

UArts: How have you adapted your curriculum this year, being entirely remote?

Kapralick: While working with the Pre-College program this summer, we had a 90-minute masterclass every day from a different artist. Listening to somebody talk for 90 minutes—people don’t use that enough. It's always great in the classroom, but you’ll hear sirens and street noise sometimes. When everybody’s in headphones on Zoom, it’s amazing to listen to audio clips or watch video clips.

So with this class, there’s a lot of listening. I designed my curriculum this past year [around] sharing music and letting the students share, too. The medium is usually up to them. With MIDI sounds, a lot of them will multi-track themselves. Since it’s [an advanced class], we’re able to focus on a lot of compositional concepts, too. 

UArts: Have you noticed a difference in the work students have been submitting remotely versus what they would submit in person?

Kapralick: I absolutely think it's more creative. Ravi [Seenarine ’22] has had a couple things where he’s playing bass guitar, piano and singing five or six tracks at the same time. After submitting one of his projects, he said, “This class is an example of how remote learning can really work. I feel like it’s given me the opportunity to go deeper.” 

I also think that [because of] the intimate setting—[the music] being so close to your ears, knowing that everybody's going to hear and see what they're doing really well—they tend to spend a lot of time on it.

For his final project in Comprehensive Musicianship, junior Instrumental Performance major Andrew Harker composed and recorded a collage of soundscapes. “... I thought about this entire semester as a curiosity semester,” said Harker. “It kind of changed the way that I’m looking at music and what I want to do with my life. So I took the curiosity and ran with it, and did something that I had never done before.”

UArts: Normally, if students were presenting in person, would they be performing on their chosen instrument?

Kapralick: I leave a lot of the parameters up to them. They can perform it themselves or add a live track in Logic and mix some synth sounds or that kind of thing. That’s an element I’ve used before, but I feel like they use more tracks and add more layers into it being remote. Part of it is knowing that it’ll be well received. You’re never guaranteed that you can hear something that well [on speakers]. There's nothing like [having] nice headphones and hearing the piece the way that they meant you to. 

Music students with headphones on a Zoom video call
Kapralick's Comprehensive Musicianship class listens and reacts to final presentations over Zoom.

UArts: I suspect there would also be some anxiety attached to performing live versus presenting something that’s been recorded.

Kapralick: That’s true. There has been some anxiety in that class that I don’t think people have as much [virtually]. 

Kapralick explained that many students struggle with performance anxiety in musicianship class and have actually been enjoying and thriving with remote learning, allowing them to present better work. 

Kapralick: In my freshmen class, I do a mix. I don’t do a ton of recorded assignments, because there is something to be said for having to do your solfege (a system of notation in which every note of a scale is given a specific syllable to teach aural skills, pitch and sight-reading) or tap your rhythms in front of everybody. It’s a really welcoming vibe in that class so it has been an opportunity to get their feet wet with having to perform on the spot. 

UArts: How have you seen your students overcome the challenges of remote learning, especially first-year students? Is there anything that will stay with them after quarantine? 

Kapralick: I think they've learned to be really supportive. It’s nerve-wracking to sing solfege at 8:30 or 10 o'clock in the morning in front of people they don’t really know. So I think they’re going to be really tight. I’ve said to them, “You’re going to know each other all through your senior year. You’re going to remember this experience you’ve had together.” My juniors already know each other’s sense of humor and how they play. So it’s not as much of a stretch for them to be remote as it is for the freshmen. 

UArts: Do you have any recommendations for students considering studying instrumental performance who might be facing remote learning? What are some things they can do to prepare? 

Kapralick: You can’t work on your “in the moment” experience, [like] your blend within a section. So you have to take advantage of the things that work well remotely, the things that can be enhanced. Let yourself go deep on [those] things, so that when we get back, you can focus harder on the live elements, like blend and balance, listening to each other, listening to your section leader, interacting when you’re soloing. 

[For example], I do a really regimented warmup that’s 40 minutes a day. So I made a 45-minute Logic track with cello drones that accompanies every single part of my warmup. It does exactly what I do. I can hit play or pause at any time. If I only have 30 minutes [that] day, I can speed up the tempo to cater my warmup. Now, all of a sudden, my warmup is a musical activity [for class] that I’m going to use way after COVID. It’s great because I’m able to use my ears every day with other pitches. 

If you’re not playing with other people, pitch can go out the window. And it’s paid off; when I’ve had to make recordings lately, it’s the first thing I noticed. A lot of us are so hard on ourselves all the time, but I noticed right away—my pitch is really solid without even thinking about it. 

UArts: So focusing on the nitty gritty stuff—theory, composition and ear training—and getting really solid so you don't have to think about it when you're improvising.

Kapralick: And just make recordings of yourself in general. It's something we always tell students to do. Cell phone audio is great. Now that everybody has microphones and interfaces, you can record yourself a little bit every day, whether you’re talking about or just listening to your technique or improv. A lot of us require recordings for weekly assignments and I think it’s really helping [students] have a more critical ear on their playing.

UArts: It seems like it’s forcing students to do more of the back work, instead of just showing up to class or ensemble rehearsal and saying “that's good enough.”

Kapralick: That’s a great way to put it. To wrap up, I would say you have to realize that we will come back. This will be an isolated amount of time, and you will probably have built up a lot of chops that you wouldn’t have [otherwise]. So take advantage of the resources you have. 

During the final Comprehensive Musicianship class of the fall 2020 semester, Kapralick said to his students, “I feel like if I teach until I’m 100 years old, I’ll always remember this semester with this class. I think it was healing for me to spend this time with you twice a week.”

Explore Instrumental Performance at UArts.