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Leading Live Music Workshops Online: From Hysterical Disasters to Lifting Spirits

Mike Simpson, co-founder of Inspire-works, talks us through his own personal trial and error learning experience of setting up group lessons online, and the surprise benefits that he’s discovered.

By Michael Simpson Published: 04 May 2020 | 12:00 AM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:30 PM
A man playing sunburst offset electric guitar in front of the laptop
We’ve built up a loyal following and have spent each week focusing on a different style of music.

“Let’s clap a pulse at the same time together.” I clicked to un-mute my fellow facilitators, who are all pro-drummers or percussionists, and counted them in.

A cacophony of clapping then ensued which sounded more like a poor performance of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music than 6 drummers simply trying to clap a pulse at the same time! This was followed by hysterical laughter – it was a disaster! “So, it doesn’t look like we can use Zoom to play music together…”

Taking a hit from the lockdown

When the COVID-19 lockdown started and schools closed, our was hit business hard. My wife and I set up our world-music workshop company, Inspire-works, in 2002 and have grown the business to use a large team of workshop facilitators who work with over 65,000 children in schools throughout the UK each year.

We usually have four or five facilitators in different schools every day during term time leading whole-class workshops. This literally stopped overnight when the government asked schools to close during the present epidemic.

We began to think; how could we still lead workshops during the lockdown, how could we still inspire the children at home and how could we create employment for our workshop facilitators?

Discovering what works and what doesn’t

During the first week of the lockdown, I invited our facilitators to join me for a Zoom meeting to experiment with drumming together and to try different ideas for leading workshops online. Six facilitators agreed to join the meeting with whatever drums and percussion instruments they had at home.

We met for about 90-minutes each day during that week and found out more quickly what isn’t possible to do than what is possible to do when trying to play music together via Zoom!

The sound quality was good when each facilitator ensured “Original Sound” was turned on. However, latency (the sound delay over the internet) was the biggest issue – it simply wasn’t possible to play music in time together.

We kept persevering, playing grooves at different tempos and discovered if everyone improvised rhythms in time to what they could each hear the “Host” play and stuck to simple 16th-note patterns (no triplets!), the ensemble sound was great. Each person feeling the pulse in a different place didn’t seem to matter too much for improvised unpitched music! Successful tempos seemed to vary from day to day, so we came to the conclusion the latency must differ from call to call.

We had an idea to lead an online workshop with a panel of facilitators on Zoom and stream it live on YouTube so others could drum along with us. We recorded some simple backing tracks in GarageBand, using the same drums that each facilitator was playing so the sounds would be consistent.

We then planned ahead to create moments in the workshop where everyone could play together. To do this, the host would mute the other facilitators on Zoom, so the backing track would be audible on the YouTube broadcast. The facilitators would then play along (muted), and just ensure that they stop a beat early, to look like they’ve been playing in time!

Going live and moving forward

Our first YouTube live drumming workshop was on 30 March – and we have been leading the workshops each weekday at 2:00 pm ever since.

We’ve built up a loyal following and have spent each week focusing on a different style of music – Brazilian samba drumming, West African drumming, North African drumming, Cuban and Jamaican reggae so far, with our YouTube viewers using junk instruments or kitchen utensils at home to join in with us.

We knew we wouldn’t be able to use these workshops as a significant form of income, but rather viewed them as a promotional tool for our other online resources on our website and as a way to get our name more ‘out-there’ for when the lockdown is over.

In addition to the daily live YouTube workshops, we’re now using the same techniques to lead Zoom whole-class workshops with several of our regular schools where we had previously been leading weekly First Access Programmes.

It’s only a few weeks into the programmes, but so far it’s going really well, and the children are enjoying learning at home playing various objects instead of real drums.

Maintaining connection through music

We’ve also found the whole experience has had a positive effect on our facilitators well-being. Like many peripatetic music tutors, our facilitators would have usually been working alone in schools without much contact with other music colleagues.

However, the Zoom workshops have allowed us to have tremendous fun and laughter playing music together, which has lifted all our spirits during this difficult time.

All of these experiences make us ponder how should we be leading workshops once the lockdown is over.

About the author

Mike Simpson is a member of the MU, co-founder of Inspire-works and an examiner for Trinity College London. Inspire-works are the Guinness World Records holders for both the largest samba band and largest drumming lesson. They are also three times finalists in the Music Teacher Awards.

You can view Inspire-work’s live drumming workshops on their YouTube channel. They’ve also uploaded an advice video on clapping the pulse in time, and a spoof video on overcoming latency.

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