Doug: I want us to hang on to the passion that we have for teaching and the passion that we have for learning. I want us to hang on to the real sense of connection and community that we have at Anne Arundel Community College, between our colleagues, between students and faculty. I want us to hang on to that sense that working together as a team we can accomplish anything.
Welcome to Redefine U. I’m Dan Baum. Join us as we continue to explore what happens when we’re challenged to change our thoughts, beliefs or even who we think we are.
Music has been called the universal language. How do we teach and perform music in our current online world? Why is it important to continue learning and engaging in music and the arts?
In this episode, we’ll talk with Doug Byerly, an associate professor in our Performing Arts department. He’ll share the ups and downs of online performing arts and how music in particular can build connections and feed souls.
Dan: I want to welcome professor Doug Byerly, who teaches music at AACC. Hi, Doug. So good to talk to you.
Doug: Thank you, Dan. It's great to be here.
Dan: How are you holding up during this pandemic?
Doug: You know, like many of our students and our colleagues, there's a little bit of fatigue from teaching online and doing a lot of the Zoom and Teams and all the things that we do online. But I will say that this term in particular I'm re-energized because I'm teaching one live class and that section in particular has just really buoyed my attitude and it's really given me a lot of positive vibrations for the future at AACC.
Dan: That's good to hear. I want to dig into a little bit about that further. Let's start with pre-COVID. What did you primarily teach and what other activities did you lead or were you involved in?
Doug: So pre-COVID, I was the director of the choirs. I was directing concert choir and chamber singers. I was heavily involved with theater as a collaborative effort between the performing arts department theater, dance and music. I was involved with producing our production of Beauty and the Beast along with my colleagues from theater and dance, Sean Urbantke and Lynda Fitzgerald and Anna Binneweg was around the team as well as a lot of community members. I was teaching music theory and music fundamentals, and I was teaching conducting and composition. So there a wide range of things that I was teaching and activities that I was involved in. Along with that, I'm the general director for Opera AACC, which is one of only three companies in the nation that offer opera on the community college level.
Dan: So you didn't have a whole lot going on.
So COVID comes along and you're all about performance, live, interactive. What have you been able to do during COVID?
Doug: During that time of COVID from March 2020, until really till now we've been developing online technologies and working with various partners so that we can actually have an ensemble or a vocalist or clarinetist, play in real time with another musician that's 50 miles away, 20 miles away, a 100 miles away.
So in Zoom if you try and talk at the same time, it becomes just a lot of garble. However, using some of the technology that we're employing, we have 10 students singing online together in sync in real time. This is not a virtual choir where they each record their part and then dump it all together, this is actual music making happening online. It doesn't replace what we do live, but it's pretty darn good.
Dan: That's so cool. So tell me a little more about that approach. You say technology tools, best practices, what are you actually doing to make that happen?
Doug: So through the CARES Act, the college was able to help students that couldn't afford the technology that is a USB microphone and a good set of stereo, headphones and an ethernet cable as well because ethernet stability is very important in this process. So the college has helped support those students at their home so that they have a dedicated computer, dedicated ethernet connection to their modem, microphone, and headphones and then they're able to use an application that we're using called JamKazam. So we could create these virtual rooms that allow our students to interact with each other and we do have video as well, so we can actually see each other and again, sing and perform in real time.
Dan: That sounds really cool. You said that the live class you're doing now has been really energizing. What do you find makes that so energizing compared to this cool technology you're using?
Doug: Yes. As cool as the technology is, in my opinion, there is nothing that beats meeting face-to-face live in a performing arts class. The human connection is so important. Currently every Friday, I'm meeting with Chamber Singers, which is a group of nine singers who registered for this class and we have protocols that we follow obviously. And we're following the best practices from the CDC and other sources. But in meeting live, you really have to consider the spacing within the classroom, the air flow and the return and refresh rate. So in a two and a half hour class, we meet for approximately one hour then we all go to individual practice rooms for about 30 to 45 minutes so that the room can refresh and we come back and sing for another hour after that as well and then we depart. We're wearing masks the entire time, we're using distancing. We're following the ventilation pattern of the room as designed by the engineer.
But in meeting live, I get to see the eyes of the singers and they can see me. We get to hear each other in an acoustical space and it's really performing truly in real time and it's magical, it's the best. And it's motivated all of the singers in the class. Then it's given them hope that yes, we can see down the road that we'll be able to sing with maybe 20 singers at some point or maybe 50 singers, again, at some point.
Dan: I'm curious your thoughts about arts organizations as a whole, because obviously COVID is having an impact on arts organizations in live performances in general. So what are you seeing there?
Doug: I see a lot of innovation happening with arts organizations, particularly in our area with the theater, with the symphony and various performing arts organizations. Don't get me wrong, we're struggling. As a former board member of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, I applaud their innovation in terms of offering live concerts that are streamed so that people could still watch, heading towards to the point where we can have audiences back in the hall and still stream really high-quality performances. Further, I'll still use the symphony as an example again, they have an academy that they're really reaching out to young people, and they're continuing to do one-on-one lessons in a socially-distanced fashion. Following the science, but making connections with elementary students, middle school students, and continuing to build the community of artists.
To the point of your question, arts organizations in 2021 have to be innovative in the product that they deliver and the modality that they deliver it, but they also have to be looking towards, where are we going? We all say we want to have a sense of normalcy after COVID, but I don't know that we will ever have an opera company or a dance ballet company in the same fashion that we knew two years ago. I think that they're going to really have to be looking at audience development, who's coming to these events and figure out ways to really continue to grow and be innovative.
Dan: That term normalcy it's striking to me, because we sometimes say new normal or returning to normal or some sense of normalcy. So if you had a crystal ball, what would you say that will look like for arts education, music education and the arts as a whole?
Doug: Well, there's several things that are informing arts education right now. And the return to normalcy is highly overrated. In fact, I think COVID has given us an opportunity to shift the paradigm and look at arts education through a new lens, through the lens of anti-racism, through the lens of decolonizing the music room, through the lens of incorporating and embracing more than just the Western tradition. And every arts' educator has, I'm going to call it a mandate, to really look at what and how we're teaching and who we're teaching and truly listen and open our ears and our hearts to the process of anti-racism and decolonization.
Dan: I love that perspective. And you have such a broad perspective because you wear many different hats obviously. There's another one, your role as musical director, I believe, for the oldest Catholic parish in the state. Tell me about your experiences during COVID in that role.
Doug: Well, thank you for asking. First of all, St. John the Evangelist in Hydes, Maryland is celebrating our 200th anniversary. And in fact, in two weeks, Archbishop Lori will be coming out to kick off the heritage of this 200th anniversary.
Dan: Wow, cool.
Doug: I love St John's because it's just a open, welcoming community and the music is vibrant, the liturgy is vibrant, and it's a community where I've, over the last year, had the opportunity to continue to build the performance side of the music by doing things like involving limited number of singers. We designed specialized booths for singers to contain aerosol so that we can be safe singing at a liturgy, we've been live streaming every week as well and our audience for live streaming has been anywhere from 150 to 300 channels locking in which means that could be anywhere from 150 to 500 people or so watching every week.
Dan: I would think that the two experiences of informing each other as you're teaching and working with students online and then how you bring that to your experience as musical director for the parish.
Doug: Absolutely. Dan, I love teaching and I love working in the music business. As it turns out many AACC students have had the opportunity to work professionally with me as contractors at St. John for the archdiocese. So I'm a huge believer in mentoring our students and showing them the professional opportunities that are available for singers and musicians.
Dan: Well, for many, myself included, music and performing arts is itself a spiritual experience or act, what are your thoughts or observations there?
Doug: I would agree with you. No matter whether you're agnostic, atheist, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, music is one of the core soulful experiences that we embrace in humanity. I was listening actually this past week to some Mongolian contemporary music, but it embraced throat singing, which was a very cool style, along with the stringed instruments and percussion from the Asian tradition and it blew me away because the soulfulness of this music remind me of Mumford and Sons goes to Mongolia. Okay. And I'm not trying to be pedantic, there was just this really genuine, organic, beautiful sense even though I couldn't understand what was being sung, I understood the music. I understood the connection and it touched me. So indeed music is soulful, music is for many a religious experience, whether it's sacred, contemporary, it doesn't matter.
Dan: So what are you hearing from students about their being able to engage in the arts at this time?
Doug: I think it's so important for our students, from what I'm hearing, to be able to have the human connection on a regular basis, whether we're the visual arts in a ceramics class, whether we're in a dance class, theater, music. Our students long to just be in the same space as their mentor and their colleagues. And if it means maybe meeting one week live, and then two weeks online, they'll do it because the need, the desire and the real sense of connection when we meet face to face in the arts is a very powerful thing and I think our students, a lot of them, miss that.
Dan: At the same time, you've been able to make connections without being live. My immediate thought, many people might think that by not being in person for live performance it's easy to assume there's loss there, but I'm hearing such excitement from you and that there are possible gains and opportunities with the technology itself.
Doug: I think that if we used this technology that I've talked about, we can incorporate this technology in a hybrid sense into our work. So, you know what? A snow day can actually be a make music day.
Dan: Oh, I love that.
Doug: I know, right? But colleagues and students that can't travel can still access a class and participate. We have students that cross over the Bay Bridge and come from quite a ways away, sometimes an hour, an hour 20 minutes to come to Anne Arundel Community College for their arts class, right? For their classes in general. And some of the times, if they know that they can actually participate, it might be easier on that really terrible rainy day or they might be feeling a little bit under the weather or have even, God forbid, pre-COVID symptoms, they could actually still participate in the class. And so we can have live singers along with virtual singers in real time.
Dan: We are focusing on the future of education this season. We've touched on a lot of this already, but I'm just curious, what do you want us to hang on to most as we move forward with education?
Doug: That's a double-edged sword Dan. Because ...
Doug: ... I want us to hang on to the passion that we have for teaching and the passion that we have for learning. I want us to hang on to the real sense of connection and community that we have at Anne Arundel Community College, between our colleagues, between students and faculty. I want us to hang on to that sense that working together as a team we can accomplish anything. I want us to hang on to really the high caliber of content and teaching that we have. I want us to hang on as well that there are various modalities that we can teach and learn in. Not everybody is designed to learn online, we get that, but quite frankly there're other students that thrive in an online environment. So I want us to hang on to the technology and resources that we're building.
I think there's a lot of things that we can hang onto in education, but I think there's a lot of things that we need to observe and be aware of as educators and within the community that we need to grow and to let go of certain things from the past as well. And some of those things, we need to let go of anything that blocks our students in any fashion. So we want to embrace, again, this concept, not just concept, the entire movement of anti-racism, of decolonizing the classroom and looking at who benefits from the theory and the content, and making sure that all of our students have equitable and access and just are truly creating the most inclusive, equitable environment that we can.
Dan: Do you see this as a redefining moment for the arts or arts education? And if so, how?
Doug: Absolutely. One of my former students, Alysia Lee happens to be the executive director of the Maryland State Department of Education, fine arts department. And we've had Alysia Lee come to campus virtually over the past year to talk to our students about how arts education is changing. And whether we're talking at the high school level or the college level, each of us has to look at the shift, including the repertoire that we choose, the content that we're talking about and using whether it's in theater, in dance, in music. So the performing arts has always been in my mind at the forefront of being inclusive and equitable, but at the same time, there are times where I've seen the arts be very parochial and enclosed in that sort of conservatory fashion where if you're not good enough, you don't get in and there's always this cutting line. So I think we're seeing a shift in that sort of attitude in that approach.
Dan: Something you said earlier about arts organizations really struck me, and that is innovation while at the same time recognizing and facing struggles. And I would argue that arts organizations when they're at their best are at the forefront of that as well, innovating while acknowledging struggle. And what I would like us to hang on to is a recognition of how important this is for our souls as we recognize that we need connection and this is one of the ways that all of humanity connects is through music.
Doug: Hallelujah, brother. I'm quoting Leonard Cohen here, right? Truly Dan you're absolutely right. The struggling arts organization by its very nature is generally innovative, creative, collaborative, and indeed it touches the soul of humankind. Sometimes I refer back to, I thing it was Arthur Brandon who said, Beethoven is my religion. And so music, dance, theater have that ability to touch the soul and to make us laugh, to make us cry, to make us feel even in times like COVID.
Dan: We're talking about organizations, our theme is also redefine, of course. So how about yourself? What has been a redefining moment for you? Or how have you redefined yourself over time?
Doug: I have redefined myself throughout my career in many facets, as a conductor, as a performer, as a teacher, as a collaborator, mentor. This past year in particular, the redefining moment has been, like many of my colleagues, how to incorporate technology and still touch students. How to reach our students and really make connections. And I've opened myself up and redefined myself as, even though I don't like teaching online, I'm going to do my best to use any and every resource so that students can feel connected, so that they're able to see that they can do this. And so the redefining of Doug Byerly is that I am an online teacher, I'm a live teacher, and I can wear both hats and make it work.
Dan: You weren't always a college professor, is that correct as well?
Doug: No. I spent 16 years in the public schools.
Dan: How has that informed your teaching as you have evolved in the way you approach it?
Doug: Well, not only my teaching in high schools and performing arts magnet schools, but I taught elementary and middle school as well. But I also taught as an adjunct at the college level. And those two things teaching in the K-12 system and teaching as an adjunct, informed me greatly on the experience of what it is to be a high school music teacher, the experience of what it is to be an adjunct. And being a full-time professor, I hearken back to those sensibilities. So I know the importance that adjuncts and that K-12 teachers need in terms of support. And so for me, it was an awareness that, hey, I need to go down to Broadneck High School or to Severna Park High School or to Annapolis High School or reach out to various schools throughout the county and make connections with those teachers just so that they know that, hey, AACC is a great place.
We know it's a great place, but we need other people to know that as well. And as an adjunct, it's also gave me that information of really being a supporter and an advocate for our part-time instruction team, because they're amazing. And they're really part of the lifeblood of this community and of our instructional team.
Dan: Well, obviously you and I are big advocates for performing arts. And you mentioned K-12, many of those programs were being cut or reduced pre-COVID, what do you think is going to happen post COVID? Are people going to recognize, as you and I are talking about, this is vital or do you see that it will continue to erode?
Doug: Dan, I wish I could wave my magic wand and assure you that-
Dan: I'm going to give you the magic wand. Just wave it Doug, go ahead.
Doug: I'm waving. We know the importance of arts education for K-12 and beyond. We know the importance in terms of the correlation and the relationship between academic studies and brain development and the arts. We know that communities that have thriving arts programs generally have thriving athletics programs and have the thriving academic programs, they go hand in hand. If you start cutting the arts, you're cutting academics as well. If you start cutting the arts, you're cutting athletics. If you start cutting the arts, you're cutting the soul of the entire K-12 system. And it's very short-sighted for individuals to think otherwise.
Dan: Then it must be cutting biology too, because it just cuts our hearts out. That's what I would add. Doug, it's always great to speak with you. I do want to say on a personal note, as you know my father-in-law passed away two years ago, it was actually two years ago last month. And I've shared this with you, but I just want to share publicly. My family arrived at the church and I should point out, it's not a church that you attend, we go to different churches. My family arrived, and who do we see at the piano? It’s you. I just have to say your music and probably even more importantly your presence was just so comforting and so beautiful, Doug. It touches me still.
Doug: Dan, thank you for that. It was an honor and a privilege for me to celebrate your family's life and loss and grief and be part of that. And for our students, that's what we do as musicians, it's part of the healing process. Thank you for saying that, it stays with me as well.
Dan: Well, thank you for all that you do for our students, colleagues and community, take care and be well, Doug.
Doug: Thank you, Dan.
Music truly has the ability to speak to us all. It can give voice our pain and sorrow. It can also express joy, love and healing.
One of the news stories that sticks in my mind from the early days of the pandemic is that of people in locked-down cities playing music from their porches and balconies, in particular Broadway star, Brian Stokes Mitchell, singing the impossible dream to essential workers in New York City. Others played instruments, sang or banged pots with wooden spoons. The point was not rehearsed proficiency, but the uplift that comes from creating art and experiencing togetherness in the moment.
Music is at the core of who we are, as I sit in my home office surrounded by guitars, speakers and art on the walls. As we look hopefully toward an end to the pandemic, it’s a salve we can embrace regardless of location, education or beliefs. So, sing a song, watch a virtual performance and support the arts. It will do your soul some good.
Redefine U is a production of Anne Arundel Community College. Our executive producer and creative director is Allison Baumbusch. Our producer is Jeremiah Prevatte and our writer, Amy Carr Willard.
Others who helped with this podcast include Amanda Behrens, Angie Hamlet, Ben Pierce and Alicia Renehan.
Special thanks to Doug Byerly
Find show notes, how to subscribe and other extras on our website: aacc.edu/podcast.
I’m your host and creator of this podcast, Dan Baum. Thanks for listening.
Doug: We won’t get into trouble over this.
[singing] How lucky can one guy be?
I kissed her and she kissed me
Like the fella once said
Ain't that a kick in the head?
Her room was completely black
I hugged her and she hugged back
Like the sailor said, quote
Ain't that a hole in the boat?"
Thank you. Thank you very much.