How the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is Saving Canada’s Musical Heritage

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The TSO is using interactive video learning to help young Canadians tune into classical music.

Canadian classical music has a problem: these days, some young people tend not to love live orchestral performances the same way they love playing online games like Fortnite or watching their favorite YouTube stars. Inspired by that behavior, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) created an interactive modern learning experience to help young people tune into Canada’s musical heritage.

The TSO knows firsthand how easy it is for many tech-savvy youngsters to become overwhelmed when they’re attending their first orchestral performance.

“It’s not like watching a hockey game, where it’s really obvious to follow the puck to see the action,” says Michael Morreale, the TSO’s director of digital content. “You have to know the sound of the instrument, or you have to know where to look among the 88 players on stage at any given moment.”

So, as the TSO looked for ways to reach a wider, younger audience, it knew it needed to leverage modern learning tools to develop an interactive learning experience that would creatively showcase how orchestras work. It also wanted to provide music teachers with a modern learning experience they could use to introduce their students to Canada’s rich musical lineage.

The TSO’s solution was to partner with D2L’s Learning and Creative Services team, tapping its modern learning expertise to create an accessible online teaching resource that leverages video tools to put students at the heart of the orchestra.

Capturing and sharing Canada’s musical heritage

The project started with the creation of a rich and diverse musical resource. To mark Canada’s 150th anniversary, the TSO used funding from the Government of Canada to commission over 50 new works from composers across the country and record a series of concerts on video.

The TSO wanted to celebrate the music of Canada’s past, but at the same time, it was important for it to highlight the diversity that exists in Canada today. So, when it commissioned new works, the TSO tried to expand the idea of what a piece of Canadian classical music could be.

The orchestra collaborated with cultural groups from across the country and artists from different backgrounds. It worked with Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq to develop a new piece that combined throat singing and orchestrations by a Canadian composer.

It also recorded Canada’s national anthem in 12 languages.

“It was important for us to commission and have these new works created so that in 50 years, hopefully, these works are still being performed,” says Morreale.

The next step was to embed several of those videos into an interactive video-based elearning platform, which led the TSO to partner with D2L.

Upgrading a musical resource with modern learning

As part of the yearlong initiative called Canada Mosaic, the TSO’s interactive video platform was developed in collaboration with D2L’s Learning and Creative Services team, which helped create the digital design and build the video player technology. The platform allows the TSO to better leverage its video assets—which now include recordings of 40 concerts using between 16 or 18 cameras per concert—so it can ensure its performances continue to reach a wider audience.

TSO chose the interactive video route because it understands that the way people (particularly younger people) consume educational content has changed. Millennials, for example, look to YouTube as a trusted learning resource.

“We know that students, kids at home, are on their iPads and watching YouTube all the time, so it’s important for us to really use modern learning methods like a video as a way of engaging students,” explains Morreale.

What it’s like to experience an orchestra online

The TSO’s elearning platform has empowered elementary school music teachers to make orchestral performances accessible for their students by giving them the ability to interact more intimately with the orchestra. When a student accesses the concert recordings using the online video player, he or she can click around to different sections of the orchestra and have a close-up look at the double bass, the conductor, the brass section, and so on thanks to a guided experience for each performance provided by the TSO.

“We jokingly called it a musical whack-a-mole experience,” says Morreale. “You’re watching the video on one side, and the map of the orchestra on the other, and as an instrument has the melody, it lights up green, you click it, and you know where to look.”

Morreale adds that he hopes students will pick out little details as they use the video player to watch musicians perform.

“When you’re watching and have the close-up view of just the trumpet section, you can see that at certain moments, they take out little metal mutes and stick them inside their trumpet. You can really get a close-up view of the orchestra,” he says.

It’s a way of experiencing the orchestra that students wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

“It’s important to us that the student is not just sitting back and letting this music wash over them, but they’re actually participating in the experience by being able to click around between camera to camera, to zoom in on the different sections of the orchestra,” Morreale adds.

Blending orchestral learning with lesson plans

The TSO’s elearning is a multifaceted platform in that the TSO also developed corresponding teaching modules for each video that non-specialist teachers can use in elementary music classes at multiple levels. The TSO was committed to providing the platform to schools since less than half of Ontario’s elementary schools have dedicated music teachers. Even if a teacher is not trained in music, Morreale says they can use those lesson plans, which were developed by curriculum experts, to help students gain a better musical education.

“We were able to give teachers activities they can do, whether it’s partner games or group activities or worksheets that could help guide the listening experience of the students,” Morreale says.
Music classes in elementary school tend to be short—25 to 30 minutes long—so the TSO selected short pieces of music (or excerpts). On the technical side, the TSO worked on optimization to ensure the elearning platform could be used in classrooms that have varying levels of WiFi connectivity, Morreale says.

“We love orchestral music, and we want to share that love with everybody, and that includes the schools and students across the country as well,” Morreale says. “This is one way we’re able to do that.”

Learn more about the TSO’s story.

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