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SMTD faculty member earns A4EOE teaching award

Mon Jul 19, 2021 at 03:06 PM

Scott Gwinnell, special lecturer in the School of Music, Theatre and Dance, has been director of Oakland’s vocal jazz ensembles and, for six year, has taught jazz theory, improvisation and arranging. He had a method that worked well for his jazz choir and provided them with a multidimensional approach to learning about jazz. Then came the pandemic. Gwinnell said he had to completely restructure his rehearsal-class. With the help of e-Learning and Instructional Support’s Quality Online Teaching Certification Course, Gwinnell was able to create a new, online class that was robust and meaningful to his students. Based on his work on the class and his dedication to teaching, Gwinnell received the 2021 Online Faculty Member of the Year Award from the Alliance for Excellence in Online Education

The Alliance, or A4EOE, is an online learning organization made up of Michigan colleges and universities, vendors and corporate partners, dedicated to advancing the quality of online learning and pedagogy. It offers annual conferences on best practices in online learning and, one a year, they select one faculty member of the year from each member institution, for outstanding work done over the past year. While Gwinnell is honored to receive the award, the recognition isn’t as valuable as providing his students with a quality jazz education. 

“Jazz music is kind of special in that it’s origin is passed down, not only through written music, but by mentorship, families and friends,” said Gwinnell. He said the disadvantage to that is there often isn’t a standardized way of doing it. “This approach created mentorship relationships between teachers and students.”

He said students watch teachers, they attend gigs, they watch how the teacher does things and then they imitate it. As they grow as musicians, they will develop their own traits, which can then be passed down. 

When everything closed suddenly in spring 2020, the opportunities to learn in that type of environment also came to a halt. 

“Like every other teacher, I wondered what I was going to do. How do we still get that mentorship across?” Gwinnell said. 

In his winter 2020 classes that were moved online quickly as the pandemic began, Gwinnell said his older students picked up the ball and ran with it. They continued to listen to music and discuss it and the less experienced students still engaged. However, as the semester closed and the possibility of the fall 2020 semester being online was discussed, Gwinnell said he knew he had to do something to make sure he was providing the best possible online experience for his students. 

A colleague suggested that Gwinnell participate in eLIS’ Quality Online Teaching Certification Course over the summer to enhance his knowledge of the online learning tools at OU. 

“That helped so much. I learned how to administer online tests, how to communicate with students and more. I was flat-footed in March (2020) and I thought, ‘my poor students,’ but I came back in the fall a different person,” Gwinnell said. 

Gwinnell said he knew one thing was important: Structure. He said he made sure it was there from the beginning of class until the end. However, it wasn’t all lecturing. Gwinnell said he knew the students were more depressed than a typical year. He said they weren’t able to see friends or go out in person, so he helped them create connections with each other through conversation and activities. 

Gwinnell said while his classes would often do ensemble work when in person, this year was different. It focused more on solos. 

“I’d have the students perform for one another. Jazz is about soloists and everyone could be a soloist. We became a better ensemble because everyone became better soloists this year. We didn’t need to apologize for the year, we moved forward,” said Gwinnell. He said he used the opportunity to cover spots he couldn’t cover before. 

Gwinnell said at OU, jazz is a minor, so students are only required to take 21 credits of jazz. As a result, Gwinnell said he wants to make sure the students get a good depth of experience through the classes. 

“We’re a choir, no matter what. We needed to find choir things to do. This was the hardest part for me. This took a lot of work on my part. I took the summer last year to figure out what to do. I’m not a tech maestro. I can get around on a couple of programs, but I wanted to do more,” said Gwinnell. 

And he found a way. 

He assigned all students to learn 30 seconds to a minute worth of music each week. They would sing together by turning off their microphones and singing along to the music.  Each week, students sent Gwinnell a recording of themselves singing a section of music. 

“I told the students to send me their audio files every week and we’d something really fun at the end of the song,” said Gwinnell. With the help of technology and his wife Delaine, he was able to bring the students together, but not physically. He created videos of the students performing together and while it was a lot of extra work for Gwinnell, he said it was all worth it. “We got to see how their faces lit up when they got to hear themselves and see themselves. It gave them a chance to be a choir again, even though choirs have pretty much been shut down.”

Gwinnell said as a smaller group, it made it possible to gather, edit and create the video. A larger group may not have had the resources. 

“I never would have dreamed it would be so much fun. By no right should we have had a fun semester, but we did. We did stuff we never would have been able to do before. The students got into it and enjoyed it,” said Gwinnell.

While OU is planning for students to be back in the classroom this fall, Gwinnell said there are plenty of things he learned this year that he will carry with him and he isn’t afraid to embrace the technology and even get students to the classroom when they can’t physically be there. 

“Recently, a vocalist couldn’t make it to a summer class meeting. I had her join virtually. I would have never done that in the past,” said Gwinnell. 

In addition to teaching Oakland University students, Gwinnell is also the Director of Jazz Education at Music Hall Performing Arts Center where among other duties, he is tasked with creating and operating music programs with the Detroit Public School system; this includes their flagship K-12 school, Detroit-Marygrove. Gwinnell is also an adjunct faculty member at University of Toledo and in Michigan State University’s Community Music School program. In 2009, Gwinnell created the Detroit Jazz Workshop, an expansive summer jazz workshop that caters to musicians of all backgrounds, ages, and instruments. Gwinnell serves on the board of directors at the Michigan Jazz Festival and is a clinician in Midwestern high schools and universities. He is also a recording artist, composer and performer. 

For more information about A4EOE, visit the Alliance website.