Music and water: An ethereal virtual exchange


Dr Steven Pane is a pianist and conductor. For the past 30 years he has been teaching interdisciplinary study and music at Maine Farmington in the US. “We’re a small college, and it’s been quite a ride”, he says.

He talks about his recent international virtual exchange collaboration with two Italian colleagues, sisters and music partners, Stefania and Cecilia Franchini. The theme: music and water.

Some background history

“I’ve done many travel courses to Italy with great colleagues,’ explains Steven, ‘and we have always wanted to get past the visiting barrier and engage with Italians rather than just visiting. Linda Beck, here at Maine began creating more opportunities for virtual exchange. For this reason, we’ve enabled more connection between my students and students in Italy.

“I speak a bit of Italian which is helpful of course, and so it made sense for Italy to become my focus area. We met with Cecilia Franchini head of chamber music at the conservatory in Venice and she works with her sister, Stefania who is head of chamber music at the conservatory in Pescara. Both were looking for partners as was I. Therefore we got together in 2021/22 and we did a wonderful experimental virtual exchange focusing on music and water. It was a suitable theme as Cecilia in Venice had been looking into issues of water too.

Challenges and strengths of the collaboration

“One of our main challenges, which ultimately became a strength, is that our students are so different. By that I mean that music conservatory students are very specialised and 90%-100% of their courses are all in music. My students, on the other hand, come from a multidisciplinary background with a diversity of majors. This means that they take other courses with a music component. We found they were fascinated by each other and the differences.

“To expand a little, music conservatories are extremely specialised. That is my background too, by the way. Conservatories focus on the performing and composing aspects of music. So, this means if you study at a conservatory, you won’t be doing courses in science or other subjects. Conservatories are all about fostering the music career.

“Here in Maine, we are a small college and we have small majors.  I would say that is also our strength. Students study courses that are 30-40% is music and the rest is all from other fields. They might cross over into music as my courses do. I tend to teach music and philosophy, music and technology, music and science for example.”

Differences and similarities

“A big and important difference that emerged when we began our virtual exchange collaboration is that most Italian colleges don’t have campuses. Here at Maine we are a residential campus and so, when the Italians visited, they really appreciated the sense of community we have on campus.”

“What we’ve learned over the years,’ continues Steven, ‘is to go easy on outcomes and assessments as they can get in the way and constrict and ultimately undermine the experience.

“Actually, what we wanted with Cecilia and Stefania, was to create an atmosphere whereby the students could engage with each other.

“A lot of it was setting something up and seeing what happens. Rather like a musical performance, where you can plan all you like, but sometimes the plan doesn’t work out and something else happens entirely. It goes way beyond what we can control.

“With all this in mind, we kept the project loose. We told them not to worry about the product as the product can be incomplete. What we were after was ‘process’, so we wanted to ensure they had conversations and were able to provide feedback on each other’s work.

“I’d say we also invited them to bend rules in terms of medium and we left it open. Sometimes we needed to remind them not to use video if it was something they haven’t tried before. Everything needed to be doable and not stressful.

Going easy in virtual exchange

“We had to keep reminding them (and ourselves), that five weeks is a short amount of time. Having said that, we wanted them to walk away with a new experience and to make friends in Italy along the way.

“Over the five weeks, groups with Italian and US students worked synchronously during the class. But this was hard when dealing with time differences and performing musicians, which meant that some ended up meeting outside of these at times. However, we didn’t want that to happen too much as it would add pressure.

“We began by setting things up a little bit for them, but as time was running out, they took more control of things and they knew what they were doing.

“The only guidance from us was: ‘music and water’: do what you want. We left it at that. You have five weeks and stay realistic.

“Ultimately, most produced videos with the creative writers adding the prose. To bring the diverse abilities together, they had to be open to everything, so we brainstormed with them, which meant we were all exploring and experimenting. This worked well for the students too.”

When virtual exchange becomes a fun physical mobility

Recently, the students from Italy along with Cecilia and Stefania visited Maine, enjoying a fun week of activities, concerts, food, sporting events and more.

“This was our second iteration,’ explains Steven, ‘and we wanted an in-person event this time and not just a virtual exchange. I created a ‘music and environment’ course, with the idea that water could still play a part. Our plan was to have a virtual exchange component as a preparation ahead of the actual physical mobility.”

After spring break, the seven chosen students along with Stefania and Cecilia managed to get some funding for them to travel to Maine. Firstly, upon arrival, the students worked on their projects in person. Secondly, they gave a concert and during the week they all hung out together cooking, and attending other events.

“Due to unprecedented snow storms, the Italians had to anticipate their meal,’ laughs Steven, ‘we had to get them out before they got stuck here as they needed to get to Boston. This led to a flurry of activity and the Italians absolutely wanted to cook their meal together before leaving, so that was lovely.”

According to Steven, the weather emergency made them come together, opening up dialogues about differences and similarities.

“As I said before the Italians were so moved by the sense of community here on campus and voiced this to me.

“My students set up a games night so the Italian students enjoyed a women’s rugby game and learned about that. But in the thrill of the moment, my students had forgotten that the Italians were conservatory music students. When it came to the Friday night concert and it was time for the Italians to perform, oh my gosh, I was looking at them, and the first Italian performer was a marvellous singer. This gorgeous baritone voice emerged and their jaws dropped. This was a very powerful moment. A great meal ensued, a lovely time was had by all and friendships formed from this intense experience.