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Interview with Phil Ponella (Jacobs School of Music)

In this second interview, we spoke with Phil Ponella*, who is the director of the Wennerstrom-Philips and William and Gayle Cook music libraries, as well as the director of the music information technology  services department at Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

BB: How has the COVID-19 situation affected you? What have you done to make it work as well as possible?

PP: Like most universities, we were all sent home in mid-March. This coincided with our “spring break” so we had only a week or two to figure out how we would finish our spring semester completely online, with everyone in remote locations. We scrambled to provide documentation on the tools we had available (such as Zoom, Canvas, Kaltura etc.) and assist faculty and students all now in remote locations. Many of our faculty had less than ideal internet access at their homes, and students were all over the world in many different time zones. Being able to record lectures and classes became very important. To help faculty with poor home internet service our University Information Technology department set up wi-fi antennas in the parking lot of our football stadium so people could park there and teach from the safety of their automobile.
Communication became critical. Not only because information changed quickly, but it was important to keep people engaged. Meetings became easier as scheduling a room for a large number of people wasn’t an issue. We could easily convene large groups and get information out quickly and more efficiently. Keeping in touch with staff was and continues to be very important.
One key to making things work was being clear that expectations had to be lowered. We stressed to faculty that that they weren’t expected to become seasoned online teachers in one week. We gave them the tools and they did the best they could given the circumstances.

BB: From your position as librarian of one of the most important libraries in the world, what do you think the near future will be like in the library sector?

PP: We are grateful that in the mid-1990s the people working in our library began a series of digital library projects that started digitizing recordings and scores. So, we had a headstart on some of these issues. At the time of the shutdown we had more than 80,000 recordings digitally available to our faculty and students from any internet connected computer. Still, going forward, we are seeking out digital versions of all types of resources. Even if we have multiple print copies of a book or musical score, we are purchasing e-books and e-scores so that we can legally provide access to the specific resources that the students and faculty need for classes and lessons. This is challenging of course as print materials in particular are not readily available. We continue to scan as much as we can from our collection within the restrictions of licenses, institutional polices and copyright laws. Having to lock the doors to the physical library without much warning was a real blow to the library staff, and especially the students, and the faculty who depend on finding different editions of scores and perusing new repertoire. We will continue to think about building our ‘digital library” as much as our physical collections going forward.

BB: and a music school like Jacobs?

PP: The most common complaint about teaching and learning online was about audio and video quality of both lessons and lectures. Like everyone else, we had faculty using Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, etc. Some preferred one or the other, but all presented the same problem. The audio and video was not good enough for the type of lessons and coachings that happen in a school like ours. There were additional issues, like some of the common activities we take for granted, such as a faculty member writing markings onto a student’s score, or even pointing to a measure or note, which now had to be conveyed verbally or with some hardware or software solution to show a score on the screen using a document camera connected to zoom. So, we’re spending a lot of time trying to recommend better hardware and software options for interactive musical activity. We’re hoping to specify microphones, audio interfaces, headphones and other equipment as well as software that will provide enhanced fidelity and interactivity.

BB: A technological question, which is also a field that you dominate: Why do you think that school of music and musicians in general are having such a hard time taking the step in their digital transformation? Is it a question of costs? Of digital material? Or that there is still no technology that covers all the needs of musicians?

PP: Building on my previous answer, hardware and software have costs. The obvious ones are financial of course, but more importantly music faculty have varying levels of skills. Some are very sophisticated and comfortable with computers, and audio/video technology. But many are not. So there are also costs in the form of personnel to create documentation and support the faculty and students in these new ways. Coming up with easily deployable solutions is very difficult. We’re looking at a menu of services from easy, with lower quality, to more sophisticated options that will provide a much better experience but require a higher level of competency on the part of the faculty member (and student).
Of course the costs of digital scores (and books too) is a serious barrier. The entire model for libraries is really problematic. Where in the traditional world we could purchase a score and then place it on a shelf and let many people borrow it. The electronic licensing models are very restrictive and based on end-user licensing. This sometimes eliminates libraries from purchasing needed materials in electronic formats.

BB: Finally, what are your next projects?

PP: It is difficult to think past the pandemic as it is still very much a problem here in the United States. Indiana has fared well compared to other places, but we are focused on dealing with how to provide the highest quality education to our students in a time when we will have some number of students in person, some online and many engaged in a hybrid model. However, there will be some good coming out of this work. We are gaining a lot of insight into what works and doesn’t work when teaching music online and we will be prepared to move quickly into some new areas of online education.  Thinking through what we can do really well, that could be the basis of online courses and lessons in the post-pandemic world is where we’re focusing a great deal of attention. Also, guiding faculty and students for minimum standards for microphones, cameras etc. in order to get the most from an online lesson and possibly some software to improve audio/video quality of online lessons is something we are collaborating on with our Audio Engineering department.

BB: Thank you very much Phil, it’s always a pleasure for us to learn from a person who brings together the two worlds we address: music and technology. I hope to be able to travel soon to see us again!

To finish this interview, I invite you to watch the video of the concert performed with Blackbinder, by the Jacobs School of Music Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Alexander Kerr: https://purl.dlib.indiana.edu/iudl/media/386019tg5h

*Philip Ponella:

Philip Ponella is the Wennerstrom-Phillips Music Library Director and the director of music information technology services at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. He oversees all aspects of library operations and technology at the school.

Additionally, he coordinates the Specialization in Music Librarianship offered through the Department of Information and Library Science in IU’s School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, teaches the graduate Music Bibliography course, and co-teaches the Seminar in Music Librarianship.

Previously, Ponella was director of academic technology services at the University of Rochester and director of technology and music production at the Eastman School of Music. At Eastman, in addition to leading technology, he taught the graduate Music Bibliography course and several technology related courses in the Institute for Music Leadership.

Ponella holds master’s degrees in both music and library and information science, and has presented at regional, national, and international conferences. He has served on several professional committees, including grant review committees for the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and participated in the National Recorded Sound Preservation Plan, Copyright, Preservation, and Public Access Task Force.

He has been the recipient of awards from the Surdna Foundation, H. W. Wilson Company, and the Music Library Association.