First published on May 11, 2020
This has been a rough, rough 2-3 months for the world. And, in the United States, citizens had to adapt in a myriad of ways in order to protect themselves and their loved ones from the coronovirus Covid-19. As you know, teachers have had to immediately learn how to provide instruction remotely, adapting on the fly, while they and their students stayed at home during the social/physical distancing requirements. For music teachers in particular, the challenge was augmented because of the performance aspect of the discipline. It was not easy for students to “musick” over Zoom or other platforms. And, according to the CDC guidlines, re-entry into the school building does not mean that life is “back to normal”. I want to share some thoughts that, although maybe a little jumbled, reflect what I would be thinking if I was still teaching. I definitely think these in my new position as a church music director.
One item of particular concern is that of singing. In a recent webinar, presented in conjunction with various professional vocal organizations, it was noted that singing was a point of concern in regards to aerosolization, or the way saliva is emitted in the air. (More information can be found here.) On the Podcast Choralosophy, Chris Munce invited Dr. Amesh Adalja of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security to discuss the risk assessment for group activities. Additionally, Dr. Heather Nelson conducted informal research on vocal physiology and the differences between aerosol particles and droplets, a a major means of viral transmission. At the end of her blog post, Dr. Nelson admits, as a church choral director, she does not take this lightly. And as someone who knows her personally, she means it. It is an emotional situation for many music teachers, one which brought her to tears, has brought me to tears, and as I’m sure, has brought you to tears as well.
The National Association for Music Education has provided information and guidelines for music teachers as well. Many of these resources regard online teaching, travel, instrument safety, and mass gatherings, along with a community forum where teachers can share their concerns. And these are huge concerns. How do you work with a band, with all the particles in the air, on the floor, on the surfaces? How do you deal with distancing? Marching? What will ensembles look like this school year?
Based on discussions on the NAfME forum and various Facebook groups, music teachers are at a loss as to what music teaching might look like come August/September. How will ensembles look? How can you teach typical folk dances? How do you constantly clean Boomwhackers and mallets? Should you even try recorder? What about school ukuleles? How can students play mouth instruments or sing with masks? Do percussionists wear gloves?
Not to mention, there are differing viewpoints on how to handle music teaching. One website from a German university cited in the NAfME community provides some guidelines in instrumental music teaching: one student to room, protective shield walls, and ventilation every 10 minutes. It also suggests no vocal music. Instrumentalists are not to blow through the instrument for cleaning purposes, and cleaning is not to occur in university rooms. Face masks must be worn during the ventilation process. However, another website mentioned in the forums cites a study provided by the Bamberger Symphony , where it was speculated that certain instruments, based on the direction of the air flow, may not pose as much of a problem. Who do you believe?
In an informal survey, I asked music educators what their greatest concerns were regarding online teaching and returning to the classroom, if at all possible. 100% of them had to do some form of remote teaching, but they got less than 20% response from students, which had to be discouraging. Most of them used some sort of Google app for assignments, followed by paper/pencil or online portfolio performance submissions. Most of them had been thinking about how they would practice distancing in their classroom, but they still had fears, such as the following:
- Music wouldn’t be taught at all.
- What would folk dancing and small group work look like?
- They would be asked to continue to teach virtually, which would lead to a loss of skills.
- Logistics: singing, playing instruments, wearing masks while performing, sanitation of instruments. Most will probably not use recorder at all.
- Keeping student interest
- The loss of performances, which might set a precedent for the future.
- Distancing and the logistics of singing.
- Being proactive
- The gradual loss of music education.
Do any of these concerns sound familiar? What do you do? Don’t despair, because there are colleagues who formulating ideas.
This thread on the NAfME community site contains ideas posted by an orchestra teacher who wanted to keep his students engaged. A few of these suggestions included:
- Technique tips
- Asking students for warm-up ideas.
- Scavenger hunts.
Another teacher created digital music production activity where students researched various styles of digital music and created their own.
Because of the situation of intellectual ownership, please refer to the thread. The ideas are terrific! (If you do not belong to NAfME, please send me an email.)
What about virtual rehearsals? The sound delay can make things very frustrating. However, can you use that to your benefit? Let your students hear it. Ask them why they think it happened. Ask them for suggestions on improving. Use this as a movement for higher level thinking. Another suggestion for small groups: with parental permission, you might set the students up on A Capella . This would be a terrific way for younger students to learn to play in ensemble. You or another experienced musician can be the first to record, so your ensemble members can learn to play along with others.
Great digital platforms to investigate for variety in theory and appreciation instruction: Boom Cards, SeeSaw, Flipgrid, and of course, Google Classroom. These will definitely not take the place of real musicking, but will provide variety for your students and an incentive to participate in online music activities. Plus, these are activities that can also involve the parent. Teachers Pay Teachers has some wonderful music instructors who have posted digital products for these platforms. You can look by subject (music), or an objective. I have products on there myself.
Speaking of parents; do the parents of your students have a family song that means quite a bit to them? You can also involve parents by doing an activity based on the book The Family Folk Song Project by Cathy Ward. Your students ask family members about songs that are traditional in their families. The students can do research, record the family singing the song, or even create their own song! By putting this personal spin on the assignment, your students might gain an appreciation for folk art and what it means.
How are you going to treat yourself during all this? Your students obviously need much more TLC during this time than usual, especially your students who have experienced trauma. But what about you? How to plan for this without going crazy or being caught by surprise?
- Be proactive. This might be an excuse for some districts to drop arts or it might not. However, if you come in with a Plan B, C, or D should the school environment look different, you will show you are indispensable. Remember to check the NAfME community boards. Join various Facebook groups. Keep up on the websites I’ve posted. Think outside the box. Teachers cannot afford to hold on to the familiar right now and succeed. There is familiar for no one right now.
- Remember to advocate for the arts and let administrators know that the students need them more than ever.
- Give yourself grace. This is new to everyone. Use common sense, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have 100% participation or if an idea falls through. And don’t be afraid to try new ideas. Share what you did with colleagues or in Facebook groups. It might spark an adjustment to your idea from someone else and benefit everyone.
- Take care of yourself. In this blog post, I shared thoughts on the emotions of teaching. The personal care ideas are relevant now, maybe more than ever.
- You can also take care of yourself by rediscovering your own inner musicianship.
And take heart in these words from Dale Duncan:
“We are all processing.
The finish to this school year is not what any of us expected or wanted our choral music experiences to be when we started teaching our students back in the fall of 2019.
Everyone needs and deserves rope right now. Everyone is emotional and stressed.
People are saying a lot of things about the future of choral music.
What we cannot and must not do, is say that choral music is over.
Because it isn’t.
So, we have to stop saying it.
Everyone needs to stop saying that.”
It’s a beautiful blog post. Please find the rest on Dale’s blog.
New normals don’t have to be frightening. They don’t have to be terrible. They don’t even have to be permanent. We are musicians. We improvise. That’s what we do. We can get through this together.
If you have thoughts or comments, please email me, leave a comment here, or post to my Facebook page. Share your thoughts, fears, and ideas.
When you are frustrated and need some uplifting music, try this YouTube video.
Take care. Be safe. And keep improvising.