Stan Jones, a teacher at North Carroll Middle School said teaching music during the COVID-19 pandemic comes with a lot of give and take. He’s understanding of students who can’t play their instrument at home while parents are working and siblings are in class.
“You can’t play a tuba next to your sister who’s in school at the same time,” the instrumental music teacher said.
He adjusted his classes the best he could so students still learn something but it only makes it harder to teach the subject. And he’s worried students will not continue learning music when the pandemic is over. It’s a worry shared by other music educators as they figure out how to adjust the lessons while also keeping students engaged. The struggles to learn an instrument through a computer screen or practicing playing notes while wearing a mask has made for a difficult teaching and learning experience.
“I am very fearful of having students not continue at some point,” Jones said. “And I don’t blame them.”
An adjustment Jones had to make was using the “air and key” technique that allows students to practice pressing the valves and keys on the instrument without making sound. When students were fully virtual, he couldn’t always tell if students were struggling to understand the lessons because it was hard to see confused faces, especially when some students kept their cameras off. And masks flute players wore didn’t allow for the air to properly flow across the instrument.
Jones said he’s hopeful his classes will be more normal now that students can attend in person four days a week.
Karl Stewart, the assistant supervisor of fine arts for the public schools, said some of the changes in music classes include the special masks worn when playing and singing and bell coverings on wind instruments. The most dramatic change was music class schedules on the middle school level, he said.
Music classes are usually offered every other day all year long, which some middle schools continued to do. However, others decided to have classes every other quarter. So an eighth grader who took the class in the third quarter will not have the opportunity to take music again until they are a freshman in high school.
“The rationale was it would limit the amount of Google Classrooms that students would have to log into,” Stewart said.
But it caused students to forget the content and teachers to reteach it, he added.
“High school programs will probably see a hit because of that,” Stewart said, adding later they will not see the long-term effects until next year.
Stewart said he’s amazed by the amount of work teachers put in. They took it upon themselves to hold virtual concerts that take them hours to put together.
“I don’t think people realize the amount of work that goes into one song,” he said about the concerts.
Some music events were canceled due to the pandemic but Stewart said some students had the opportunity to play in the marching or pep band. They were also given the go-ahead from the system to do an indoor or outdoor concert for the high schoolers, though the decision is up to the teachers.
Brandi Jason, an instrumental music director at Liberty High School, said she focused more on the rigor of her lessons than on the concerts.
“Since I had a strong feeling at the beginning of the school year that we would not be back at the high schools until the first of the year, I made the decision with my kids that we would continue to do scale studies,” she said.
As a break from the lessons, Jason said she had students work on two or three movie soundtrack pieces every couple weeks. One week it was “Harry Potter” and another was “Lord of the Rings.”
Jason said she didn’t plan for a December concert and opted out of throwing together a virtual concert, which she said is much more work then the public may realize. She is, however, hoping for an end-of-the-year concert.
“What works for one school, doesn’t work for another,” she said, adding everyone is feeling out their students to see what will work for them.
Jason said there is no indication students at Liberty are not signing up for music classes and her students have not lost the knowledge they learned. However, she said she heard from middle school teachers that some of the eighth graders are getting discouraged.
Bob Coffey, owner of Coffey Music, said COVID-19 has “definitely affected the motivation to want to play an instrument in school band.”
Being in a band with friends is one of the special things about it, he said, and performing on Zoom isn’t the same.
“I hope and pray that once we get back to normal, a lot of people will want to be on the bandwagon,” he said, later adding he’s confident that the interest will bounce back.
Coffey said it’s been a challenge to get his fifth grade grandson to do his music lessons on Zoom and the recruitment of fourth graders for music classes in the fall has dropped dramatically. On the upside, they’ve seen an uptick in home recording equipment to indicate adults found ways to be creative.
The private lessons that his shop offered were put on hold for most of the pandemic. They offered virtual lessons but it wasn’t the same.
“I really don’t think there’s a substitute for being in a room with a qualified instructor,” he said.
Ida Franklin, who did not want to name the elementary school she works at, called this school year her “best year yet.” She said she found ways to adjust to teaching music in a virtual and hybrid setting. And she’s better for it.
Online learning was “quire daunting at the beginning” she said. But finding an online community helped. She said the music teachers have a sharing site where they can post the lessons or projects they did in the classroom to help others form ideas. She is also part of a music education group on Facebook where ideas are exchanged with people across the country.
One of the ways she adjusted her lesson was adding animation to the songs she played for students. If it weren’t for the “rhythm symbols” she created for the St. Patrick’s Day song, students would have just seen a black screen. It wouldn’t have caught their attention, she said.
Franklin said she not only learned from other teachers but from students as well. That’s how she figured out how to add a digital background on her video chat. She also had to stay after class so a second-grader could show her how to slow down a song. For the occasional student who is disengaged, Franklin said she finds out what he or she likes.
“One student didn’t really want to participate, but he loved rockets,” she said. “So I found a song about rockets.”
It’s still a challenge, she said, but she believes the kids have benefited from the content the she was able to produce.