The show must go on: Music teachers adopt new approaches amid pandemic
Effective teaching is essentially a performance art.
Amid a period of mandated remote instruction, performing arts teachers are faced with a particular challenges.
For example, vocal and instrumental music teachers must find ways to get students to adapt correct posture, master finger placement, and learn to breathe from the diaphragm. These details help beginners to optimize their performance — but for the instructors, it can be difficult to assess students’ progress on Zoom.
Nevertheless, performing arts instructors are adapting to the complications presented by remote teaching. They are learning to experiment with technology and to creative new approaches to help their students become performers.
Alder Creek Middle School band director Natalia Tomasello said aside from flexibility, the year called for a growth mindset-oriented approach to education.
“With band it’s very unique,” Tomasello said of the pandemic-affected teaching process. “It’s definitely a challenge picking up an instrument and teaching (students) how to put it together, make sure their hands are in the right spots.”
Tomasello said she kept her virtual lessons short and tracked their pace so as not to overwhelm students in a hands-on process.
“Simple expectations, simple instruction,” Tomasello said.
Whether Tomasello’s students played her a measure, an entire song or just talked, they checked in with her individually every class day.
Tomasello said arts instruction might be undervalued in the world of standardized testing, but the practice of making music adds an incalculably valuable dimension to student’s lives while teaching them hand-eye coordination and the value of of hard work.
“It gives students an opportunity to be well rounded,” Tomasello said. “They may not study it in college, but they have to walk in and know how to set up their instrument, breathe and play at the same time.”
Tomasello said any one of the ways music challenges and plays with its creator is an opportunity for connection and education.
“Music makes us feel joy, it drives our creative capacity,” Tomasello said, adding, “so yeah, even if it’s challenging, the performing arts should be supported in the pandemic because it gives a certain group of kids the drive to go to school as part of a team, a group, a culture.”
Lena Meyer, who teaches band to sixth to eighth graders in the Truckee Tahoe Unified School District, concurs.
“People sign up for band so they can be in a group,” Meyer said. “Not just musically, but so they can be with their friends.”
Meyer said her program saw a definite hit since the pandemic’s onset. Her 165-member band in 2019-2020 dropped to 105 students after many quit over the summer.
Meyer said her youngest — and bravest — students are in sixth grade.
“It takes extra dedication to be a beginner on your band instrument over the computer,” Meyer said.
Meyer said she believes in the uplifting effect of the melodies themselves, but said activating and validating a budding musician’s sense of worth and accomplishment is where the value of band class truly shines.
“When I was a seventh grader and I joined band I was very insecure,” Meyer explained. “I didn’t talk to anyone in school unless they talked to me first.”
Over the course of time, Meyer inadvertently cultivated friendships through her participation.
“It felt good to be wanted and to be needed,” Meyer said, adding, “to say ’We’re making this awesome piece, keep at it — you’ll get it if you keep trying, use more air, try it again’ and ’there it is.’”
Keeping the ’performance’ in performance art
Meyer said music is “one of the last analog subjects“ students have in the reality of 2021.
“It’s just you and the object you’re playing,” Meyer said. “I’ll be happy to get the screen out of there soon.”
Meyer said that by early spring, her students were fading. Although in-person music instruction remains the ideal, she said she was grateful to hire someone to produce virtual band concerts for her classes. Their final video performance piece is meant to give them something tangible they can be proud of during a weird year-long void of public ceremony.
“I don’t know how it will sound in the end, but we needed this,” Meyer said. “It gave us a reason to work on something, to have them ask questions and help each other.”
Meyer said the video project evolved as school pandemic-related restrictions loosened.
“Originally, we were going to play the piece just using percussion, then that changed when we could play band instruments outside, then it changed to inside and having the kids in at five days a week,” Meyer said.
Taking on new responsibilities
Nevada Union choir teacher Rod Baggett had a quarter of the current academic year left when he met his freshman class face to face.
Baggett, a veteran Nevada Union High School choir teacher, is used to putting in more than a 40-hour work week. While the instructional day may officially end at 3 p.m., he continues to work for hours— planning classes; organizing group performance tours abroad and summer choir camps; and hosting supplemental practices for impending concerts.
Now during the pandemic, Baggett said he has traded in his role as tour manager for video and audio producer.
“Kids sing the alto part, the soprano part, bass part and the tenor part,” he said. “I’m going through all those individual parts live, but then I’ve already created those same things digitally online so they can practice on their own.”
Like most teachers in his district, Baggett livestreamed his lesson via Zoom during class from the onset of the pandemic until March.
Even now that class convenes in person, Baggett concludes the work day by creating digital content his students can use to practice remotely. Accompanied by a pianist, Baggett pre-records himself playing guitar and then sings each part.
Baggett, who has spent the last 24 years of his 32-year teaching career at Nevada Union High School after his father retired from the position after 36 years, said navigating COVID-19 has become all about resourcefulness and creative solutions.
“The girls’ parts are too high for me to sing,“ he explained. ”It’s too complicated to bring someone in, so I sing in a lower octave and then tweak it up so I sound like a little boy.“
Baggett said students do not enroll in choir to sing alone in their room.
Despite his best efforts, Baggett said he is sometimes unsure if he is having an effect because some students opt to leave their cameras off during class.
Music: a source of community
A sense of accomplishment
Public gatherings are still technically prohibited, so most California public school choirs will not conclude the year with an expected concert.
Instead, Baggett is compiling the singers’ faces and voices to offer parents and community members a chance to hear and watch their child perform in accordance with COVID-19 school safety protocols.
Baggett said he is proud to be proficient enough in audio and video production to create something his students can be proud of, but the wavering voices of students recording themselves alone — as opposed to in a group setting during choir class — have tested his technical editing skills as he compiles and consolidates their voices.
“I have to go through this whole process to make it sound right to the ears,” Baggett said. “So I get all this created with a video of me conducting. I conduct to my recorded tracks that I already made — I put in my headphones, listen to the track that I’ve made, then I conduct to the camera and film myself.”
Then Baggett pairs the video with the pre-recorded audio and posts it to a student-accessible website.
In spite all of Baggett’s efforts in and out of the digitized classrooms, the choir director said his students don’t want to sing — let alone record themselves — solo.
“I think people have a misconception that everyone is sitting on camera totally engaged,” Baggett said of the majority of students in his Zoom classes. “They’re not engaged and they’re not on camera — most of them — that’s why I’ve made these rehearsal tracks.”
Baggett said he sees students far before the average day’s required communication warms up their vocal chords under the hybrid learning model.
“I’m not deluded in thinking they’ll sing their best at 8:30 in the morning,” Baggett said. “Who will sing loudly at 8:30 in the morning when their brother is taking a class next door?”
Tomasello, the Alder Creek Middle School band teacher, said she had some students who dropped the class altogether so as not to disturb sleeping parents who work third shift.
The return to communal singing, fluting and tooting was a relief for many whose home environment was too chaotic to record, let alone practice at ease.
Baggett estimates his west county high school students learned a dozen songs this year as opposed to their usual 30 due to “learning loss.” Tomasello said her younger students were held to a different standard, celebrating their newfound acquaintance with their instrument.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for the Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun
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