In a time when our communities are scattered and “socially distanced,” building connections with students—both teacher-to-student as well as students’ connections with each other—can seem an insurmountable challenge. When we build connections, we build community. Community building means giving something of ourselves, for the good of the whole. Even just sharing a small piece of information about who we are and what is important to us allows others to see us and see something of themselves in us. Successful ensembles, successful teams, and successful families build on these connections. Students need these connections to grow and achieve. As a young elementary student I struggled with finding these connections at school, at finding my place. When I joined choir, suddenly I was a part of something bigger, I was connected! Now as a music teacher and a parent, helping students find those connections is my goal. For many students like me, those connections are in the ensemble.
Being in an ensemble means making decisions together. It means thinking together as a group, weighing options, and deciding what is best for the whole performance. It may mean compromising at times, giving into another person’s ideas or wishes, but the ensemble must care deeply about each individual involved. Sometimes ensembles have time to talk about these decisions and sometimes they have to be made in the moment. In an ensemble we learn to communicate, make decisions, and execute those decisions instantaneously. Speed, volume and style are talked about, but in the performance, split-second adjustments are made together.
The ensemble becomes a type of family. Because of the connections made, because members are listening to each other, the members of the ensemble support each other in and outside of the rehearsals and performances.
The most difficult thing about teaching during the pandemic is this lack of ensemble. Though we are all together virtually, there is a time delay, everyone has distractions at their location, we can’t hear each other in real time, and the “buzz” we often feel when things come together in an ensemble is totally absent. The question becomes, how can we help students create an ensemble of their own at home? What tools can we give them to help them lead their families to create art together? As educators we have the amazing opportunity to educate families to be artful ensembles.
Fostering this family ensemble has its challenges. It all leads back to making those connections. Music can be a great vehicle for connection-building. Almost everyone has at least one favorite song. Start by asking students to sing their favorite songs from class for their families. Teach easy songs and games and ask students to share them with a sibling or their whole family. Have a “silly song Friday” and ask students to teach their family the silly song. During the recent shutdown I would post a video of me singing a silly camp song on my school’s Facebook page. Simply singing something silly together can create connections. Even in families where connections are strained, coming up with a playlist is a pretty accessible task and could be a good place to start. Check out these class ideas:
Call a family meeting. Talk with your family about what kinds of songs they like. Why do they like these songs? Talk as a family about important values and family memories. Are there songs attached to these values? These memories? Think about songs outside of your normal genre (style of music). Have you considered any classical music (Bach, Beethoven or Mozart)? Different family members may like different styles of music. Does anyone like Jazz? Hip hop? Show tunes? As you discuss these things, find out from one another the meaning behind the choice. Make a list of 1 or 2 songs per family member and then try to identify a family song. Maybe it was part of a recent family vacation? Using YouTube or Spotify, arrange the playlist in the decided order. Have a sing along or dance party as you listen to your family playlist with your family. (Core Art standards addressed in this activity are #8, #10 and #11.)
Whether real or imagined, campfires are great places to build connections. You and your family can come together to:
- Sing songs
- Perform skits
- Tell stories
- Share snacks!
With the school year underway, I am committed to building family ensembles. Already through the first week I have students singing lullabies to younger siblings, pets and stuffed animals. Families are singing silly songs together, ‘repeat after me camp-style’ songs and even the Kindergartners are teaching their families the fingerplay “2 Little Blackbirds.” Simply by telling students, “Go teach this to someone in your house!”, connections are being built, people are smiling, there is laughter, there is fun and there is community. So, GO MAKE MUSIC!
Holly Olszewski teaches for Grand Traverse Area Public Schools and serves as a MAEIA Leadership Fellow, offering professional learning on the MAEIA tools and resources.Click here for a Printer friendly version of this article.