The Music Education, COVID-19 Roller Coaster Ride!

By Cathy DePentu

So, let’s do a quick recap of the last eight months…I am Director of Orchestras for the Plymouth Canton Community Schools. I teach at “The Park,” a sprawling campus with three high schools. Our 6,400 students travel between buildings all day, much like a college campus. In March of 2020 we were entering the final week of rehearsal for our Spring Musical—an epic undertaking, with a cast of 60 and a 40 piece pit orchestra. We were also preparing for our equally epic Pops Concert, with performances by four orchestras featuring a performance of the entire five movements of the Last of the Mohicans Suite. And then, as you all are acutely aware, we were closed due to a new virus. We naively thought we would come back after spring break and pick up right where we left off. And then, yes, you know we were closed for the rest of the school year. What happened next, and is continuing to happen, is a roller coaster ride!

Spring...crisis learning. Many teachers of the performing arts are feeling a deep sadness that the core of our performances has gone away. As teachers of the performing arts, we tend to see our art as one thing, the “big” concert or show, large ensembles always rehearsing together. We rely on the ability to collaborate in person, feeding off of each other’s energy and leaning into our colleagues to coordinate and produce an expressive, effective performance. With the closing of schools this all changed and we had to pivot into a crisis learning mode.

Summerrethinking. Now we begin to recognize that the pandemic will have a longer lasting effect on our programs and we need to make adjustments to teaching and learning. Are concerts the only way to perform? The virtual recordings of performances that you see broadcast on YouTube are not emotionally rewarding in the same way as performing together.  And for the typical music educator these recordings are very expensive and a technical nightmare to produce. What other ways can we find to make music and create art?

My wonderful colleagues at MAEIA gave me the opportunity to attend a symposium and report back as part of my role as a Leadership Fellow. I was intrigued at the chance to experience something new and positive, and quickly registered to “attend” (from my basement). The F Flat Annual Back to School Symposium was my first completely virtual conference and it was a shot of welcomed adrenaline. This virtual new format for conferences allowed for international participation, something that would not be cost effective in person. In addition, recordings of the sessions were created and made available for a period of time following the symposium. This provided participants with the opportunity to have repeated viewings and therefore a deeper dive into the material. I have take-aways from the conference that influence the work I am doing with my virtual music classes on a daily basis.

Conference Take-Aways

Dr. Jackie Wiggins, noted Professor of Music Education at Oakland University, provided the “why” of what we do as music teachers. She said, “Music Learning should enable learners to move toward a degree of independence and autonomy in music. Music Learning should empower learners with music understanding so they can become musically proficient and eventually musically independent of the teacher.” I think her statement is a great jumping off point for planning what virtual instruction in the arts can be.

Dr. Rollo Dillworth, Associate Professor of Choral Music Education at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music in Philadelphia, PA spoke of the “Intersection of COVID-19 and Social Justice” as we explored access and social equity. The arts play a huge role in this. He cited Esther Boyer, Temple Alumna and benefactor of the Boyer College of Music and Dance: ”Ask not what we want them to know, but who we want them to be when they leave our classroom. Yes, they need to know musical concepts. But more importantly, I want them to understand how they can use music and the arts to make the world a better place.”

Dr. Dillworth’s main points asked us to think about:

  • Infusing the DEI principles: DIVERSITY (all people are different, respect those differences), EQUITY (all have what they need to succeed and thrive) and INCLUSION (everyone’s voice matters) into your teaching to make a fair and just classroom.
  • Engaging in competencies and outcomes in the music classroom:
    • Performing (with accuracy)
    • Critically Thinking (about race, discrimination, equity and access)
    • Contextualizing (author and text)
    • Analyzing (relationship between text and music)
    • Creating (musical works and action steps for implementing the DEI principles)
    • Reflecting/Responding (to themes in the work, particularly in a social context)
    • Applying/Connecting (the work)

And even more themes continue to inspire me. Here are some of my lasting impressions from the F Flat Annual Back to School Symposium:

  • Teaching students to teach themselves
  • Fully engaging students in the learning process
  • Creating a “Learner Centered Rehearsal” (ask/involve/facilitate)
  • Modeling self-care practices
  • Music is worthy in and of itself, and it is a vehicle towards sharing social justice
  • “You are not just teaching music, you are teaching people.”

 FallStarting again. So what’s going on now that school has started? How are we dealing with circumstances that change on a dime? Are we virtual, hybrid or face to face? The immediate need to utilize new technology is scary (especially for someone of my “vintage”!). Despite the boost of confidence provided by the back to school music conference, I still feel unsure and panicked. School is here, the students are here, albeit via Zoom, and COVID-19 is still here. It is still the unknown.

And the importance of Social Emotional Learning is growing. As teachers, we work very hard at seeing the students’ challenges and supporting them. I think caring for the emotional needs of our students, for building a sense of family, is one of the most powerful and positive aspects of being in a performing arts class. I really feel at this time it is just as important to recognize the social and emotional needs of teachers and support staff. Many of us are in bad shape….we are feeling confronted by parents who don’t understand what we are being asked to do, and by the threat of being infected with a virus that could change our lives and the lives of our families forever. This is our daily reality. After 40 years in the classroom, I feel like a first year teacher. I am constantly nervous, feeling as though I am being crushed by lesson planning and paperwork and fearing that I will not connect with my students. In this ever changing, ever demanding, ever exhausting climate, how can we all remain positive, sane and healthy?

The MAEIA website can be a great place to start, and keep coming back to. There are blogs, articles, tutorials and of course, the assessment catalog. At MAEIA, we are spending time creating resources that focus on instruction in addition to assessment, and there are many new resources to help with our new “normal”. New to the website are suggested assessments that work well in all teaching scenarios: live, virtual and hybrid.

As I adjust to our district’s new Learning Management System and a new way of delivering content to students, I am excited about some of the unique opportunities that this adventure provides. With our usual large scale performances temporarily off the table, we can explore other strands of our music standards in more depth.

A session at the symposium addressed the opportunity to focus more on the creative strand of the standards by having students create their own music, exploring creativity in a new way. Working “around” latency issues, students explore improvisation using a minor pentatonic scale and perform together on Zoom. I am looking forward to trying this with my students, both virtually and when we are back in person again.

The listen and respond strands of the standards remind us that we can all take the time to improve our ability to critically listen and authentically respond to performances, our own and others. There are several assessments in MAEIA with excellent rubrics to guide this practice. Without having large scale performances hanging over our heads, we have the luxury of time to more deeply develop student self-assessment skills.

If you are fortunate enough to have access to technology like SmartMusic, you can assign solos and work from various method books to develop individual musical growth, and as it provides the accompaniment for chamber works, you can stage virtual recitals! You can prepare for a return to face to face teaching by selecting large ensemble works from their extensive library. Even without these resources, it is possible to scan and upload music for students to play. Endless Zoom meetings, breakout rooms where students play for each other, recording playing tests–this is our new reality. We are, in effect, reshaping what it means to perform, and we may want to consider keeping a lot of these techniques when we return to “normal”.

Viktor Frankl states, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.We cannot make COVID-19 disappear. We have been placed in a situation we could not have anticipated. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and to admit we are learning along with our students. It helps to be able to admit that we will no doubt fail and then try again and again. This approach is what will make us successful. (In my classroom, I call this a willingness to “fail spectacularly!”) We can change how we choose to respond to our circumstances. We can become comfortable with discomfort, as this is what will help us grow as educators and as humans. Most importantly, we can show grace to our students, our community and to ourselves. We are all in this unfamiliar place together. Music and the arts will continue to connect us as a family and will make our part of this world a better place.

Cathy Depentu is a MAEIA Leadership Fellow and serves as Director of Orchestras for Plymouth Canton Community Schools.

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