It was March 11 when Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz basketball team tested positive for the coronavirus. Within days, our country and our world applied the brakes. The NCAA canceled their national basketball tournament and when teachers and students showed up to school, they were turned around and sent home to begin teaching students from a distance.
What began as a several-week stop gap measure to ensure limiting the spread of the virus so life could get back to normal ended up being a new chapter in educational history and how schools would end the year. The popular belief was with three months between then and the start of school in the fall, surely the virus would end, and we would resume our normal, face-to-face system of instruction. Wrong!
COVID-19 obviously missed the meeting and is still around and causing havoc. As it continues to linger and, in some areas, escalate, our levels of insecurity and uneasiness are at an all-time high. School is right around the corner. We hear conflicting reports in the media. There is no “one size fits all” to the direction education will take. If you have not already done so, it is time to develop a plan – and perhaps several plans – because just as sure as we “zig,” things will “zag.” Your plan should include three key sections: resources, communication, and implementation.
In speaking with many teachers over the past few months, it has become obvious those who already had integrated a level of technology into their teaching fared much better than those who were mired in the traditional approach to instruction.
If integrating technology was new to you, begin by developing a resource list. When I was teaching, I kept a “repertoire” list. When I learned about a piece of music along the way, I would write down the title and composer/arranger. Then I had a series of boxes to indicate: how I learned about the piece; if I had heard the piece; if I looked at or studied the score; rehearsed the work; performed the work; a section for additional comments (such things as grade level, soloists, and instrumentation demands); and if I would I play it again. This was a handy way for me to increase my knowledge of the repertoire. I encourage a similar idea for teaching resources.
In March of this year, I had only heard of Zoom. Now “Zoom” has become a verb. There are so many other resources to explore such as Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, Essential Elements Interactive, Noteflight, YouTube – the list goes on and on. Talk to your colleagues and expand your list of potential resources that might be available. The advice being offered is when you hear of something, write it down, do some research and determine how it might be able to help you in your teaching situation.
The need for communication with all of our constituencies is greater now than ever. Think of them as the five food groups: administration, colleagues, parents, students, and community.
Administrators in our schools are under great pressure from all sides. They too are looking for a clear message from the district or state, not knowing if students will be in school, if there will be some sort of hybrid schedule, or if the year will start with distance learning. Sending them an email or making a phone call to engage in a dialogue may help you get a sense of what direction things may take. Assure the administration that you stand ready to teach students regardless of the forum. Share basic strategies of how you will meet the challenges that will accompany any of the starting of school scenarios and do not be afraid to respectfully share concerns that might accompany them. As the semester begins, prepare regular updates of what you are doing and how it is working. Share success stories with your administrators. Become a beacon of light in their dark world. Creating a positive communication flow with your administrators will result in your emails and phone calls being welcomed.
Communicating with colleagues can help develop a unified approach to your teaching. If you are the only choral teacher in your school or district, contact other music teachers you know in neighboring districts. Develop a network to discuss teaching strategies to best meet the needs of your situation. Having someone to help you think through various scenarios can help you unlock a wealth of ideas. This collaboration is what Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People calls “synergy,” where one plus one equals three or more. As school starts, schedule a regular time to discuss what worked and what did not. Avoid allowing these sessions to become a time to vent frustrations. Keeping your discussions to student learning and teacher effectiveness will help you refine your teaching and will help you keep a positive attitude. Nothing will zap your energy more than a pity party. Staying on task and remaining focused will yield the best results and lead to greater personal satisfaction.
Parents and guardians are just as nervous about the start of school as you are. They need to be assured that regardless of how class begins in the fall, you are ready to teach their child music and to give them a positive musical experience. Provide them a general overview of how you intend to provide musical instruction in each of the three possible scenarios, and remember, the health and welfare of their children takes precedent over the musical experience. Once instruction begins, regular communications with parents will be vital to help keep students engaged and on track. Provide them with a set of expectations of what they can and cannot expect from you, the teacher, and share with them what you will and will not expect from their student and them. Also provide them with a list of action steps to help their child succeed. In some cases, they will become surrogate music teachers so the better you can equip them with information and ideas, the greater the chance the student will succeed.
As you communicate with the parents, you must also communicate with your students. Students need to know music making will continue and your message needs to be appropriate to their age level. All students need encouragement and positive reinforcement. Younger students need to have little successes celebrated. Think more reaction with fewer directions. Overwhelming students with too many things at one time will lead to confusion and frustration. Older students need clear goals and expectations. As they progress towards their goals, provide feedback in the form of compliments and suggestions. Use the word “better” to indicate you are hearing progress but have not yet attained the desired level of proficiency.
With challenge comes opportunity. Seize the opportunity to communicate with your community on how you are teaching music with your students. Writing a press release for local newspapers or shoppers, developing positive social media posts, and preparing a report for your board of education are ways to let your community know that music is alive and well in your school. If you are engaged in distant learning, it is an easy misconception for someone who has no knowledge of how instruction is being conducted, to think that you, the teacher, are sitting at home doing nothing. Solicit testimonials from parents and students and include them in your communications. Provide an overview of how you are starting beginners or engaging middle level and high school students. Have students prepare short video performances, make sure you have the appropriate approvals, then post them on social media sites or your school or music websites.
One key member of your community to engage is your local school music dealer. Your music dealer can be your lifeline. They have direct contact with multiple schools and school districts. Whereas you recruit one time a year for 30 years, they probably recruit 30 or more times every year. Music dealers can keep you informed to what other districts and teachers are doing and be a great source of new ideas and information. Treat your local music dealer or your road rep as another member of your music staff.
Developing a plan of how you intend to approach instruction for each of the three possible starting scenarios is a must. Though the goal will be the same, the methodology and teaching techniques you use will be different. Just as the idea to develop a list of potential resources was encouraged earlier in this article, you are also encouraged to develop a list of teaching strategies. Include with those strategies any equipment, accessories or support you will need to allow them to be conducted safely. Write down anything that comes to your mind. Here are some other ideas for consideration.
Contact college and university music education faculty and brainstorm ways you might be able to provide their students with some valuable online lab work. Having music education students prepare short, instrument specific videos on the importance of warm up, developing technique or playing with expression can be additional tools for your toolkit. Engage music ed students in a video conference with members of your choir. Have them to play for your students or conduct virtual master classes, offering praise and suggestions.
Consider having video conferences with parents, especially for parents with students who are just beginning. Having a couple of parents from students who are already in choir and succeeding on the conference can go a long way to assuring the new parents that progress can take some time, but continued practice and participation pays off. Do the same with older students and younger students. Keep in mind that when it comes to recruitment and retention, parents engage parents and students engage students. As teachers, we facilitate at best.
As we look to the future, the only thing for certain is nothing is for certain. As teachers and especially music teachers, we are a resilient bunch. We know first-hand how music education can influence lives. We are a product of that experience. That knowledge is what inspires us and sustains us. Think back about your journey; from the first day to today, and how music has been with you every step of the way. It is almost time to continue that journey, school is about to begin, and that journey includes passing on the gift of music to the next generation of students.
Charles T. Menghini hosts his own weekly podcast, Band Talk with Charlie Menghini and Friends, available on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your favorite podcast. Charlie launched a second podcast, Essential Elements Band Talk with Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser and Paul Lavender where he serves as host.
Menghini is president emeritus and former director of bands at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, Illinois where he served for 23 years. He previously taught high school band for 18 years in Kansas and Missouri. Charlie is co-author of the Essential Elements 2000 Band Method, published by the Hal Leonard Corporation.
The Music Achievement Council exists to help directors build and maintain their music programs through its in-person and virtual professional development presentations and downloadable resources (complimentary at musicachievementcouncil.org). MAC also provides monthly recruitment and retention tips for directors to help them grow their programs. Sign up at msfq.org/guide.