There was news about a virus that was permeating our world early in 2020, but it was not until March 11, 2020, when the National Basketball Association’s Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive that things got serious. Soon the NBA shut down its season, the NCAA canceled March Madness and those schools who had not already acted fell quickly in line. Teachers were now teaching, and students were now learning from home. Concerts, festivals, clinics and trips were all shelved. In some respects, the appearance of the COVID-19 virus was another version of the Don McLean song that referenced the plane crash of 1959 that killed rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens. It was another day “the music died.” Despite empty assurances from authorities about it “being under control” or “just a matter of time until it subsides,” here it is 2021 and we are still dealing with COVID-19. But there is widespread belief and optimism the vaccine will help to bring the pandemic under control and life will get back to normal, or at least a new normal and music again, will live.
I remember seeing a sign on an office wall a long time ago that read: “It wasn’t raining when Noah started building the ark.” This message could very well have been the title of this article and it is certainly a call to action for band and orchestra teachers of all levels. Start building your ark! You may not need to line up the animals two by two, but it will certainly help if you get your ducks in a row.
Your Program Starts with Beginners
Many districts did not start beginners this past year and the few that did probably did not have the same amount or quality of instruction time they had in years past. It does not matter if you teach only at the high school or middle school level, a priority you must address is the status of beginning band and orchestra students in your feeder schools. Bands and orchestras cannot afford to lose an entire year of beginners, and directors at all levels must work with beginning directors to come up with a plan to ensure there are students in the program’s pipeline.
Communication with school administrators is vital for all issues but is extremely important when it comes to beginning band. High school and middle school directors need to educate their administrators about the impact losing a beginning class would have on their school’s program in just a short time. Encourage your administrators to reach out to their colleagues at the elementary level to talk about the importance beginning programs have at the next level and the need of having sufficient instructional resources (time and staff) in place. It is imperative that beginning students receive quality instruction and have a positive experience. Another suggestion is to discuss the possibility of vertical staffing, where middle and high school directors assist as needed in beginning instruction. This could be especially helpful to provide sufficient staff for schools that are hoping to start two grades of beginners at once.
Just as you plan and communicate with colleagues and administration, communicate with your local school music dealer. Involve them in the planning process of when and how you hope to start beginners when things settle down. Music dealers and their road representatives are invaluable resources for directors as they work with multiple schools, districts and directors and can offer insights as to what things are planned or are working (or not) in your neighboring areas.
Rebuild Your Culture
Let us not fool ourselves. As much as we would all like to believe that students begin playing and continue participating in band and orchestra because of the music, we must acknowledge the social aspect playing in a band or orchestra offers students. There is a percentage of students in our ensembles who are there because music has ignited a part of their being and has made a deep and meaningful connection with their souls. But a larger percentage of membership probably places a greater value (at least at this point in their lives) on the friendships, social interactions and activities music ensembles provide them.
During this time of COVID-19 we have all lost many of the activities and opportunities to interact with our families, our colleagues and our friends. We have been instructed to “socially distance” ourselves from others. In those cases where ensembles were able to meet in person, everyone was at least six feet apart and wearing masks. Wind instruments had their own special coverings and members were often seated in plexiglass pods. Because of distancing and room space, ensembles of a hundred were reduced to a couple of dozen at best.
For those students who were learning remotely, there was no ensemble. Creative teachers did their best to provide some sort of group musical experience, but as good and effective as it may have been with the limitations in place, it was far from being together in a room and making music the way we did prior to the pandemic.
In addition to impacting the social aspects of being a member of a school band or orchestra, we will immediately realize the impact these times had on our music-making abilities. It will take time for ensembles to regain the level of performance and artistry they experienced prior to the pandemic. Even if students were being challenged with regular assignments they had to prepare and submit, it did not replace, nor could it replicate all of the dynamics of an in-person rehearsal or performance.
Habits will have been lost. Directors will need to re-establish everything from how students enter the room and warm up on their instruments, to how they participate in and remain focused during a rehearsal. The leadership within the group will be different. A year has gone by and those upper-class leaders who we relied on to help set the expectation level have probably moved on to the next level or graduated. There will be a need to identify and cultivate those students who directors believe can have the most positive musical and social impact on their peers. This will take time.
The best approach will be to take it slow. At the beginning, less will be more. Think of it like you are teacher who is starting a new job because in many cases, it may feel that way. Be aware of what students are telling you, both verbally and non-verbally. Allow them to become stakeholders in the process by engaging them in short discussions and asking questions designed to help get everyone back on track.
Supporting Those Who Have Supported You
As life gets back to some sense of normalcy or whatever the new normal has in store, music teachers must remember to support all those companies and individuals who have supported them throughout these times.
We can all agree music teachers do not get paid enough in normal times. When one considers that many teachers have had to completely change their methods of instructional delivery, modify their curriculums and deal with all the technological issues associated with virtual instruction, it becomes obvious they really have not been paid enough. But despite this belief, music teachers must realize at the end of the day, they still have the security of a job. The same cannot be said for all the parents of our students nor can it be said for many in the music industry who have lost their jobs or been furloughed during these times.
Music stores who provide much-needed service and supplies to music programs have felt a dramatic impact due to schools not starting or greatly modifying how classes were held in band and orchestra programs. With in-person instruction and live performances of all varieties being put on hold, dealers and manufacturers have seen sales of beginning and step-up instruments drop significantly. But despite these impacts, music dealers across the nation have modified their business practices to include home pickup and delivery of instruments in need of repair, and they have continued to do their best to provide service and other resources to help their music teachers cope and to help students experience some facet of music in their lives.
The music publishing industry has also taken a hit. National publishers along with independent composers have worked diligently to modify music to fit the needs of the situation at hand. Flexible band and orchestra arrangements have been made available with great effort and at great expense, not in hopes of selling thousands of copies, but in hopes they will help teachers keep students involved in the music-making process.
Music education and the music industry is an ecosystem. It is a community of individuals, schools and businesses who all believe in the important role music and music education has in the emotional, mental and physical development and health of those who participate in its creation or who listen to the fruits of the participants’ collective efforts. Music education and the music industry are a symbiotic relationship; we need each other to survive.
Throughout this time, many teachers have called upon composers, clinicians, conductors, teachers, performers and anyone they could think of to help them. Zoom calls and chat rooms have become an integral way to host masterclasses, talk about the music making process, discuss a composition or to offer some motivational words. Time and time again these professionals have stepped up and did whatever they could to help, and for the most part, those efforts were done gratis. Most likely they received no clinician fee and because the industry suffered, the menial support they often receive from instrument and publishing companies to serve as an educational resource was not there. To make matters worse, many times their efforts did not even receive an after-the-fact “thank you.” But they did it and will continue to do it time and time again because they know the importance of music and they believe in the work you are doing.
When this pandemic passes and things get back to normal, please, don’t forget about these people. Buy their products and play their music. Support them to the best of your ability just as they have done for you this past year and will continue to do long after the pandemic passes.
Your Success Will Be Defined by Your Ability to Communicate
As teachers prepare for a post-pandemic world, it is vital for the lines of communication to be wide open. Students, parents, school administrators, colleagues and community members all need to hear from directors on a regular basis. Share student successes and describe how students have stayed engaged in the study of music. Continuously highlight and remind each group of the role they need to play to keep music education alive and well in their school and community.
With the pandemic, tax revenues used to fund personnel and programs may face a shortfall. Administrators and Boards of Education will need to make difficult decisions. Priorities will be given first to state-mandated basics and followed by programs the stakeholders feel provide the most benefit to the students. If you have not started to advocate for your program, your communication efforts need to begin now. Focus on educating each group as to the benefits of music participation and study, and encourage them to take appropriate action to be sure their voices are heard.
Millions of dollars have been spent on research to help identify and define the benefits of making music. If you Google “benefits of making music” you will find about 803,000,000 results. There is no shortage of information to help you plan to begin teaching in a post-pandemic world, but there may be a shortage of time. The time to act is now.
The Music Achievement Council (MAC) is an action-oriented nonprofit organization sponsored by the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD) and NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM).
Charles T. Menghini is president emeritus of VanderCook College of Music in Chicago. He is co-author of the Essential Elements band method, published by Hal Leonard and hosts his podcast, Band Talk with Charlie Menghini and Friends.