The show must go on: Music teachers take on new skills, tactics amid pandemic
Teaching in the performing arts can be a 'performing art' in itself — live streamed amid COVID-19
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.
Rod 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 singing 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
Lena Meyer, who teaches band to sixth to eighth graders in the Tahoe Truckee 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 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,” Meyers said. “I’ll be happy to get the screen out of there soon.”
Although in-person music instruction remains the ideal, Meyers said she was grateful to hire someone to produce virtual band concerts for her classes.
Meyers said that by early spring, her students were fading. 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,” Meyers said. “It gave us a reason to work on something, to have them ask questions and help each other.”
Meyers 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,” Meyers said.
SENSE OF ACCOMPLISHMENT
Nevada Union choir teacher Baggett had a quarter of the current academic year left when he met his freshman class face to face.
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 his proficiency in audio and video production has helped create something his students can be proud of, but the wavering voices of students recording themselves alone — as opposed to a group setting during choir class — have tested his technical editing skills.
“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 of 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?”
Natalia Tomasello, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s 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.
Meyers, the other Tahoe Truckee Unified School District teacher, said her program saw a definite hit since the pandemic’s onset. Meyers said her 165-member band in 2019-20 dropped to 105 students after many quit over the summer.
Meyers 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,” Meyers said.
Meyers 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,” Meyers explained. “I didn’t talk to anyone in school unless they talked to me first.”
Over the course of time, Meyers inadvertently cultivated friendships through her participation.
“It felt good to be wanted and to be needed,” Meyers 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.’”
Alder Creek Middle School band director Tomasello said her growth mindset-oriented teaching attitude has opted to highlight the year’s positives.
“With band it’s very unique,” Tomasello said of the educator’s pandemic-affected teaching process. “It’s definitely a challenge picking up an instrument and teaching them how to put it together, make sure their hands are in the right spots.”
Tomasello said arts instruction might be undervalued in the world of standard testing, but playing an instrument adds 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 the way 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.”
Tomasello said she kept her lessons short and tracked their pace.
“Simple expectations, simple instruction,” Tomasello said.
Whether Tomasello’s students played her a measure, a song or just talked, she checked in with them individually every class day.
Unlike Baggett, who 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 band members just became well enough acquainted with their instruments to learn a couple before the year’s end.
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