Greene County teachers have found creative ways to keep music and arts classes alive despite the unprecedented challenges of reopening school during a pandemic. From high school band to virtual kindergarten, teachers share some of what their music classes hold for students in 2020.
“It was really difficult to plan anything over the summer because of so many unknowns with student registrations and logistics,” said William Monroe High School Music Director Nathan Whittaker. “For some classes, unless the students have the instruments at home you just can’t run it. It’s hard to run a virtual piano class if kids don’t have a piano at home.”
With 41% of the county’s students currently doing virtual learning and the majority of the rest on a hybrid model (two days in person and two at home per week for middle and high school students), planning for electives was especially challenging this year.
“We have a lot of students who are virtual this year and also there are strict regulations on what you can do in choir,” Whittaker said. “When we were planning out the courses, first of all they didn’t want you singing with a mask on, so you had to sing unmasked. But if you’re going to sing unmasked then you have to stand at least 12 feet apart, and that just wasn’t really going to be feasible.”
This semester, all high school choir students will be taking a music theory and history course rather than working on their vocal technique. The upside is that this is equally available to both blended in-person and all-virtual students. For similar reason, the students interested in drama will this semester be taking an introduction to film studies course, with hopes to return to a full theatre course in the spring.
While band is going to be smaller this year, the students who are participating will have a unique chance to really focus on musicianship and grow their skills with one-on-one guidance from teachers.
“We are not offering a virtual section of band, but I do have a few students signed up for it in person,” Whittaker said. “The way it actually worked out this year is that I have an instrumentalist coming in on Thursday-Friday and I have a group of percussionists that are here on Tuesday-Wednesday. So Tuesday-Wednesday has become a percussion ensemble and on Thursday and Friday I work with the instrumentalist.”
With all competitions and performances currently on hold until it is safe to gather groups of performers and audiences together, every music student at WMHS has the opportunity for individual instruction this semester.
“The musicians I have this year are really getting a unique and really awesome experience because I get to work with them on a one-on-one basis,” Whittaker said. “The percussionists—I have three, and I get to work with each one of them individually. The instrumentalist is essentially getting a private lesson, so it really works out in their favor. Even though we’re not doing our performances, they’re growing as musicians because they get that one on one time.”
As for how to play wind instruments safely when so much related to breathing, aerosols and increased transmission risks are constantly under scrutiny, trust musicians to come up with the best creative solutions.
“There are masks out there that are available for the wind instrumentalists; they have slits in them so that you could insert a mouthpiece,” Whittaker explained. “For brass instruments you typically have to get something to cover your bell. And then for woodwinds, because the sound of the instrument comes out of not just the bell but also through the open keys, you just have to put their instruments in a bag so that nothing comes out of the instrument that could be harmful.”
A host of musicians, music teachers and other creative types have already designed specialized face masks for players of different wind instruments, depending on how the instrument is constructed to expel the player’s breath. Sites like Etsy and unitedsound.org are full of designs and products created to block aerosolized particles from escaping the instrument so that music can be created safely.
“The instrumentalist I have this year plays flue and flute is very unique because you can’t necessarily use a mask,” Whittaker said. “It’s very difficult to use a mask with a slit in it because you’re not necessarily inserting the mouthpiece into the mask but you actually have to blow across the instrument, so having a mask really affects the airflow across the instrument. So for this situation we’ve been doing research into masks that have been developed specifically for flute players.”
In addition to band and music theory, Whittaker is still teaching a guitar course, which has been very popular in recent years.
“We’re not running a piano class this semester, but we are running guitar. Guitar has actually still been very popular,” Whittaker said. “We’re running it blended and the guitar class is one of the larger classes. Because the class is split in half across the week, I have a small number at one time, so each guitarist gets individual attention during the class period.”
The current plan is for marching band to run in the spring to correspond with the modified Virginia high school athletics schedule.
“We are hoping to run our marching band season to correspond with the football season, and there has been a lot of interest in that,” Whittaker said. “The first football contest should take place in March, so that means we’ll probably start early- to mid-February with our rehearsals. It will be a very chilly marching band season.”
William Monroe Middle School Band Director Matthew Gozzard has been working on a music technology program for the past several years. Given the current climate and questions of safety surrounding music classes, this fall he expanded this course to reach students both in person and virtual.
“COVID-19 has not only changed the look of schools but also the look of music class,” Gozzard said. “As we have transitioned back to school, our classes look much different than before but I am able to bring my passion and love for music to the students each and every week until band class gets back to normal.”
As part of the “Innovate 2021” strategic plan for Greene County schools, Gozzard began designing his music technology course several years ago.
“When I first came to Greene County I was fully on board with their mission statement and the district’s strategic plan. And as a band teacher, I wanted to be able to reach all students, including those that were not in the traditional band class,” Gozzard said. “During the 2016-2017 school year, I sat down to create a class that would ensure all students could create music that is authentic, relevant and real. I decided to pilot a music technology program at the middle school.”
Despite this year’s challenges, Gozzard continues to reach students through his music technology course.
“I know everyone has a passion for music but not every student fits into the mold of a traditional band class, playing an instrument,” he said. “With my music technology program I am able to reach students that enjoy any type of music. I will ensure that nothing comes in the way of being able to make music and I am thankful to have the support of the administration behind me. No matter what is going on, I want to ensure that all my music students have an environment that is positive, encouraging and uplifting.”
At the elementary school level as well, music classes are focusing on non-vocal means of making music and moving student bodies.
“Music classes this year have been very different, but the students still participate with enthusiasm,” said Lindsay Pace, music teacher at Nathanael Greene Elementary School. “We are not singing currently, but still up and dancing, chanting, and creating music with our bodies.”
Pace, who is teaching grades two through four in person while also providing virtual music lessons to third, fourth and fifth graders, says technology has really helped her connect with the virtual students.
“It has been a challenge but I have been learning new technologies,” she said. “Some of my favorites are using flipgrid for virtual lessons (this gives me an opportunity to see my virtual students) and Boom Cards—interactive flashcards.”
At Ruckersville Elementary School, music teacher Rachel Peters has also adapted her methods of making music with both her virtual and in-person learners. She is teaching virtual music for kindergarten through second grade this semester.
“We are still moving, learning and playing in music class,” Peters said. “We are cutting singing and recorders completely out for now. It’s really sad, but I am trying my best to make it work with creative solutions. I am attempting to keep music as ‘normal’ as possible while being honest with my students that it’s okay to miss parts like singing—I miss it too.”
Despite the lack of singing, students in both in-person and virtual classrooms are making music in a variety of ways.
“Currently, fourth grade is doing a modified Bolivian folk dance, third is comparing and contrasting musical forms, second grade is getting ready to create a sound story with rhythm sticks after rhythm stick guided exploration this week, and kindergarten/first is chanting, moving creatively, keeping a steady beat and exploring different instruments,” Peters said.
Music is an important creative outlet for students, and dedicated teachers continue to ensure students grow musically despite the unique challenges this school year brings.
“Music is certainly important, no matter the school setting,” Peters said. “Electives and specials really provide students with a creative outlet as well as a space to express themselves, whether it is in person or virtual. Students need that space now more than ever, as this can be a potentially confusing, traumatic and trying time for even the youngest of students.”
Stay tuned for updates on art classes and the tech center.
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