Despite pandemic hurdles, Mass music instructors hit new high notes. “My teaching has gone to another level.”
Last March, Boston-area schools got the memo—classes would be going online. Teachers scrambled to adapt, frantically rewriting lesson plans and figuring out whether students had computers at home. Educators had to transform their ideas of what a classroom looked like. Music teachers and high school band directors were no exception. But these teachers faced a particular problem: how do you teach music education online?
In music classes, the majority of learning centers on doing: practicing scales, adjusting embouchure, rehearsing pieces as a group. But playing as an ensemble is functionally impossible over applications like Zoom and Google Meet. These applications transmit audio from different devices at different rates—the lag, subtle enough to go unnoticed in regular conversation, turns even the most coordinated ensemble into a near-unrecognizable jumble of sound. There’s also the question of providing students with instruments. Students at the middle and high school level often rent instruments from the school, forcing teachers to decide how and whether to distribute them to students. Other schools have limited supplies of shared instruments like guitars or keyboards that have historically remained in the classroom for student use.
How classes adapt to virtual learning depends largely on the individual program. Despite support from colleagues and administrators, music educators—like most teachers during the pandemic—are navigating entirely new waters. Music educators were forced to entirely reconceptualize how music gets taught, deciding independently what strategies make the most sense for their students and constantly reformulating their approaches as the pandemic stretches on.
What does it look like when music education goes virtual?
At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, music students play alone in their homes, recording themselves on phones and laptops. CRLS, a top-rated Cambridge public school, has an extensive high-level arts program. One of the jazz instructors Guillermo Nojechowicz, a percussionist and composer who has taught at CRLS for over 13 years. Prior to the pandemic, their audition-only World Jazz Ensemble had performed at the Panama Jazz Festival and at local venues. Now, the ensemble relies on technology: students record their parts independently and send them to Nojechowicz, who combines them into one cohesive track.
Jazz faculty member Gregory Groover Jr. uses similar tactics at Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s audition-only high school for visual and performing arts. Groover currently serves as an interim co-chair for the school’s music department and is himself a BAA alumnus. Despite learning remotely, students have participated in a number of projects—this year, they collaborated on a tribute to Congressman John Lewis. Like students at CRLS, students at BAA have been recording themselves at home before sending them to the director to compile.
The situation is slightly more complicated at Boston Latin Academy, a public exam and college preparatory school in Roxbury. BLA’s music program is relatively small; funds come from a mixture of rentals, fundraising, and bake sales. In the spring of 2020, students started off submitting audio recordings of various assignments. At the end of the school year, though, BLA’s music department had to decide whether or not to collect the instruments for the summer: students rent instruments from the school and often don’t know when instruments need to be repaired. Teachers decided it was the music program’s best interest to collect the instruments in order to send them out for repairs.
BLA band teacher Jacob Eisenman started the fall semester with what he calls a “pre-band curriculum,” where he focused on teaching students about their instruments and developing their ability to read music. He intended to redistribute the instruments when the school returned to in-person hybrid learning, but the dates for hybrid learning kept getting pushed back. Ultimately, Eisenman decided he had to reorganize the curriculum entirely, and began focusing on a social emotional learning (SEL) approach involving things like beatmaking, non-notational music, and identifying emotional responses to a given piece.
Medford High School offers classes on music technology and guitar in addition to groups like band and orchestra. These classes are instructed by Sarah Fard, a guitarist who has taught at Medford High School for the past six years. According to her, music technology has adapted well to the digital format. The two guitar classes have been slightly more difficult—Fard remembers thinking to herself, ”How do I teach guitar class without guitars?” Initially, the class relied on virtual guitars and pianos. The school was able to purchase additional instruments in the fall and distributed school-owned guitars to students enrolled in the class. Because some students chose not to take a guitar home, the class now operates using both virtual and physical guitars.
At other schools, less official programs have disappeared entirely. In 2011, a student at Fenway High School approached math teacher Tom Bodine and asked him to be the faculty advisor for a music club. Bodine instantly agreed. The club acquired guitars and basses from faculty donations and, once, a drum set on sale at Guitar Center. Music club was always relatively informal—students would meet weekly to jam together and learn music, recording raps and figuring out guitar chords. But when the pandemic hit, music club fell to the wayside. Bodine, who doesn’t collect a stipend for his work with the music club, had to redirect his focus to adapting academic classes—most of his energy has been focused on “just keeping [his] head above water.”
“The gap between what [music club] is and what it could be online is so great,” says Bodine, “my mental energy is just like, Let me try to … keep the train on the rails academically.”
As technology represents an increasingly large segment of the music industry, music education has had to strive to keep pace. The move to virtual learning has pushed questions of technology to the forefront, as educators have been forced to rely more heavily on digital techniques and skills. By introducing students to recording and mixing technology in the classroom, educators hope to prepare students for the technological aspect of the music world in addition to showing them new ways of relating to music.
Prior to the pandemic, BAA and Medford High School began offering music technology and industry courses, emphasizing skills such as beatmaking, sound design, and computer-assisted composition. Fard describes these types of classes as “very culturally relevant” opportunities: “As music educators, we need to acknowledge that there are a lot of different ways to make music and engage with music… why are certain topics and artists and genres not given the attention they deserve?” Fard also notes the importance of virtual instruments in providing adaptive techniques for disabled students, making virtual instruments “a very big plus to any music curriculum.”
Meanwhile, at CRLS and BAA, students will record their respective parts at home and send them to the conductor, who will combine the parts into one cohesive piece. “It’s a long process,” Nojechowicz says. “We turn the laptops into recording studios and we’re able to record the ensemble’s different parts.”
Ensembles at both schools have worked on a number of these types of projects during the course of the pandemic with relative success. While relying exclusively on this technology can come at the cost of social development and musical technique, it also provides a new set of skills to teachers and students. “In one way,” Groover says, “it was sad because they were missing so much of the day to day in-the-room education: learning from hearing their peers, playing with their peers, jamming out with their peers. They lost all that. But another way, they got a totally different skill that is so much a part of being a musician.”
Educators at CRLS and BAA hope to retain these recording and mixing strategies following the pandemic. In addition to developing students’ technological skill set, these methods can supplement musical technique, allowing students to listen critically to their performances and identify sections that need work.
“We [the BAA faculty] all say we got to keep this technology,” Groover says. “They’ve gained skills that I certainly didn’t have when I was their age, and that I certainly wasn’t thinking about teaching them before remote learning.”
Nojechowicz feels similarly: “I think I’ve learned a lot,” he says, “and I think my teaching has gone to another level.”
Before the pandemic, high school music programs were a social space for students to connect with one other and build community. But now that programs are either taking place virtually or being put on hold, that space has suddenly vanished.
“A large degree of the purpose of music club is to have another venue to socialize,” says Tom Bodine of Fenway High School. “It allows me to get to know students in a nonacademic way [and] students from different cohorts get to meet each other. … As with so many other dimensions of life that are different right now, socializing gets lost in the mix in a way that FaceTime and Zoom can’t really compensate for.”
This isolation is a particular concern for freshman or other new students who have yet to form in-person relationships with either teachers or peers. Where older students are able to build on existing relationships, new students have to forge these bonds entirely virtually. Students are making some connections digitally—educators recount seeing jokes and comments in the Zoom chat, or students conversing with one another in breakout rooms. Nonetheless, teachers routinely identify a significant loss.
“It’s a small community,” Groover says. “We all get to know each other and love [and] care about each other.”
In many of these programs, relationships are built around creative collaboration. BAA has therefore been able to preserve some sense of community through virtual projects; while students can’t be together physically, they can work towards a common goal with one another and express themselves as a group.
This social loss also has a significant impact on musical technique. Ensemble-playing is a core part of music education—students playing together in person are able to learn from one another and hone their technique. There are also key ensemble-playing skills, such as balance and intonation, that are functionally impossible to develop in the absence of an ensemble.
“There’s nothing like sitting in a room with horn players and playing with each other, hearing their peers articulating, hearing how they’re able to work through music, and you lose that because … you can’t play at the same time,” Groover says. Nojechowicz also emphasizes the importance of playing together—to him, “music is meant to be played as a group.”
For teachers, though, the primary concern lies not with technical skills, but with students’ emotional wellbeing. “It’s a real crisis. It’s a tragedy. School is gone,” Nojechowicz says. “If it wasn’t for technology, if it wasn’t for my colleagues and me, thousands of us, embracing the students, the students would be alone at home.” Direction from an educator, he emphasizes, is crucial at this age. He pauses for a moment and sighs. “There’s a loss. There’s definitely a loss.”
At BLA, Eisenman starts each class with a question: “Would you rather always be hot or always cold?” “Tell me one great thing about your weekend.” He asks students to respond in the chat, sometimes asking followup questions—as he describes it, “anything to get them to talk.”
For many educators, virtual learning comes with a loss of engagement, especially when students don’t have access to physical instruments. Eisenman describes struggling to get students to keep their cameras on, sometimes entering breakout rooms that appear entirely silent. BLA has recently issued a policy that students should keep their cameras on in the absence of extenuating circumstances. Fard describes similar difficulties at Medford High School, recently landing on a more lenient approach that allows students discretion when deciding whether or not to turn their cameras on: “There are a lot of reasons why a student may not have their camera on. So we’re flexible on that,” she says, adding, “The drawback is sometimes I don’t know if you’re there.”
For Fard, the question of student engagement is inextricable from the social and emotional pressures of the pandemic. “Why is a student not there?” she asks. “There’s interest, there’s social emotional, and now there’s a pandemic … If we talk about students that come to class and are engaged, there’s this whole other layer on top of everything that we do right now.”
Meanwhile, at high-level programs like CRLS and BAA, the pandemic hit while students were preparing for end of year performances and competitions. Groover recalls, “We had to take away all the things that they were doing, like learning the music for their concerts, and that was really sad. So it was challenging to keep them motivated in some ways […] So much of it is being a part of a team. All that has been taken away.”
Nojechowicz reports similar struggles at CRLS, where students have told him that motivation is not at a high level. He’s instituted extra meetings outside of class and offered his contact information to students, hoping to offer additional support for students who may be struggling.
Despite a drop in motivation, both Nojechowicz and Groover report relatively stable levels of student involvement and feel that virtual learning has been relatively successful. Students are showing up to class regularly and continuing to practice independently regardless. Groover praises the students for their perseverance: “The kids show up every day ready to learn. It’s been inspiring for me,” he says. “Their passion for the arts is so strong, which is why they’re here. It continues to affirm the work that we do.”
As schools explore reopening, music education remains an open question. Currently, Boston Public Schools have high school students scheduled to return in person as of March 29/April 1. Under this hybrid model, students are divided into two groups, A and B—group A will be in person Mondays and Tuesdays, and group B will be in person on Thursdays and Fridays. Meanwhile, in Cambridge, some high schoolers began to return in early March, although many students are opting to remain remote for the time being.
Groups that include woodwind and brass instruments present a particular challenge for safe in-person instruction. By nature, woodwinds and brass require students to be at least partially unmasked, and certain instruments can transmit droplets and aerosols significantly farther than normal breathing or speaking might.
“We can’t sit in a room with each other six-feet apart without having a mask,” Groover says. “How are we playing trumpet and saxophone?”
These potential problems are exacerbated by questions of space and ventilation. At CRLS, the jazz ensembles have historically practiced in small, windowless rooms. But to practice safely with multiple instrumentalists, one would need a relatively large space—such as a gym—and open windows. Administrators and teachers are also considering holding classes outside whenever possible. While CRLS has spent money to improve ventilation in the school, Nojechowicz says it’s still not exactly clear what has been done.
“I think they’re doing the best they can,” Nojechowicz says with a shrug. “I’m not in the business of second guessing anybody else, but I’m feeling a little nervous about all that.”
The pandemic may also continue to impact the future of music education programs in the coming years. In addition to concerns about funding, some educators are concerned about retaining students next year. Creating positive experiences in the classroom is a key part of keeping students involved in music. It’s harder to create that positive experience when students haven’t had the experience of playing an instrument in an ensemble.
“My retention is usually in the fact that students feel success when playing their instrument,” Eisenman says. “By the end of the year, they have that concert, and they’re like, Oh, my goodness, I just did this. I did it. So they’ll say, Let’s do it again.”
Eisenman is also using this time to work on improving the arts program at BLA. He is currently part of an arts expansion task force focused on making it easier for students to enroll in arts electives without sacrificing academic rigor—currently, scheduling concerns make it difficult for students to continue taking classes in the arts in addition to advanced academic classes.
More established programs are less concerned about long-term numbers, although directors have seen a drop in engagement for certain groups during the pandemic. At CRLS, one of the ensembles has gone from around 15 students in previous years to only eight or nine students. According to Nojechowicz, students are less interested in the ensemble since they won’t be performing at concerts or events.
Nonetheless, Nojechowicz is confident that students will retain their interest and skill after the pandemic. When asked if he foresees any significant loss of learning moving forward, he responds, “If this goes for longer, I think that the answer is yes, but if we can go back to some sort of a normalcy in the near future, then I don’t think it’s a waste.” He recounts success stories from the past year: students of his getting into programs at Berklee and Harvard, a digital clinic he ran with their ensemble at a recent festival, a beginner who played a snare part just right on the first try.
“Was it the same? No, it’s not the same, obviously it’s not the same,” says Nojechowicz, his drum set rattling behind him. “But it’s not meant to be the same. We have a new normal.”