A New Normal for Music Education

In every circumstance, whether we view it as positive or negative, freeing or restrictive, there is an opportunity to enter into something better. As educators now are afforded the summer months to reflect, research, examine and revise how music education is delivered to students, music educators will do well to take that opportunity to prepare something better. “Now is the perfect time to reinvent music education in schools” (Thomas, 2020). I agree, now is the time. Districts that reopen school campuses for instruction will do so with restrictions previously not present. Among these is social distancing, the wearing of masks, and limiting high risk activities. High risk activities are those in which water droplets from people are freely emitted, through which the COVID-19 virus is most easily transmitted. For the music education, this most clearly includes singing and meeting in large groups as is the practice in chorus, band, and orchestra rehearsals. These ensembles nearly always bring more people into a single rehearsal space than is now deemed safe during the pandemic. Even traditional classrooms where general music and non-performance music courses are taught need to afford students adequately spaced desks and work stations to make social distancing possible. This precludes sharing drums and keyboards, placing new constraints hardware availability and budgets to procure more. In light of all this, what can and should music classrooms look like? What opportunities for initiating better instructional practices, albeit necessitated by the pandemic, present themselves? What practices do we need to use to make learning environments safe for ourselves and our students?

Some have suggested that a greater emphasis be given to small group and individual instruction. With this strategy, large ensemble rehearsals would be replaced by small group and one-on-one instruction. Large ensemble rehearsals would be postponed until such meetings were safe again. While this abruptly prohibits many rehearsals as we know them, there are gains to be realized from this restriction. For one, playing or singing alone, which develops independence not possible from playing or singing with others, becomes much more practical. Playing in small groups or alone makes self-evaluation and simply hearing one’s self simpler, which facilitates more improvement in self-evaluation, intonation, and pitch error correction. It also improves student centered learning, opportunities for personalized interaction with the teacher, and for interaction between students. These are also attributes of rehearsing chamber music, so the repertoire that can be used expands to include that repertoire, in addition to large ensemble sectional music that will be performed at a later date.

While music educators have employed sectional rehearsals, they have rarely been used on a daily basis. Our other subject area colleagues have integrated small group instruction into their classroom several times a week to every day, while it has remained the exception for music instruction. Small group instruction enables teachers to individualize instruction and more effectively meet student needs and facilitate greater gains in achievement. The key is to construct learning environments in which small groups are student led in planned learning activities while one small group works with the teacher. The teacher may see some or all small groups in a single class meeting; groups that do not meet with the teacher one day do so at the next class meeting, which makes using small group instruction more than once a week essential.

Examples of work that student led groups can do include sectional rehearsal in a separate practice room within the music suite, marking parts with breath, phrasing marks, courtesy accidentals, and circling trouble spots, listening to, analyzing and/or reviewing recordings of repertoire they are working on, or recording an assigned passage for assessment at a later time at a recording station set up in a practice room. Some may question how a band, orchestra, or chorus concert can be prepared in a sectionals only setting. To be sure this is unconventional and inconvenient, but the truth is as long as the pandemic persists, there will be no public concerts anyway, so take the opportunity to sharpen your students’ musicianship using technology and chamber music.

For classes other than large ensembles, socially distancing environments invite using a music keyboard lab set up where students learn performance and music composition on music keyboards, and with the additional use of computer hardware and of software such as Logic Pro, Finale, and similar applications. While great advantage can be used with the use of these technologies in the music classroom, music educators should be careful not to allow “playing” with the technology to replace development of musicianship. For example, students should not be allowed to replace audiating music before notating it with finding timbres, tones, and rhythms on keyboards or within software applications. If the technology facilitates students selecting musical elements by trial and error and without using audiation, then music instruction has been compromised rather than improved or even maintained. Using technology for recording live performance, learning piano skills and orchestration, printing parts for chamber works composed by students for them to prepare for performance are positive reasons to do so. Although public performances will likely not be possible during the pandemic, performances for peers in a socially distanced setting during rehearsal time is possible and beneficial.

An exciting opportunity in all of this is to teach recording technology. If large ensembles are meeting only in small group sectional classes, those classes can be taught to use recording technologies. Sectional rehearsals lead to recording sessions. All sectionals work toward recording their part of the same music. Then, the classes learn how those recordings are mixed and produced into a finished recording of the complete performance. If video is included, it can be mixed into the audio track, and presented publicly using online resources such as Vimeo or Youtube private channels. Consider how much more is being taught and learned as a result of the opportunity to find a way to rehearse while avoiding large ensemble rehearsals that make social distancing impossible. No doubt, retaining the expanded offerings realized by taking advantage of this opportunity will be worth considering after the necessity has expired.


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