Some school districts in the United States have announced that they are re-opening for in-person instruction 5 days a week beginning in January. While some parents will choose to continue some remote learning, many will welcome the return of sending their children to school. In my area, a recent survey found that sixty percent of parents favored in school instruction over remote learning at home. While some teachers have been working within a hybrid plan, some have not seen their students face to face since last February or early March. For many more, slowed growth in learning will be the norm, because while remote instruction helped some learning to take place, it seems generally agreed upon that online learning was significantly less effective than that delivered in-person. So faced with a live class on a regular basis for the first time in quite a while, how does the music teacher proceed from day one?
One approach that I recommend is to find out how students have been experiencing and interacting with music in the months they’ve been away from their physical school campus. Even in the best of times, students gravitate to music for emotional support and change, so it is likely they have relied on music even more during these difficult times. This is especially true for middle and high school students, typically ages eleven to seventeen. These students enjoy bringing “their music” into our classrooms, and they will be eager to share songs that have become their favorites over the last months. Discussions can come out of what is shared, as the class listens to the songs, and then discusses how they helped. With the music class reconvened, an added layer of relevancy and immediacy is available by having students prepare performances of these songs once they have identified how they met their emotional needs, and elements relevant to interpretation have been identified and analyzed.
The format and resources found in Little Kids Rock for teaching students to perform popular music will be very serviceable for this purpose. If you have guitars available, teach students the chords and strumming pattern for a song and have them practice just that with a rhythm track. Always simplify so students can succeed quickly. This might be assigning one chord to one group of students and another chord to another group of students, and having each group play only when their chord comes around in the progression. It might be simplifying the strum to just down strums on the beat, or for having students play just the bass notes and no chords at all. The same can be done with keyboards, and for drums, rhythm parts can be simplified initially and added to later. Students can choose what instrument part they want to learn, or choose to sing. Groups are formed that make up bands of guitar, keyboard, bass and drums, and those bands practice while singers can practice together elsewhere. The process of rehearsing and building an interpretation is valuable. After about half an hour of independent or guided practice, groups of students can begin performing for the class, and sharing their experience of learning and performing the song. All of this can be done in a socially distanced setting.
Writing assignments can also be built around the students’ musical experiences while away from in person school. Have students write a letter to the performing artists who recorded a song that was most appreciated and helpful during the months of the pandemic. Have them thank the artist for the music, and explain why it was so helpful to them in troubled times. You could even send the letters to the artists/artist’s agent/recording company and perhaps some might get an answer.
Another learning activity is to have each student compile a collection of “songs for the pandemic” and create a CD or MP3 of them. Students would start with songs they most often listened to over the last several months. This is a good group activity, because students can share with others in their small group what songs they would like to include in the compilation, and then divide the tasks needed to produce the recording. The songs need to be collected onto audio media, and the assignment also includes producing album cover art, written descriptions and/or analyses of the songs, and a listing of each title by track, and with timings provided. It should be noted that producing individual CDs or MP3 collections for this project is entriely legal, but duplicating the products and distributing them, free or for pay, is a violation of copyright laws without permission to do so being granted by copyright holders of each song.
For performance ensembles, the road back is probably a little more challenging. Many students will have practiced little to none for quite some time, and those who had just begun instruments will be back to the beginning in most cases, unless they have been taking lessons online. With social distancing requirements, large ensemble rehearsals will be out of the question in most cases, so small group lessons will be the preferred way to go. Allow students in these small settings to improvise, and enjoy free-play within minimal structures of a groove track and a chord progression. Do not push learning band or orchestra parts on instrumentalists, but let them just truly play with their music. Take your cue form jazz teachers, teaching the small group a melody (head) and then enjoying improvising 2 or 4 measures at first, and gradually longer sections. The Aebersold books are still a great resource for this kind of instruction.
For singers, unison and two part harmony is a good starting place. Without concern for preparing for a concert, have groups sing in unison, listening for balance, blend, rhythmic and pitch precision. Add a single harmony part and work toward the same precisions. With this approach, almost any song can be used, so allow students to choose much of the material they will be working on. Remember, the primary goal is to get their ears and voices in shape for more traditional music education, not to prepare a performance. And after doing this kind of freer instruction, many of you will enjoy the process and results and want to stick with it or mix it in to what you are are used to doing.
If your school is returning to a full or fuller schedule of in-person instruction, my advice is to restart gently, have more fun than usual, be more relaxed and laid back than normal, and let your students music making unfold naturally until they are ready for more of what they were doing before.