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Applying the Artistic Processes from the National Standards to Pandemic Teaching

Sarah Labovitz • MAC Corner • December 3, 2020

Instrumental music looks different this year. When we focus on what we can’t do as compared to years past or other states or programs, it can be frustrating. If that frustration carries into the classroom, it can pass on to students.

If that frustration passes on to students, recruitment and retention may suffer. We don’t want to let the temporary frustrations of teaching during a pandemic create lasting effects on our programs.

How do we combat the negative feelings that swirl in our heads when we think about what we cannot do this year? We think about what we can do instead! Whether you are in person or online, inside or outside, with instruments or without, you can still provide your students with a meaningful music education and build important connections within your ensemble family that will sustain your program through these challenging times.

Teaching is a performance art and, just as the four artistic processes from the National Standards summarize the creative actions we want music students to be well versed in, we can also apply them to ourselves to imaginatively navigate pandemic teaching. What follows are various ways that ensemble directors can create, perform, respond, and connect during these COVID-19 times.

Create

What do you want your students to be able to know and do when they leave your classroom? When you think about the skills and knowledge you want to provide your students, it is easier to create activities that work toward these goals. While performing as a large ensemble might be the most streamlined way to accomplish these objectives, that might not be possible this year. Do you want students to be able to listen critically? Read notation? Express themselves musically? Typically, we work on these objectives, and many others, while we are working towards performances, but directors can create activities that work on these, and other goals, separately.

Guided listening assignments ( e.g. drawing or writing stories to music), composing on free notation software (e.g. Chrome extension flat.io), or improvising found sound compositions are all activities that could be done alone or in a group, in-person or online, and works towards accomplishing the previously listed ensemble objectives. Brainstorm, search forums and publications, and talk with colleagues to create opportunities in your classroom that are fun, engaging, and musically relevant. Relish the opportunity to try something different. An activity you add this year might find itself into a normal year’s rotation!

Perform

As teachers, we perform daily. I tell my pre-professional students that educators wear many hats and one is “actor.” Even when we are not teaching in a pandemic, it is necessary to leave our bad mood or latest stresses at the door before we enter the classroom because our students, for better or for worse, become a reflection of us. This notion becomes amplified during pandemic teaching. Find happiness in your classroom and magnify it so that your teacher performance is engaging, memorable, and effective.

Hopefully, we are all able to collect moments to cherish this year and find silver linings in the host of modifications we have had to make. However, if you have not, it is time to don your actor hat and perform for your students. It will be even harder to find happiness if your students start to reflect despair or negativity that is radiating from you. I guarantee they are feeling that from others. Let your ensemble room be a place where they can escape the weight of COVID-19 and the world. Let your ensemble room be a place where you can escape the weight of COVID-19 and the world.

Connect & Respond

These artistic processes go hand in hand. As a director, we often develop a strong connection to our students, in part because music is so emotive. That connection is often forged through the power of live performance and the collaborative nature of music making. This year, those moments may be harder to come by. That means we need to work to connect and respond to our students even more. Ask your students how they are doing. If they do not submit an assignment, before you come down on them, ask if they had the necessary technology or if they fully understood the task at hand. Where possible, set up instruction so that students can have some choice in their music education. And, above all, show empathy. Pandemic teaching is hard. Pandemic learning is also hard. Treat them the way you would like to be treated. Making an effort to connect with your students through listening to their struggles or asking questions about them and their well-being will lead to opportunities for you to respond with grace, empathy, and humanity. That connection and response will endear your students to you and help build up your ensemble family in a time when a strong ensemble family is as important as ever.

Creating, performing, responding, and connecting as educators helps us to refine our teaching artistry. Our classrooms will benefit from our commitment to being our best teacher selves for our students. The pandemic is temporary but the bond we have with our students and the gift of music we give them is forever. Even though we might not be able to provide our students with the exact experience we want, we can still provide them with a meaningful music education that will stay with them for a lifetime.

Sarah Labovitz is the associate director of bands & coordinator of music education at Arkansas State University. She has served as a contributing author for The Music Achievement Council since 2019.

The Music Achievement Council is a non-profit organization which exists to help directors build and maintain their instrumental music programs through its in-person and virtual professional development presentations, and downloadable resources (complimentary at musicachievementcouncil.org). MAC also provides directors with monthly recruitment and retention tips to help them grow their programs. Sign up at msfq.org/guide.

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