COVID-19: The Day the Music Died….Again

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 15, 2020

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In March of 2020, not only did the entire world stop, but so did the way we educate students, from pre-school through university level. Nothing will be the same, and again, music is pointed out for possible cuts in education.

For music education and all performing arts, this pandemic is a disaster that will leave entire generations with lost memories, from proms and graduations, to young children missing months of growing up with their classmates and friends, plus no end-of-year concerts, performances, and projects. Music is not the only program suffering: athletics, physical education, drama, dance, and vocational education are wondering where they go from here.

As a retired music educator, I watched with horror as my fellow music educators tried to “instantly” figure out what to do for their ensembles the last three months of the school year. Think about it – band, orchestra, and choir directors, all conducting incredible ensembles they have worked years to develop one day, yet sitting in empty classrooms the next. They may never see their seniors again. The biggest mystery will be if they will even get back next year’s music students they spent years nurturing.

Recent music education webinars on teaching music through Zoom and other social media helps for now, but questions about what the future holds still linger. Various types of individual and ensemble-instruction-type media have saved the day for many folks. There’s nothing wrong with that, as online ensemble instruction would make a great supplement in today’s technically-advanced music room.

If you are truthful to this profession, kids starting and staying with music is often not what many may think. Most kids stay in music to be part of something beyond themselves – a group. Most continue on in music education to be part of something much larger (band, orchestra, or choir); they want to be part of a conglomeration of student efforts that creates a positive product and performance.

What music teachers really need now is not concepts and theories on how to teach music education in a pandemic – most can already do that. What they really need now is the “nuts-and-bolts” of how they can physically teach their classes, and most importantly, their ensembles.

Social distancing will be the norm for many months to come. So here comes the big question – How do we teach band, orchestra, and choir if we are to maintain social distancing?

Because nobody seems to be addressing this issue from the state level, I have heard some really desperate and radical ideas, from no marching band and choirs spread out six feet apart, to rehearsing concert bands and orchestras in giant tents out in the school parking lot, or cancelling all performing arts classes until further notice (no one wants that). Here are the big ideas and questions that need answering:

Orchestras: Most orchestras can still maintain social distancing if you have enough room (6 feet spacing). Students will keep wearing their masks, and there will be no touching anyone else’s instruments. The only issue is where to store the instruments and maintain social distancing.

Bands: This is a tough one. The rules are similar to orchestra. However, wind players will wear those plastic masks (if approved). They can tilt up their instruments when playing and drop back down when not. But again, there is the unanswered question of the spit they blow out or drop on the ground from their instruments. Percussion can, of course, wear the masks all through rehearsal. However, the handling of sticks or mallets will need to be addressed. Again, the question of where to store instrument may be a question.

Bands have one more issue. Many bands are very large. Splitting the bands in half can be the answer, but you’re going to need another room and a qualified music instructor/conductor. This is where retired music teachers can be helpful until the pandemic is over.

Choirs: Singing through cloth masks might actually work. But again, social distancing will need to be addressed.

Performances: This may be viewed as the focus of music education to many. However, the real educational “a-ha!” or “I finally get it” moments usually occur during class, not the performance. The performance is only the reward. The rules for performances will likely be similar to athletic contests.

In all this, I praise music educators and school districts in whatever is decided. Don’t forget, there are retired music educators everywhere who would love to help out until this pandemic is over.

Mr. D.L. Johnson, Retired–Director of Bands-Emeritus, at North Monterey County High School, and Sierra Joint Union High School, is a graduate of Sierra High School, Reedley College, and California State University, Fresno. In his 42 years in music education his performing groups have received high ratings, trophies and awards. His groups have done 18 major tours to Canada (four times), Colorado (twice), Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Washington D.C. (twice), and China (five times), Italy, and throughout California. Mr. Johnson has supported music education through leadership in and out of school.

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