MAC Corner – Just Have a Year!

Mike Lawson • MAC CornerOctober 2021 • October 9, 2021

We’re back! The band halls and rehearsal rooms are filled with the sounds of the start of the school year. Upper classmen are eagerly learning and refining their leadership roles while seventh graders and high school freshmen are aghast at the amount of music to be learned! Beginners are excitedly opening their cases for the first time, learning to sit up straight and mastering rhythm raps. It’s all happening despite the myriad of COVID-19, delta variants, and other pandemic challenges.

What is going through those seventh graders and freshmen heads? Perhaps questions like “I’m so far behind, am I good enough to keep participating in this music class? Will upper classmen make fun of me if I mess up? Or thinking, “If I ask a director a question, he/she might think I’m stupid.” I can’t play sports (think 7th graders here) and play music. I will never be able to march and play my instrument at the same time! And tragically – “Maybe I should just quit right now!”

While students are thrilled at the prospect of in person learning, many are also worried that another shut down or quarantine might be right around the corner. Many are concerned about siblings who are too young to be vaccinated or fretful that they might bring the virus home to grandparents. All of this anxiety is compounded by the reality that we all are facing the burden of almost two years of online education resulting in many students struggling with the deficiencies.

What can we do? The worst thing we can attempt to do is return to our March 2020 stride in 6-12 weeks. This is simply not going to happen. Many industries including travel and hospitality indicate it will take two years to reach 2019 levels. Perhaps a wiser strategy would be to temper our expectations and help our struggling students manage theirs as well.  Step back, take a deep breath, and thoughtfully assess the reality of what we teach, assign, and expect as this new year unfolds.

Yes, be alert to weak links in your ensembles but let’s not panic. Instead, make a gradual but steady improvement plan through tried-and-true pedagogy. Teach carefully, methodically and slowly. Teach with patient purpose. Your students didn’t get behind in a semester. Consequently, it is going to take more time than you think to get them to grade level. And never forget, your students are experiencing this same challenge in every classroom they enter. So, JUST HAVE A YEAR! Let it unfold with a focus on realistic growth and joyful music making…not playing catch up with the performance levels of years past or attempting to match what other music educators are posting on Facebook

Remember these are uncharted waters, our world continues to change daily.  We can’t charge forward in lock step with our pre-pandemic lesson plans and strategies. We must be willing to be flexible and modify our plans as the circumstances and student needs dictate.

Keep it simple. Make it your goal each day to take students somewhere they have never been before. We are not talking about the newest, most challenging repertoire or how to play higher, faster, or louder, but maybe a better way to open their case, proper way to sit in their chair, new practice strategy, a listening assignment to refine tone quality or simply to experience the joy of making music. Be patient and celebrate progress regardless of how small.

At the same time, recalibrate your demands and expectations. Take your calendar and instead of filling every weekend with a performance, a competition or more rehearsals in an attempt to catch up, consider polling your families and seeing what events bring them the greatest joy. Modify your calendar to accommodate their preferences in accordance with your newly balanced priorities.

There are countless reports of educators becoming disenchanted with our profession citing the demands placed on them. They are having trouble sleeping, some report suffering from anxiety and depression. Many directors I visit with are stressed as they equate their current circumstances to where their program and their students were pre-pandemic. Others feel the stress caused by judging themselves as compared to what other teachers are programming or planning.   

You must be better to yourselves to cope with these unique challenges.  To paraphrase conductor Sir Simon Rattle, “The more you put into yourself, the more you have to give back to your students.”

Consider the following:

2021-2022 is not 2019-2020! Plan accordingly.

Celebrate current progress without comparing it to the past.

Streamline the number of boxes you attempt to check every day.

Stop answering emails after a predetermined time each evening and never on weekends.

Cultivate a relationship with a trusted mentor. While he/she might not agree with everything you do, they are there to help you keep your feet on the ground and make sound decisions and seek positive outcomes.

It has been said often but it can’t be said too much. “Only do the things only you can do.” Let others be part of your master plan. Trust your parents and student leaders to do more.

Celebrate progress, regardless of how small it might appear at the time.

Avoid thinking, “That’s better but we still are so far behind where we were in 2019.”   Let it go.  JUST HAVE A YEAR!

Finally, make time for more margins in your life.  Leave some “breathing room “in your schedule.

A final suggestion. A friend of mine, the incomparable Freddy Martin, once told me to open my calendar and write “SOMETHING” on one weekend a month. That way, when someone asked if you could teach one more student, make room for one more rehearsal, or take on one more project you could respond, “Oh I wish I could, but I already have something on my calendar!”

For now, take time to be thankful that you are a music educator, be grateful and celebrate the opportunities that are ours to teach students in person.  JUST HAVE A YEAR!

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