Music Education in August 2021

John Mlynczak • CommentaryMarch 2021 • March 6, 2021

This school year has forced both educators and students to adopt new methods for learning music, both at home and in person. How will our newly acquired skills and technologies influence our classrooms in August of 2021? While teaching music during the COVID pandemic has been extremely challenging, we must also recognize that it gave us all an opportunity to press pause on traditional music education and focus on new ways to musically engage students.

I’m sure every music teacher will admit that they have learned something that would not have happened without the disruption of the pandemic. Now that we know what is possible, we should all agree that music education in August of 2021 must look different than it did in February of 2020.

Individual Instruction

The biggest shift we had to make is to engage the individual student instead of the ensemble. Using a mix of technology and intrinsic motivation, we have seen successful students make music on their own in ways we had never before imagined using repertoire that is diverse and relevant to them.

Individualized instruction focuses on goal setting and student engagement, which of course are pillars of a successful music program. Teaching only online clearly lends itself better to focusing on individual goals and lessons rather than ensembles, and this should not be abandoned when we return in person.

Giving your students the skills they need to find and play music that speaks to them is a beautiful thing. This includes:

  • Learning to transpose music for their instrument
  • Rearranging songs to fit their instrument range and use familiar keys
  • Being able to record themselves performing
  • Mixing and producing music using a combination of recorded audio, loops, and MIDI
  • Sharing music with others and collaborating on music making from anywhere, at any time.

These skills allow students to become lifelong music makers, and to allow them to use their instrument as a tool to create music that brings people joy.

Ensemble Repertoire

I think we all agree that we just cannot wait to make music together with our ensembles again. Through this pandemic we kept it going as best as possible with virtual ensembles and small ensembles, and there is a lot we can take away from these experiences. We have had to be very creative with repertoire this year, many times making our own arrangements and allowing students to find and arrange music for themselves. We have also looked carefully at diversity, both in the music we play and the people who wrote and arranged it. We should continue to seek out and write music that is diverse. We should continue to utilize small ensembles and non-traditional instrumentations to expand the depth of the music we are able to learn and perform.

Student-led Decisions

From section leaders to drum majors, student leadership has always been in the DNA of a successful music program. Online learning gave us many opportunities to expand student leadership using technology. We had students evaluating recordings and videos, selecting repertoire, and engaging in many forms of peer review and feedback. These types of activities are not always possible with 40+ students sitting in class at the same time but are very possible using technology. We should continue using technology to empower students to help select repertoire, evaluate themselves and their peers, and take ownership in the success of the ensemble.

Rebuilding with Purpose

In times of great struggle, we often find ourselves reflecting on purpose. Music education is arguably the subject that took the hardest hit during the pandemic and is certainly broken down from where it was in February of 2020, and we must now rebuild. But what do we rebuild? What is the ultimate purpose of music education and how do we serve that purpose in August of 2021 and beyond, using all the skills and technologies available to us?

For me, the ultimate purpose is changing lives through music. My life was changed by a band class, a band teacher, and band friends with whom I felt safe. I saw my students lives changed by a band class, a band teacher, and band friends with whom they felt safe. And maybe for some, or many of us, we were too comfortable in the traditional cycle of our classes to step back and take stock of all that is now possible with technology and individual instruction in today’s diverse and inter-connected society. Did our programs represent and reach all students? Were we using all available technologies to engage and motivate students? Music education was certainly working in February of 2020, just as it had been for decades prior, but was it working enough for all students in today’s society?

I hope that music education in August of 2021 is the beginning of a new chapter for us all. Where students are empowered to create and make music that speaks to them and share it with the world using technology. Where we use music of diverse cultures written by diverse people to learn more about ourselves and each other. Where students can equally appreciate the theory of music by Lady Gaga, Grainger, Beyoncé, and Bach. Where students see their instrument as a tool they can use to create art and spread joy to others. Where music teachers cultivate a curriculum that facilitates lifelong learning and appreciation for all music.

So, what does changing lives through music look like for you like in August 2021?

John Mlynczak is vice president of music education & technology for Hal Leonard, a graduate instructor at VanderCook College, and a passionate advocate for music education. Learn more at

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