Optimism Through the COVID-19 Disruption: Utilizing Social Emotional Learning for Reflection and Growth

Mike Lawson • News • March 16, 2020

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With the mass cancellation of student musical events, school and college closures, and shifts to online learning becoming a part of our new reality, this is a unique opportunity for students and teachers to develop new strategies for teaching and learning and to reflect and grow as musicians and people.

While it may be increasingly difficult to view the current environment as positive for music education, teachers are being forced to develop new educational strategies, and students developing new approaches to learning, that could be viewed as an opportunity for an increased emphasis on social and emotional growth. So how can we, educators and students (K-16) alike, take the lemons created by COVID-19 and turn them into lemonade?

What is Social Emotional Learning and How is this Connected to Music Education?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a construct being implemented across the globe intended to provide students with the SKILLS to confront challenges by being self-aware, socially-aware, and to make responsible decisions. Broad SEL instruction often takes the form of reflection, discussion, and lecture. Students can view this as forced, formulaic, and scripted. For SEL to be most effective, it needs to be embedded in the curriculum. Music teachers can do this in a much more authentic way—through music. Music students can become self-reliant and resilient in the process. Clearly, this is something today’s environment calls for!

SEL is naturally embedded in our physical classrooms and can be embedded in our online instruction, as well. Music is social. Music is emotional. For SEL to be optimized in the music classroom, it must be explicit, consistent, and structured.

We, as teachers, do not teach music; we teach people music. Because students trust their music teachers, we are in the perfect position to help them not only encounter the accidentals in music but to confront the accidentals in their lives with strength and skill.

In addition to guiding students through musical experiences, music teachers show students how to view challenges as opportunities. Embracing these opportunities through an SEL approach is a recipe for success. We can help our students (and ourselves, as teachers) deal with the emotions created by recent events as well as encourage the development of SEL skills as they take ownership of their own learning.

Teachers: Teaching Independence and Empathy Through Online Instrumental Music Education

We have never seen this level of disruption to the status quo of music education (having to adjust to cancelling concerts/rehearsals mid-school year and transitioning to non-in-person instruction). While we, as music teachers, are having to deal with our own emotions and disappointment with these sudden changes, our students are navigating similar feelings and they need our leadership to handle this situation effectively. We do not like to be told “no.” It is okay to ask ourselves and our students: “How do we feel about not being able to perform/be together as an ensemble?”

First, we need to provide a space for our students to express their fears and anxiety around this pandemic. Our students have often found the band and orchestra classroom the space to express worry and have a supportive community guided by the director to navigate challenging situations–they are losing this physical space (temporarily). We need to reassure them we are still there for them. The primary question for all of us has to be: “How can we continue to provide the musical, social, and emotional support that makes instrumental music so special?”

There is no one solution for how to teach our students when we cannot meet as an ensemble (but it will be different, and that is okay!). Directors have often sought to teach students how to practice so they can “do it on their own.” Now, there is no other choice. This necessitates an increased use of individual reflection. Students will now be called upon to achieve accurate self-perception, self-monitor, learn how to set goals, and seek and provide help (SEL skills). While no one prefers online ensemble instruction over in-person teaching, this does provide the opportunity to teach our students to be self-guided learners, capitalize on technology and student-to-student collaboration, reflect on the process of music-making (concept over concert), and embed Social Emotional Learning activities to get students reflecting on the process of making music.

As no one has done this before and it is uncharted water, students can, and should, be involved in the process. We should ask them what they would like this learning and instruction to look like. We could encourage our students to:

●     Find opportunities for remote collaboration and peer assessment/guidance. Pair students where one student records an excerpt and the other becomes the teacher. Switch roles.

●     Brainstorm alternatives for/to performance. How else can we share music?

●     Program a concert of music around a theme (social justice, genre of music, disappointment, legacy, etc.) after exploring catalogues and composer websites.

●     Collaborate on arrangements, compositions, loops, back beats, etc. and record them. An album could be recorded with these collaborations.

●     Make a documentary of the process of preparing for a concert remotely and share as an alternative to performing the concert. Chronicle these experiences of not being together and missing what makes our work special.

●     Interview (email or phone, if possible) a composer about how they see their music making a difference in young musicians’ lives. Many composers are offering these services in lieu of in-person clinics!

In addition, a critical element of SEL is self-reflection and self-awareness. Individual reflections should accompany all assignments/assessments.

Teachers: Reflection as Part of the Process

The process is always as, if not more, important as the product. We can lose sight of this in music education. Remote instruction requires individual reflection even more. Students need to be able to explain their thoughts, challenges, and successes. Here are some broad reflection questions to pose to students:

●     What does band/orchestra mean to you? What will you miss the most about rehearsing and performing together?

●     What are the benefits of having the freedom to work independently?

●     How are you dealing with the disappointment of cancelling our concert/performance/trip, etc.?

●     How are you utilizing the increased amount of time? Are you using it wisely? Are you finding balance?

●     What is one area of your musicianship you can improve on before you return to your ensemble? What help do you need to achieve that goal?

●     What are you doing to maintain healthy social relationships?

This increased level of accountability, independence, and ownership can facilitate a skill set that is often advocated for, but not always achieved in our large ensembles. This is the silver lining. We have the option of treading water and writing off this school year; but, if done well, our students can return to our classrooms with a new perspective on what we do, and how to collaborate. They will appreciate what was missing during this disruption because they will have learned how to empathize, be independent, and be more flexible. Absence really will make the heart grow fonder!

Students: Taking Ownership of Learning

Students across the nation have been rattled over COVID-19. Many are asking the question: “How will I still be able to advance as a musician without face-to-face instruction.” Currently, individualized/Social Emotional Learning is a hot topic in our schools. Regardless of what kind of music student you are, the odds are that some aspects of our future will include having to teach others. Understanding and developing these concepts as students during this period of uncertainty and questioning of the unknown, could ultimately lead to improving overall music education in the future. If we all recognize how to teach ourselves by embracing/utilizing SEL, we will become more effective in teaching others.

Self-guided musical learning is a key to success by becoming self-aware and managing one’s musical/practice/personal habits. Here are some suggestions for music students (both K-12 and collegiate) on how we can all become stronger independent learners, while also embracing SEL:

●     Recognize strengths and weaknesses. We are not always aware of what they are. When we practice, it is easy to default to practicing what we are good at, as it can make us feel good. Targeting and embracing one’s musical weaknesses in the practice room with the intention of improvement, is a sign of high musical self-awareness and maturity.

○      Some examples of how to do this are: Creating your own exercises or writing your own etudes to target a particular issue. Isolating problem spots in the music one is working on. Turning melodies/motives into scalar patterns and practicing them in multiple keys, as well as creating pitch, rhythmic, articulation, or even exercises based around musicality/phrasing. Oftentimes when we create our own exercises, it can further spark creativity with new ideas/concepts around our own playing that have value. This is a phenomenal way for us to begin to take extreme ownership of our craft.

●     One of the most difficult parts of practicing can be developing a consistent plan. Because of COVID-19, time is no longer a significant barrier. However, creating structure can still be a daunting task. We are creatures of habit, so building consistency is important. As good practice habits become more consistent, our rate of progress will begin to accelerate and improve.

●     Goal-setting is extremely unique to each individual’s needs when it comes to music. Oftentimes we fail at meeting our goals because they are too broad and we do not set parameters. A simple way to break down goal-setting is by making a timeline. Identify long-term goals and break them down into monthly, weekly and daily goals. Write the long terms down, and remind yourself of them every day. Daily goals are micro in regards to the long-term goals. When reaching for these micro/daily goals, celebrate the small victories and use them as motivation going forward when you feel stagnant. By adopting this mindset, we may surprise ourselves with how much we can accomplish in a short period of time.

●     Expand the conception of music. We are incredibly influenced by the music we listen to. Between the music we love and the music we may not care for, what we listen to shapes our music education and the rest of our lives. Therefore, by taking this time to reflect on the music that made us and new music we expose ourselves to, we can inform our own teaching and learning. This reflection reminds us of the positive benefits of music, remembering the strength it has, and allows us to further to develop collectively and individually, as a whole society.

●     Awareness and honesty is crucial in regards to goal-setting. If we are not honest with our professors/teachers we may remain stagnant in skill level. Being aware of our goals ahead of time, will make our practice sessions accelerate in efficiency. We can not be afraid to communicate with teachers/professors in regards to what goal-setting could look like for our specific instruments, and for where we individually are in our respected musical journeys. Taking ownership of goal-setting and the process could improve our relationships with the teacher(s)/professor(s).

●     Communicate with peers on their practice strategies and ask what works for them. (Especially those who play a different instrument.) Oftentimes we can learn just as much if not more from each other to improve our own craft. (However, keep enough space!)

●     A healthy mindset is key! Focus on strategies to target alleviating stress and frustration while practicing. Stress builds tension, which leads to poor mental and musical habits. Try taking time to meditate, deep breathe, and reflect at the start of every practice session. Doing this consistently over time will increase productivity, mental focus, and help keep our emotions in check while practicing.

●     Beware of dependence on technology. Smartphones can be a great practice tool, but they can also be detrimental to our focus levels. Afterall, we live in a world filled with distractions. Therefore, we should become aware of them, and attempt to minimize them during practice.

●     If we track how we use time everyday we will maximize how to utilize it. We may all be surprised by what we learn by doing this. It may help us navigate how to become more productive and efficient during these crazy times.

●     Avoid self-destructive negativity! Some days will be better than others. It can be easy to beat ourselves up when this happens. We all have done it. Giving ourselves short breaks to drink water and breathe is a great way to reset the mind. Once again, awareness is key!

●     Stop comparing ourselves to others. Plain and simple. The best musicians in the world are human beings. Regardless of generation, they have once been where we are in some regards, psychologically. Remember, music is a lifelong journey, and there will forever and always be room for improvement.

●     But instead, we can try comparing ourselves to ourselves. Recording a segment of practice can help further train our ears in new ways as well as serve as reminders of progress overtime on the days we feel like we do not improve as much. Who knows what the results of this could be later on for when we have the privilege to once again, make music with each other.

●     Reflecting after practice, is equally as important as doing it before. Ask ourselves questions such as: How has my mood changed? What went well? How was my focus level? How can I improve the next time I practice? How was this practice session compared to my previous one? Did I reach my goals?

Creating a healthy relationship with practicing/music is imperative in order to avoid burnout. During these unpredictable times we should promote/encourage positive practice habits to help us get through. Being detail-oriented in practice is crucial. Further, training to be mindful and intentional will make an extreme difference not only in our musical lives, but our everyday life as well.

Making Lemonade

We can forget sometimes why we make music in the first place and COVID-19 serves as a great reminder for how special making music with others can truly be. If we begin to take extreme ownership over our craft, the next opportunity we all have to make music in a large group may become that much more meaningful.

Times of great challenge also create moments for advancement. Necessity truly is the mother of invention. As we come together as a broader nation to deal with this once-in-a-century public health crisis we can also reimagine how we teach and learn. How we encourage and how we empower individual learning. How we grow within ourselves and how we encourage the growth of our students.

Scott N. Edgar is Associate Professor of Music, Music Education Chair, and Director of Bands at Lake Forest College and the author of Music Education and Social Emotional Learning: The Heart of Teaching Music.

Andrew E. Morrison is in his third year at West Chester University, studying saxophone performance and music education.

Bob Morrison is the CEO of Quadrant Research, Director of Arts Ed NJ and the co-chair of the New Jersey Social Emotional Learning and the Arts Taskforce.

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