What’s NOT Happening This Summer

Mike Lawson • Features • June 15, 2020

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Summer usually brings many fun learning opportunities for student musicians that might include day camps, resident summer camps, and travel with new friends and instructors.

The music education programs at nearly every level of schooling, as well as the various community and honor music organizations, usually present a full plate of summer activities.

This summer is not happening as originally planned, however. The silver lining may be the creative thinking process that is reforming not only this summer’s activities but quite possibly future music education itself!

SBO reached out to a few of the individuals and groups that we have previously written about to see what impact COVID-19 restrictions are having on their usual planned summer operations. We also searched out the responses and adjustments that have and are being made, as well as identifying those distinct possibilities that some of these changes may or will become the new norm.

The Memphis-based Soulsville Foundation began its music education activities in 2000 with the establishment of their Stax Music Academy (SMA), an after-school and summer operation (SBO October 2018). In December of 2019, SMA announced an ambitious summer start of their 2020 efforts. These included concerts, fundraisers, travel opportunities, workshops. and other opportunities, all to celebrate their 20th anniversary.

COVID-19 forced SMA to close on March 13 and they immediately moved to virtual music education. This included online classes, rehearsals, practice sessions, songwriting competitions, and other activities. Music subjects, mental wellness, and college preparation material for rising seniors was also presented. Constant communication with students and their families also includes information about available community resources, including food, medical, and Internet services. All student tuition fees have been suspended.

The demographics of this community limit the student and family access to appropriate devices and internet services that support distance learning and valuable social media. Soulsville is utilizing a blend of Zoom, Google Hangouts/Meet, and Google Classroom as its virtual tools.

The eventual re-opening of their school building poses its own set of challenges, including the initial and ongoing costs of sanitizing and disinfecting multiple times each day as is currently recommended. SHINE MSD originated out of the totally disruptive shooting experience that closed Parkland, Florida’s Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018 (SBO June 2019). Their summer SHINE Camp utilizes music and the arts as therapy to assist in dealing with the mass trauma of that tragedy and school life disruption.

Now with COVID-19, once again their school is closed, and the normal daily school routine has been totally destroyed. No one knew when, or even if, school would reopen for this 2019-2020 school year.

The SHINE day camp programs for this summer were originally scheduled to include a camp alumni session for one week, followed by three other grade-level sessions. The first of the three grade level sessions – a one-week camp, for students in grades six through eight – would then be followed by two, two-week sessions for high school grades nine through twelve. Each of these planned summer experiences is different and will require different reformatting. This year students from a second high school, dealing with their own community tragedy of two separate student suicides, were also to be included in these summer activities.

At the time of this article, the SHINE Board of Directors, along with Bree Gordon, the music therapist who heads the camp management team, have decided to take all the camps virtual. These camps had used their school building previously, but neither school building nor any other community venues are available for this year’s SHINE summer activities. The SHINE alumni camp experience will go online with a four-day schedule. These students are already a community and have been exposed to the basic program and are familiar with the therapists.

The other sessions will involve new student participants. It will be important to understand their needs and build their community rapport. With teen student suicides becoming a growing problem, the SHINE music and arts therapy programs including this additional school has widespread potential future value.

Expanding their online presence will also allow adding additional music and arts-based offerings and making these available to any student in the county. These might include songwriting and recording, movie production, photography, and any arts-based activity that has virtual instruction available.

Bree Gordon commented, “The challenge for the SHINE summer session team now is to respond to the collective trauma of the original events, the COVID-19 shutdown of school and interruption of everything that is familiar. This is amplified by students being ‘trapped’ at home. Our task is to respond, if not in a group setting, than one on one with these students.” Zoom is the vehicle for these camps both because it is HIPAA compliant, and also because it has been in use by the county school system and is already familiar to the students and their families.

Perhaps SHINE’s most audible and visible icon, the Instrument of Hope (IOH), also has been sidelined by the pandemic. As a wind instrument that is meant to be sequentially shared by many players, a cleaning protocol, materials, and method needed to be developed. AMP, the Atlanta Music Project, (SBO, July 2019) has historically utilized park community centers and school venues that would require deep cleaning, as well as ongoing normal housekeeping and maintenance. The school systems and parks maintenance personnel are all currently furloughed making these venues unavailable.

Social distancing and group size maximums would also restrict the usual interaction and group dynamic that are a great part of the AMP experience. There are currently no plans for group performances which are usually the high point of the student’s summer.

All in-person programming was discontinued on March 13 by AMP. Virtual lessons are held via Zoom and then posted on YouTube. Seventy-five AMP Academy students are in this program. Online classes, which are available to the public, draw from a few to 60 participants. Some class participants are international. Students who use AMP owned instruments were issued their instruments when in-person programming was discontinued, and the headquarters building was closed to the public.

AMP introduced a unique program that might initially appear to only be an administrative process, but in fact manages to include, engage, and commit the AMP music students and their parents to diligent instrument practice while the AMP in-person lessons and group sessions are unavailable. AMP has checked out their music stands, which would have stood idle at the middle school and headquarter locations. Students and their parents sign a form that a student, “promises to practice my instrument daily” and their parents agree to “See to it that my child practices their instrument…encourage and support my child in his/her musical studies with AMP!”

As for the future, CEO and co-founder Dantes Rameau stated, “the safety of our students, staff and faculty is most important to us. In addition to continuing to focus on individual musical development through online individual private lessons and solo performances, AMP students will need to be trained in the production of lighting, video and editing. This will allow them to create content from their residence. This production element will be kept after restrictions ease as it develops employable skills.” He noted that AMP had produced a live streaming 2020 graduation video which also included a virtual symposium “the College Years” for students interested in studying music in college.

Part of the process of developing top-notch college marching bands, concert bands and ensembles as well as their companion orchestras is an entrance audition-based application. SBO looked at the Grambling University Tiger Marching Band (SBO March 2020) entrance procedures and the impact of COVID-19. Grambling University inadvertently was a high step ahead of the game in a number of ways. With appearance auditions a usual part of their entrance requirements, they had already implemented Skype auditions earlier this year.

This still did not address another problem, however. The audition process under the various COVID-19 restrictions and school closings left some high school musicians without their instruments. Many of these instruments are school-owned. Others simply were stored in the student’s school or band room lockers. School closures were abrupt and provided no public access.

The Grambling tentative approach to their regular required university summer band camp will be to honor all social distancing and to work primarily outdoors. In fact, band director Dr. Nikole Roebuck prefers outdoor work: “A band gets a false positive sense of how good they sound in a band room when they will actually be performing outdoors!” All Grambling’s summer events will operate under the mandates of the University administration and the state guidelines and are still in a state of flux.

John Wernega, who teaches basic music skills as well as instrumental lessons across a wide range of ages and at a number of different locations in New Jersey, is currently using Zoom for all of his one-on-one lessons. For his basic students he teaches music reading with a game-like approach. He has developed a large (11 by 17) game card form with an oversize music staff that is sent to his students.

The students will “write” the music on this form after listening to Wernega dictate the sounds. Students “write” the notes using pennies for the notes and anything handy (paper clips, hairpins, needles) for the stems. Students will respond by either singing or playing the dictated notes. In this way his students learn to be able to “hear” what they see. Wernega expects to continue many of his COVID-19 generated Zoom solutions after the pandemic subsides.

While most respondents indicated an intention to return to their previous successful modes of operation, all saw new opportunities to enhance and/or expand their music education efforts utilizing the methods and tools employed during this pandemic.

Just in case we need just one more example of not just overcoming the COVID-19 obstacles, but finding new and additional benefits in our solutions, read about Denver piano teacher Dr. Vertenstein. Recently reported in the New York Times by John Branch, “Nellie” as her friends call her, has been teaching private piano lessons in her Denver home for over 50 years! The combination of social-distancing and her own high-risk designation as a senior (she’s 92) made it impossible to continue teaching in this fashion.

Aided by the parents of three of her students they adopted a lessons-by-Zoom capability. This kept the student’s lesson schedule and assignments intact with their teacher virtually by their side during their individual lessons. Nellie and her students are not only surviving the COVID-19 challenges, but are learning much more than just music. What better teacher than Nellie, who began teaching piano when only 14 years old during the aftermath of WWII in her native Romania. You see, Nellie is a Holocaust survivor!

But what about Nellie’s two traditional spring student Bach recitals? Originally scheduled to take place at the University of Denver, these recitals utilized the same method developed for the at home private lessons. This made each student’s lesson and practice room at home into their individual recital hall. The New York Times reported, “Families tidied their rooms, cleared off the pianos, and rehearsed camera angles and lighting. The entire family gathered to watch, each dressed in their Sunday best!” Every family member had become active recital participants!

Nellie opened the recital with her introduction, “With great pride, I introduce my students who have prepared themselves with discipline and determination in a difficult circumstance.” One of the student’s parents took on the role of Zoom director from her house. Her tasks included managing the mute function to allow the applause of all the recital “attendees” to be heard following each student’s individual performance. At her request, Nellie’s image was not shown during the individual performances in case she might exhibit any facial reactions to that student’s performance. She did appear at the end of the recitals to thank everyone “in attendance.”

Nellie’s reaction to this new way of teaching and performing was, “I really look forward to seeing real people, to have human contact.” She spoke about having her students back in her living room and on her piano…”there will be stickers and hugs and maybe a doughnut party in the yard!” The culmination of this experience is a deeper appreciation between a dedicated teacher and her students along with their families. In a previous interview Nellie offered, “in any situation you can strive, learn, look ahead and continue to have dreams!”

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