By Sarah Robinson
Every few days, I get a calendar notification reminding me of a musical event no longer happening for students in Metro Nashville Public Schools in Tennessee. As I dismiss each notification, feelings of frustration and disappointment hit me like a one-two punch.
For a moment, I picture myself in an alternate universe and think, today is the day the chamber choir is performing as part of the Mayor’s address — or the ukulele donation is getting delivered to the elementary school, or the guest artist-in-residence is arriving at the middle school rock band classroom.
In reality, I am sitting behind a computer at home like most of us, trying to make the best of a bad situation while I process the implications of this pandemic on the musical life of our school district.
Lingering events on my schedule are a drop in the bucket compared to what our students are missing — physically, psychologically and emotionally — each day they are not in school: Spring concerts and musicals, field trips, rehearsals and lessons, all meticulously and thoughtfully arranged by music teachers in Nashville and across the country.
It’s especially devastating to think about students who rely on music classes to get them through the school day. Or the students who could easily fall through the cracks without the safe spaces they’ve found in band, choir or orchestra.
It’s no secret that the coronavirus is magnifying equity issues in public education, and music education is no exception. Students who depend on school music programs to access instruments, ensemble training and mentorship are missing out right now — particularly if they have barriers at home preventing them from fully participating in distance-learning. And some students don’t have music programs in their schools at all.
A global health crisis isn’t going to help close any of those gaps. The pandemic hasn’t made life easier for anyone, especially those who are already vulnerable, facing food insecurity and unemployment or who have access to fewer educational opportunities in the first place.
It’s a heavy time for adults and students alike. “If I didn’t get to make music in school, I would probably be really depressed, because music is a really big part of my everyday life,” Jatayvia Kirby, a senior in Mary Bond’s choir program at Antioch High School in Nashville, recently shared in a video to her teacher. “So if I didn’t have a time-slot in the day where I could just work on music, then I don’t think I would be okay.”
There is no replacement for being together and making music. Her words and the fact that thousands of students like her are going without the life-changing power of music in school right now is weighing on all of us in music education. All the cutting-edge apps, video lessons and recording platforms in the world are not going to change this, even though these tools and technologies can be engaging and useful. It’s just that teachers know there is no substitute for the real thing.
If my experience in the classroom has taught me anything, though, it’s that kids are both resilient and really good at connecting through technology. While teachers can’t re-create the magic of live rehearsals and performances, they will continue to adapt — bringing students together with virtual orchestras, digital recording projects and live social media lessons. They know that the key to maximizing these tools, and the one thing that will keep the musical momentum going in these unprecedented times, is relationships.
Connecting with students, and maintaining a sense of musical community, is everything during this time. That’s why the wisest teachers among us are encouraging colleagues to keep it simple. Don’t be overwhelmed by the onslaught of resources. What truly matters is making that personal connection, whether it’s through video-chats, texts or just good old-fashioned phone calls.
I’ve heard from teachers that virtual private lesson time is the highlight of the week for their students. I’ve heard from parents that chatting with peers and teachers from music class is the highlight of the day for their children. Music teachers are facilitating those connections every day, and the number one refrain among students is: “I miss school.”
When schools closed in March, band director Sammi Reid quickly realized that her students in the Litton Middle School Band in East Nashville wouldn’t get their long-awaited chance to participate in Concert Performance Assessments, so she shared a special video message: “Band is about learning how to make beautiful music, expressing our emotions, connecting with people and having a good time. I’m so proud of you and all the hard work you put in, and all the challenges you overcame on this journey to performance assessment, even if we don’t get to go to that one big performance.”
The journey will continue when schools across the country reopen. Until then, special video messages and the countless connections teachers make with students will serve as guideposts along the way.
Music teachers are community builders. They are masters of creating opportunities for expression. Music teachers will continue to craft those special touch-points as they see their students to the other side of this crisis. It’s going to be less about the mechanics of music — the intonation, balance and blend — and more about the joy, hope and connectedness that music brings to kids’ lives.
As for Jatayvia Kirby, she’s doing just fine. Her choir teacher checks in with her twice a week during virtual rehearsals.
More than systems, resources and technology, it’s all about relationships.