This school year has forced both educators and students to learn new ways of 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. The technology that we all used in March of 2020 had already existed in February of 2020; we had just not yet utilized it in our classrooms. 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.
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.
“Online” and “in-person” are only locations of people. 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, but this should not be abandoned when we return in person.
Giving students the skills and motivation 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.
I think we all agree that we just cannot wait to make music together with our large ensembles again. This is the magic we have all missed for so long. 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. The two most impactful areas for our future ensembles are repertoire and student-led decisions.
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. This is only the beginning of this movement and we must keep working to ensure the music we teach and learn represents the people with whom we teach and learn. 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 perform.
From section leaders to drum majors, student leadership has always been in the DNA of a successful band 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 80 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.
The Ultimate Goal
In times of great struggle, we are often forced to reflect on purpose. Music education, arguably the subject that took the hardest hit during the pandemic, is certainly broken down from where it was in February of 2020 and we must now rebuild. But what do we rebuild? To answer this question, we must all reflect first on the ultimate goal. Not the concerts we used to have or the trips we used to take; those are details. But 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 goal is changing lives through music. My life was changed by a band class, a band teacher, 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 a band class 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? 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 and spread joy to others. Where music teachers cultivate a curriculum that facilitates lifelong learning and appreciation for all music. Where music teachers are always adaptive and flexible to the repertoire and technologies used, in order to reach our ultimate goal in an ever-changing society.
So, what does changing lives through music look like for you like in August 2021?
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John Mlynczak is Vice President of Music Education & technology at Hal Leonard, an adjunct instructor at VanderCook College, and a passionate advocate for music education. Learn more at www.johnmlynczak.com.
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