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Consuming and making music alone can be lonely. As a trained music educator who listens to hours of music daily, I now work, listen to and play music at my digital piano in my home office, due to the pandemic.
Yet music is about communication, connecting, being social. It is universal. We don’t have to speak the same verbal language to communicate with and through music. Music is about sharing with others.
I have countless friends and colleagues who make and teach music, and today mostly do it from home. Or they do it in near-empty classrooms, broadcasting over Zoom and Google Meet.
This is an unnatural phenomenon for musicians. It isn’t the same as making and sharing music synchronously in a room with others. Until communications technology bests the constraint of the speed of light, playing and singing synchronously over the Internet doesn’t really work. Yet there has never been a time when music is needed more than today.
“Music in the time of coronavirus … is one of our best friends,’’ said Carol Merle-Fishman, president of the International Integrative Psychotherapy Association. “During a time of social distancing, music can, and should, be with us. Music links us to ourselves, our memories and our hopes. Music links us to others.”
In the past, we were able to share music in real time, in the same place. Think about a concert you attended in your community, at a school or at a performance venue before the pandemic. My last live musical experience was in Los Angeles in January 2020, at last year’s Grammy Awards ceremony, which attracted 16.5 million viewers. I was lucky to be sitting in the Staples Center, hosting music education donors as my guests for the show. With the pandemic raging in Los Angeles, the 2021 Grammys have been postponed until March 14.
During the pandemic, elementary and high school students have still been getting access to quality music education in some cases, as their teachers learn to adapt. Public and private K-12 schools are finding new ways to keep music teaching alive because they have to, said Johnathan Vest, a Tennessee music teacher. He noted many good reasons for this, among them: “Research repeatedly indicates that schools and students with access to high-quality music education perform better in a multitude of academic, social and emotional ways.”
Music and music education have been critical to my life. I’m an introvert, and my family moved many times when I was young. As a child who played piano and sang, I quickly learned that my path to making friends and establishing a social network in the many schools I attended was to head straight to the band or choir room and join in. Music in my elementary and secondary education was so critical to my well-being that I pursued it as a career.
I was curious about how postsecondary education is ensuring that the next generation of music teachers and professional musicians is being trained in the pandemic, and reached out to several higher education music leaders to find out. I found myself truly inspired. I first talked with William Quillen, dean of the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin College, who said the school immediately focused on what it could still do.
“Music in the time of coronavirus … is one of our best friends.’’ Carol Merle-Fishman, president of the International Integrative Psychotherapy Association
“We [Oberlin Conservatory leadership and faculty] did not enter the pandemic with the goal of attempting to replicate pre-pandemic norms,” Quillen said. “Such would likely be impossible, and would therefore lead to continuous disappointment. Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, we ask: What do the current conditions afford, and what sorts of new horizons might they inspire?”
Quillen leads the highly respected conservatory of more than 500 students, part of a campus of around 2,800 students in rural Ohio. He attributes its success at navigating music education in the pandemic to a collaboration among community stakeholders, including local government, public health, faculty and students.
The conservatory launched Oberlin Stage Left, where anyone can access performances and other events, which are primarily prerecorded. Many are then archived on Oberlin Stage Left on Demand and on Oberlin Backstage Pass, where the composer Viet Cuong’s “Electric Aroma (a most disagreeable noise)” can be found. These platforms offer examples of how ensembles and conductors perform and share their music even given the constraints of Covid.
At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Patrick Evans, chair of the Department of Music, said the campus “spent significant resources to make music learning and performing safe.” The concert band of 75 students has been divided into groups of 25 that meet once a week. Students are required to wear masks and are spaced 9 to 10 feet apart; choral students wear both masks and face shields. Thirty-minute breaks between rehearsals and classes allow for proper air recirculation in empty rooms.
Next-generation music professionals are inventing — and reinventing — the music teaching tools and techniques we all will need to see our way through the pandemic.
At the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, vocal ensembles became “parking lot choirs” where singers used wireless microphones mixed centrally and routed back to their cars via a low-energy FM transmitter with nearly zero latency.
These are all examples of the sheer passion driving innovation to keep music and music education alive in schools across the United States. Not only are students still experiencing quality music-making, creating and learning, these next-generation music professionals are inventing — and reinventing — the music teaching tools and techniques we all will need to see our way through the pandemic.
Among the pain, discomfort and challenges of the pandemic, I see a sliver of a silver lining. As educators we will re-emerge having added “repertoire” to our profession that ultimately contributes to more dynamic and effective music teaching and learning.
And more than ever, we will all appreciate the joy of making and listening to music together. I miss it so much.
Lee Whitmore is a music education thought leader and founder of Synchronize Strategy.
This story about music education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.