March 2020. No one will forget this time in history when the global pandemic completely altered our everyday lives. The fear, the uncertainty, the grief over lives lost.
As a music teacher in Ottawa, Ontario, the impact was devastating.
Instead of performing at MusicFest Nationals in Calgary, instead of travelling to Toronto to participate in the Conference of Independent Schools Music Festival, instead of spring concerts and performing at graduation, we were faced with the reality of virtual learning. We also had to come to grips with the fact that our ability to make music together was taken away, as the limitations of internet latency rendered real time group performance impossible.
I was in survival mode, adapting my lesson plans, trying to stay positive and keep the students motivated, and finding innovative ways to allow my students to make music in some capacity. The students worked hard; we began a weekly compilation of solos and virtual collaborations entitled “Musical Moments,” which we featured in the newsletter. We put together a virtual show for local retirement homes as well as three large ensemble virtual performances for the end of the year.
The students exceeded all of my expectations.
But our true community was missing; we desperately missed congregating together in person and collaboratively rehearsing a piece, shaping a beautiful phrase, experiencing the energy of a fantastic performance; we missed our true musical moments together.
I quickly decided I would throw myself into the current research and participated in as many virtual workshops as possible in order to bring live music-making back to my room in the fall. Many organizations spurred into action to help provide guidance and resources for us teachers grappling with the situation; the OMEA, OBA, MBA, SBA, CIS Music, Conn-Selmer Institute, CBDNA and many more put together many helpful workshops and publications.
In August, following the guidelines put forth by the University of Colorado Covid-19 Aerosol Study and by amassing information that I had gathered, I was ready to present a proposal to my Head of Senior School for playing wind instruments at Ashbury College. My Head of School was very open to the recommendations and brought it forth to the Headmaster and Covid Committee, and to my utter joy, it was approved!
At that moment, it was time to get to work to order playing masks, bell covers and ensure all students had access to their own personal instrument. I contacted students’ families a few weeks before classes to present our Covid protocols and to address any concerns they may have. Pedagogically and logistically, my year was still going to be very different. While playing was allowed for classes, band rehearsals were still completely virtual.
In terms of classes, these were split in two to allow for cohorts and distancing, meaning I would teach half in person and half online synchronously, with the exception of those students who chose remote learning all year. I would only see my classes once every four days of the cycle for 2.5-hour periods.
For my beginning winds and percussion class, six students were would-be boarding students who were not able to leave their home country. Their resourcefulness and resilience astounded me through the various time zones and their skill development on their instrument went beyond what I thought possible.
I ordered flex arrangements and was also able to dig deeper into jazz music, improvisation, critical listening, analysis and composition. Every music student was even able to prepare a solo piece with accompaniment in our second term, which was a valuable growth piece for all musicians.
Despite wind instrument instruction in our Junior School being cancelled due to inability to distance, I invited Grade 6-8 students with experience to join our virtual Grade 9 Concert Band; several took part and thanked me for this opportunity. In the fall, a small cohort performed live “Moscow 1941” by Brian Balmages for our Remembrance Day ceremony which was livestreamed from our room.
We presented fall and spring virtual concerts, participated in Music Monday, learned some basic skills in Adobe Audition and Premiere Pro and welcomed several guests throughout the year including instrument specialists, professional musicians and composers.
As tumultuous of a year as it was, I can look back now and confidently say that it was a success. More importantly, we played wind instruments indoors safely and without incident. I realize that my public school counterparts were not as lucky as me; many programs were shut down at the board level and entire course sections were cut. The impact of this moving forward is already beginning to be felt as courses and staffing are finalized for next year.
I worry about the future of music education in Canada. Will programs be given the support they need to rebuild? Will students once again feel the rush of a group performance? Will important transferable skills and socio-emotional development so prevalent in group music-making be valued and allowed to thrive? It is my sincere hope that my experience can be shared with educators, administrators and parents as a model to keep music alive in schools and to let the band play on!
Simone Gendron has been the Head of Senior School Music and the Senior School Music Teacher at Ashbury College since 2016