How Can I Keep from Singing?

The second wave of school change is now bearing down on teachers, students, and parents. You remember March, right? When Mommy-needs-vodka types were posting hilarious blogs thanking teachers and telling them to go right ahead and teach in their jammies? Because holy cow, teachers were the light of the world.

There were those teacher car parades, and funny Zoom memes, before Zoom bombing and low average attendance figures revealed that this was going to be a long, depressing slog. And now? We’re talking about the drop-forge model of school cuts and how unnecessary classrooms are, anyway.

I’m a music teacher. I know what this means. I’ve been through several cut-to-the-bone-and-beyond school reductions. Several of my music teacher friends and social media acquaintances have been dreading the decisions they fear are coming.

Because it’s not just ‘trimming the extras,’ the evergreen but erroneous argument that music, art, physical education, and other active, non-Big Four subjects are somehow less important than the others. It’s acknowledging that some disciplines—in the ways they’re traditionally taught– are currently more dangerous than others.

We’re not going to be singing in groups, as usual, this fall, or rehearsing the band, or learning how to play the euphonium in a beginners’ class.

I sing in a community chorus and play in two community bands, and we’re out of business for months, perhaps a full year. There is no way that students will be allowed to sit, even six feet apart, and breathe deeply while licking their reeds and blowing warm moist air out of their bells. Students will not be leaning their heads in to harmonize or tune. The science is clear: these are genuinely hazardous behaviors.

Trust me when I tell you that band, choir, orchestra, and general music teachers know all about the little boxed heads making wonderful music on your You Tube. They understand far better than the general public about the costs, skills, and technological resources necessary, even for the simplest collaborative music videos. And they also know that 5th grade beginning band students need years before anyone wants to see 45 of them individually negotiating the app, the mic, the conductor, the click-track, the printed music and—oh yeah, producing the right note.

There’s a reason why listening to a scaled-down Toronto Symphony is so exhilarating as they play Appalachian Spring. It’s because all of those musicians once sat in an orchestra full of 10-year-olds, bowing irregularly and approximating pitch, with their teacher–gently, one hopes–praising then correcting them. They learned to love the music (essential for a career) in the same place. All the beauty and ingenuity we’ve seen emerge in music in the last two months started in someone’s music classroom.

Music has gone in and out of favor in American public education. Choral music, easier and cheaper to organize and accomplish, has been around as part of school curricula much longer than instrumental instruction. Bands, as school-based activities and classes, didn’t really get established much before World War II—and then were largely promoted as contests. When the Baby Boom started filling schools, band and orchestra programs took off, as professionally trained music teachers became available and parents and communities saw the value in a wholesome, challenging group activity leading to a lifelong skill.

But that doesn’t mean that school bands, orchestras and choirs haven’t been cyclically imperiled by budget cuts and what might be called fashion. Ask any band director who’s ever had to start a struggling or deceased program over again (raising hand) how long it takes for band to become ‘cool’ in a school culture again, to gather the resources and community enthusiasm needed to build something really magnetic and valuable.

All arts and elective programs go in and out of popularity. Some school sports falter, as well, because they’re expensive or demanding– and kids have other things to do. I’ve been part of a half-dozen ‘Save Our Band’ campaigns. I have boxes full of handouts in my garage as proof. The most persuasive argument, by the way, was always the one that demonstrated music teachers who instruct large performing groups are highly cost-effective; once you start talking about aesthetics and elevating culture, however, you lose your audience.

So what are we to do, facing the school arts abyss caused by the pandemic?

  • First, remember that good programs are always generated by good people. Creative teachers will innovate, as much as they can, to keep the flame burning, even when the conditions and resources are suboptimal. Outstanding people—not budgets, not equipment, not festival ratings–are the fuel, and the inspiration, for keeping the music education alive in tough times.
  • Next, we can shift the paradigm of what a good school music program looks like. Strip it down to its basics—the teaching of melody, harmony, beats and Beatles. Focus on what kids need to enjoy music and understand its role in our lives. There is individual skill-building, of course, but also the lifelong value of musical literacy.
  • Let go—for now, anyway—of all the traditional events and educational practices you’re accustomed to– the big elementary music performance in the gym, recorder class, the choir concert, marching band shows for football games. Stop thinking about the damage pausing or starting over will do to an established program and focus instead on serving kids. Especially let go of competitions. Think outside the grid and the uniform.
  • Ask students what they want to learn about music, what turns them on, how they’ve used music during the pandemic. Assume that music teachers themselves should be the ones to create pandemic-friendly programs using new ideas and goals—administrators will have other things to worry about, and you really don’t want them to decide how to ‘fix’ music.

All those ideas are a framework for teaching music without large groups singing or playing—but the reality is that many music teachers won’t get the opportunity to innovate, create or rebuild. They’ll be excised. Many schools will not value teachers’ excellence, or work to find ways to keep the arts alive.

I had a friend ask me why it was important to have school bands and choirs now that technology could provide more ‘individualized’ instruction.  Why not use pre-recorded backups and autotune and fun little video creation programs or self-instruction guitar modules for music class? Nobody wants to take bassoon lessons anymore, he said.

I asked the obvious question: Did he play in the band or sing in the choir? No. He played football.

I pointed out that the ultimate payoff—teamwork in doing something pleasurable—was similar, but he stopped listening before the kicker: Music is something you can do for the rest of your life. Football, not so much.

There’s one more thing teachers can do: Plan now. Jot ideas and suggestions down. Don’t wait for your state legislature to use the crisis to hack away once again, saying their hands are tied.  That’s the easy path for policy-makers—no money for schools, so sad. Be there with your plan and your pitch early.

You’re protecting something vital to humanity. Don’t stop.

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10 Comments

  1. Well said. We can’t wait for legislation to tell us how to handle the return to school (regardless of your discipline).

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    1. Thanks. That’s one of the reasons I wrote the blog. Teachers shouldn’t wait to be told what to do. They should plan now, and offer those plans to the people who will be deciding how/if to cut their programs. If there ever were a time for thinking out of the box, it’s now. If we wait to see how remote policy-makers think we should be handling a reduction in funds, we won’t like what we get.

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  2. Thanks, Nancy. As soon as I saw the title of this, I started singing “How Can I keep from Singing.” Because I can and I will. It’s part of my soul to sing and make art and I can’t keep it just inside. It’s something that connects all of us, beginning with the earliest lullabies we hear (hopefully) as babies and the scribbles in Kindergarten classes to the way we express ourselves to each other. Isn’t language one of the arts? I think so……Language Arts. All of it connects us all to each other and to everyone. As important as breathing. Just do it.

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  3. Thanks for another brilliant and thought-provoking piece. We’re smack in the middle of planning for next year (even as classes haven’t ended yet, we have end-of-year events next week to pull together, comments to write, final faculty meetings to prepare for…) and it’s a little overwhelming. Okay, a lot overwhelming. Like, a *lot*.

    This spring, only one Rock Band group had instruments with every member and was thus able to even think about making a virtual recording. It’s progressing depressingly slowly. Other kids chose between songwriting, soloing, or doing a short research paper. I have kids spread halfway around the world, and not all of them have even been able to be in touch. That’s obviously not sustainable.

    “Focus on serving kids” is certainly the way to go next year. At the same time, I *only* teach Rock Band; one of my colleagues does the instrumental and IB programs and another one does the vocal program. And there’s no guarantee my students in China (half the group) will be back on campus for a while, or that we’ll be able to open up the buildings this fall at all, or that every family will even feel comfortable sending their kids if we do. Heck, as a 60-year-old who’s been pretty strict through this pandemic, “I* may not even feel comfortable going back on campus in August/September even if we do open up!

    Along with a sustaining hope of having actual in-person “Yay! We can actually rehearse together!” groups (I’d have to work out where to put the singer(s), though), I’m hoping to be able to convince people to have the school fund instrument rentals for kids at home, and do a lot of one-on-one time, maybe with an occasional all group Zoom meeting where they can take turns playing for each other, before doing a one-track-at-a-time virtual recording that could eventually be shared out. When I first created our instrumental program (poor sweet naîve innocent that I was to think I could meet all their needs!), it was all one course that included soloing opportunities for kids taking private lessons, and I’m thinking of resurrecting that part. I could also create an elective called “Experimental Music” that would look at different genres including progressive rock, dodecaphony, chance music, minimalism, etc. We’ll see where this takes me, and for that matter where I’m allowed to go.

    It’s both terrifying and exciting, to be quite honest. Anyway, thank you again for your thoughts which will definitely help guide me as I keep planning.

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    1. Thanks for your wonderful comment. How to teach music is a hot topic right now.

      Most of my band director friends who see kids in large–very large–groups think they may be able to see kids in small groups–an ongoing ensemble for pleasure that also builds ensemble playing skills (which are considerable) or a learning ensemble to try something new (guitars, ukeleles, and so on). There’s lots of angst–but your problems (global student body, kids home with no axes) are different. Most public school teachers would kill to teach a boutique course like ‘Experimental Music–I think all of us have a course we’d love to teach, if we weren’t constantly in the rehearse-rehearse-perform mode, the entire school year.

      The problem, in public schools, is usually numbers. Music teachers may be teaching fewer students next year, and the rest of the master schedule is going to feel the pressure of all the band students coming back into other electives. That’s why I think the people who are going to find this most difficult are those who have big, performance-heavy large-scale band programs. Smaller programs may adapt better to making music with the players you have.

      I don’t know if this would be helpful to you–only you know your school and your students–but in the last couple of years I taught middle school band, we only rehearsed four days a week. On Mondays, I taught…something else. The reasons were two-fold: First, it gave the kids a Friday p.m. to Monday p.m. block of time to practice. There were lots of kids who couldn’t get big cases home on the bus, or had sports practices and homework, M-Th, so we built in a long block of potential practice time. Second, I wanted to explore other aspects of music: Broad History of Music (meaning including more than just dead white Europeans). Music in our culture. Some ear training. Tours of some musical genre or another, with lots of short sound samples. Does Mozart Make You Smarter? Etc. It was WAY fun. You should feel free to experiment.

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  4. The projected problems may come to fruition, more in some places than others. The essence of the post and it’s responses are essential, probably spot on, and worthy of consideration by those of us who have devoted our lives to the musical training of those whose wish is to do the same. Let’s hope this discussion continues, grows, and provides fodder for those at a loss, those unsure of their future, and those who desire such an experience. As a musician who has spent a significant part of my life as a student and purveyor of music, beginning with 4th grade tonette and a fairly recent retirement from community band membership and directorship as well as a lifetime church choir member and director, I lived the value of my chosen profession and certainly would hope and pray that what is happening now on the world scene will not be a reason for excessive reduction or cancellation of said practices in the future.

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