Finding New Ways to Make Music

Laurel School Music

Pivoting. Adapting. New normal. These are phrases we’ve all heard ad nauseum over the past year. But music class without singing? Without contact? While staying six feet apart? In-person and on Zoom? Would music class even be worth it?

At first, panic set in. As a Middle School music teacher, I mourned all of the things I could no longer do. But then I thought, let’s scratch that. Few things have been normal in the past year. I decided not to dwell on all the things we can’t do; I made a list of possibilities. What can we do?  We can listen, perhaps more closely than ever. At a time when middle schoolers are being told to stay in their seats, don’t touch, stay in your classroom, we can move off-screen to learn the guitar. And most importantly, we can focus on music and the creative process as an emotional release.

One of the things I love about teaching at Laurel School is that I am always encouraged to imagine new ways of teaching and learning. While many music teachers have chosen to do more worksheet and theory-based work, which certainly makes hybrid instruction easier, my goal was to keep the learning process as experiential as possible. Yes, reimagining a whole new curriculum from the ground up was a lot of work, but truly a labor of love. As we do at Laurel, I put the girls first. Here’s what I learned about teaching and about myself this year.

Kids are still kids. They want to be goofy, they want to learn, they want to be curious, they want to accomplish hard tasks. Even though we’re anchored to our seats, there’s still room to interact with each other. I learned to allow social time and collaboration into my activities. A longstanding tradition in the Sector classroom is for the girls to name their guitars; this creates a sense of ownership and responsibility for their instrument. This year we had birthday parties for our guitars, which students got to keep for the whole trimester. Not only did we bestow names to them, but we learned to play “Happy Birthday” and enjoyed a tasty treat. Nonmusical? Yes.  Valuable? Incredibly.

Let creativity take the lead. In non-pandemic years, I often find myself running out of time for composition projects. This year I was able to devote much of my curriculum to composition and related skills, such as practice techniques, experimentation, and form. While learning how to play the 12-bar blues like Muddy Waters and Elvis, seventh graders composed their own blues lyrics. Eighth graders traditionally form cover bands for their concert; this year they had the option to learn songwriting techniques and grow their musical self-expression.  

Emotions come out in music – even my own. In performance-based learning, such as guitar playing, every student’s progress is public. Classmates can hear everything, mistakes included.  Frustrations can emerge, whether from oneself or directed towards a peer. I think that this year, more than any other, feelings have been public as well. Being in the same “pod” of students all day, the girls have grown more sensitive to their friends’ emotional vibrations. Though I try to be stoic, my armor cracked once or twice this year. But let’s take those feelings and put them to use. Maybe we need to change the game plan and do something different today. Rather than pushing those feelings aside let’s use music to help us work through them.  

Let your goals be moveable. So many times this year I had to stop and say, “this isn’t working, I’ve got to change this.” Anyone who taught this year can count (or maybe has lost count) of the times when a lesson didn’t translate through Zoom or links weren’t working or students were just tired of whatever was planned. It can be scary to abandon the plan and fly in a new direction, but at the same time it can also be freeing. No one is going to remember the lesson they slogged through, but everyone will remember the time the teacher said “let’s try something different” and drew everyone in. 

If you walked into my classroom in 2019, you would hear the beautiful chaos that comes from experiential music learning: girls buzzing warmups, tuning their guitars, stretching and breathwork, listening to Mozart or Joan Jett. But moreover, you would feel the excitement and curiosity that comes from learning in the arts. In 2020, I learned to channel the same excitement and curiosity the girls bring to music class – just at a six-foot distance.