Large ensembles aren’t the only way to teach music. Dr. George looks at some of the possibilities. 

eniThere has been a lot of gnashing of teeth lately as reports are coming out that large classes and specifically, ensembles like band, choir, and orchestra, won’t be able to run in the Fall and possibly, the entire school year. I understand the concern and empathize with it, but only to a point. It’s disheartening for sure, but our students’ safety, and that of society as a whole, comes first. The sooner we face that fact, the sooner we can begin tackling the problem of how to teach music safely and effectively, whether in the classroom or online. 

Large ensembles maybe the most common way music is taught in US secondary schools, but they are not the only way. In most countries, music is taught in the classroom, and ensembles and private lessons are co-curricular. Even in the US, many schools offer classes in guitar, music technology, and theory. I myself have been teaching music for 40 years and though I’ve played in many, I have only once directed a large ensemble. 

So, I thought it would be useful to take a look at what it is that we can teach if we are forced online again. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll use the old National Music Standards which cover the spectrum of what we do when teaching music. 

  1. Singing, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
  2. Performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music.
  3. Improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments.
  4. Composing and arranging music within specified guidelines.
  5. Reading and notating music.
  6. Listening to, analyzing, and describing music.
  7. Evaluating music and music performances.
  8. Understanding relationships between music, the other arts, and disciplines outside the arts.
  9. Understanding music in relation to history and culture.

(https://nafme.org/my-classroom/standards/national-standards-archives/)

Let’s start with the first two, as they are key to large ensembles. The standards say singing or playing “alone and with others.” Of course, the problem is “with others.” We can’t perform together online. Or can we?

 Since schools have closed, one of the more popular activities has been the collage video, where individual performances are edited to look and sound like a group performance. Like many others, my first reaction to them was that they were just a gimmick with little educational value, but my thinking has come around on this. Performance is the goal of any ensemble and when final concerts were canceled, many students’ motivation waned. Done correctly, as student-centered, project-based learning, collage videos could provide that goal and at the same time teach students new technical and critical thinking skills. That that didn’t happen much in this situation has more to due with our having to respond to an emergency. But with planning, this is one way forward for ensembles. 

Beyond that, there’s no reason every one of those standards can’t be taught, either face-to-face, blended, or completely online. I’m sure you can already think of ways to do this and over the coming weeks, I’ll provide some suggestions as well. 

For years, music education advocates have been arguing that music, not band and choir, but all music, is essential to a child’s development. Band, choir, and orchestra have been popular in schools for a reason and I have little doubt they will return when it’s safe to do so. But in the meantime, our students need music. Yes, it’s asking a lot of you to change your curriculum on top of having to teach online. But it’s what we have to do. 

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