To all my fellow orchestra, band, chorus, and music teacher colleagues,
In preparing ourselves for school closures in the midst of COVID-19, as a dedicated middle school orchestra teacher, I have wondered what support I can offer my students during this crazy, strange and utterly “scary” time. Their concert is only two months away. Many of them already don’t have time to practice, so our rehearsals and lessons together are so important, special, and in many ways, intimate.
Trying to tell a room full of sixth grade orchestra students that school was closed was no easy task. Sure, at first they were overjoyed. But then, they realized the seriousness of the situation. This wasn’t a vacation, where they could visit each other or even leave and go somewhere else: they were homebound. Many were confused, nervous, and even sad. As their orchestra teacher, their one “break” from all the academic chaos they receive on a daily basis, I asked myself what I could do for them.
Set the tone
I let them know from the start that I would still be there for them. My computer was home, email open, and I would answer them as soon as I could. I made funny videos: how to practice, how to tune, how to clean their instruments, etc. In other words, the trust I had spent months and months building with them would not disappear with the abrupt closure of school.
Because they were home, with essentially nothing to do (i.e. academic teachers were not really assigning work), I took advantage of the opportunity. I reconnected with them. Our school uses Schoology, which is sort of like a home base platform for all students. In many ways, it’s a district approved version of Facebook. Here, I can post videos for my students, and continue to joke with them and show them I still care for them. It goes a long way when they can physically see our faces and our smiles, especially since for many students, it can be a scary and sad time for them – their lives have suddenly changed. For students who have issues with change, this can be crucial for them. Also, these videos can help both your visual and auditory learners. So, I can play a series of measures in one of their orchestra pieces and demonstrate the bowings, slow things down, and show them ways to practice. Your district might have a similar program for doing this.
Assign Fun Activities
Now is the time to take control. After all, they are home, with nothing to do, and their instrument is there. Carpe Diem! Seize the day! I can’t even tell you the number of performance videos I have received from eager students that need something to do. What did I do? Our district said students couldn’t submit work for actual grading because it technically “didn’t count.” So, I offered them extra credit challenge opportunities. Play me this, or play me that.
To organize their videos, I used a website called FlipGrid. It’s free for us educators. Essentially, we can create “assignments” (or topics) and the students can submit videos to us via a link they copy and paste into their computer. It’s a free-for-all: violins, send me this; violas, send me this. Best of all, it’s an approved educator tool. Double check with your administrators, but this should be okay! You’ll need your school email to use it. When students submit their video, you can send them instant feedback. Their videos remain private, just adjust the settings.
Try an Orchestra Scavenger Hunt: Have them find that accidental in measure 54; notate the rhythm on beat 3 of measure 1; tell me all the notes in this measure. They will eat it up!
Mix-It-Up Practice Challenge! Oh, you have two sudden weeks off from school? You’re bored? Find 14 different locations to practice. Make sure they’re safe, and most importantly, unique. Offer up a winning prize to the student with the most unique practice spots. They need to tell you what “specifically” they practiced, where they practiced, and sign their signature and their parents’ to hold themselves accountable. I’ve had students practice measures upon measures on their trampolines, in their closets, and even in their bathroom tubs.
Teachers, let’s remain positive. I admit, this is strange. But, we might as well take advantage of the opportunity. As we all know, our students feed off of how we react in certain situations. Be you! Continue to be the same teacher you’ve always been for them: just do it long distance. Encourage them, be demanding, and remind them of how much work they put into their music. Laugh with them, love them, joke and tell them how much you miss them. It will all be okay.
I hope it goes well!