To all my fellow orchestra, band, chorus and music teacher colleagues,
How are you all? It’s crazy to think that it’s June! If I’m being honest, I never thought I’d still be teaching middle school orchestra from my living room. Now that it’s getting nicer out, I can at least go outside and teach in the sun. Have there been pros to this experience, to teaching virtually? Absolutely! Are there cons? Obviously. But let’s focus on the positives.
What Have I Done?
My kids gave a sigh of relief at our first virtual Google Hangout lesson. I showed them my pets, they showed me theirs. Their hair was messy, and I didn’t tell them I was wearing pajama pants. We got right back into it like school had not ended, and I continued to teach them what I could. There was a sort of unspoken agreement between us during those lessons: this was real, and we were all in it together.
I needed to get creative. I held a competition for students to submit a video of them practicing a piece of music in the strangest, funniest, most creative spots their little minds could think up. They played pieces in the key of A major, not even realizing I was using it to monitor their progress and understanding of this brand-new key signature. Kids went all out! Here’s just a sampling of what I received, and boy did it make me laugh:
- Playing the violin while floating in a pool on a raft
- Hanging upside down on the monkey bars playing a viola (this one actually made me scream a little, but he got parental permission)
- Ziplining in the air while playing the violin
- Rollerblading and playing the violin
- Playing in a Porta Potty—not even going to comment on this one!
- Laying down with his bass in the tub…he plucked the piece because he couldn’t bow
- Playing the cello with two parrots on her head
Winners will soon be announced and musical prizes ranging from snark tuners to magic rosin will be delivered in the mail to the winners. All in all, the participation was OUTSTANDING.
Teaching Sixteenth Notes
We want our students to continue to progress! For some of these kids, these music lessons are their only chance at accessing your district’s curriculum so they can continue to progress on their instruments. Please check out Mr. Phil Tulga’s website, Reading Rhythms. He offers a free version that is perfect for budget-tight programs. My kids and I were DYING with laughter as we made rhythms together and pressed the playback button to hear a virtual voice say the rhythms back with the correct number counts. We nicknamed this scary (albeit funny) voice “Garfield” and students composed original rhythms. The rules were simple:
- Create a four-bar rhythmic melody and use some sixteenth notes
- Play your rhythms on an open string
- Count the tune with Garfield…yes, with him
- Count the tune without Garfield
- Share your screen and show us what you created
- Print or email your original rhythm to yourself
What did we do next? Usually in school, I tie (pun intended!) things together and have the students study a solo with sixteenth notes. Please check out the Learning Together aeries by Winifred Crock, William Dick, and Laurie Scott. I used scanned versions of “Cripple Creek,” a jaunty and fun sixteenth-note-based melody to reinforce skills learned in previous lessons. Sometimes I would ask, “Hey, how do we count that rhythm?” The response? “Mr. Granata, can we ask the creepy voice thingy for help?”
Finally, to top off our unit on sixteenth notes, I had students transfer those four-bar rhythmic melodies they created into a notation program, add notes, and then perform their original melodies. I was able to work with each student in real time and access their compositions. It was incredible! The kids could hear their melodies performed by a wonderful sounding virtual cello. The results were wonderful, and the kids didn’t want to stop at four measures.
I have an array of hundreds of original tunes written by my students that I can now compile into a virtual folder and share with parents at the conclusion of this year.
What was Virtual Orchestra?
For my students, virtual orchestra was a break. It was their moment to let go, have some fun, and enjoy music. Of course learning happened, but that’s not the only thing that was important to me. I wanted them to know I was still there for them and that I cared about them!
To the 30% of kids that dropped off and I never heard from, I continued reaching out. Hey, I miss you! I hope you’re doing okay. If you ever want to pop on and say hi, I would love to see you. Sometimes, they just need to know that we’re thinking of them.
Anyway, thank you all for everything you’ve done for your kids. We’re not done yet, but believe me, these kids will remember this year because we went through it together. In twenty years, I can’t wait for these to come back and say, “Mr. Granata, remember that year when we were quarantined, and you made a bet with us that if we got more students on for virtual lessons, you’d shave your head?” Needless to say, I shaved my head. Not my proudest moment, but I got more kids, I got more laughs, and…my head was a lot cooler.
Please stay safe, and in the meantime, enjoy the beautiful weather that is hopefully coming very soon!