“After the Plague, Came the Renaissance” Teaching Music This Year

Written by Daisy Emans – Kentwood High School Chorale Director, President of the Green River Music Educators’ Association

As this school year is wrapping up, I find myself reflecting on the joys, the successes and also everything that was a loss for me and my students. When I signed up to be a teacher, never did I imagine not hearing the sound of children in my classroom. When I had this crazy thought of getting a graduate degree in Choral Conducting, never did I imagine that I won’t have a choir singing in front of me. My journey this is year is not unique to me; ask any music teacher right now and you will find similarities in our words.

The Landscape

I teach in a district where we were all online until April 12 (for elementary) and April 19 (for secondary students). At the beginning of the year, all I wished for was to hear my students sing in the same room, at the same time. I kind of got my wish when some of my students chose to return to in person learning, but I still had a majority that felt safer to stay online. What was painfully obvious was how wide the gap of equity was. There is nothing EASY about how we interact with online and in person students at the same time, there was nothing FAIR in the way we can grade our students this year and yet still have integrity and accountability. I’ve told my students numerous times something I saw online, “after the Plague, came the Renaissance” and as artists we need to continue honing our craft, take care of ourselves, so that we can BE PART of the Renaissance when it happens.

The Changes

This year we were forced to reimagine what it looks like to teach music online while preserving as much as possible what our performing arts program would have been like so there is something to return to. Students became their own recording studio engineer, they learned music independently with part recordings and made audio recordings of themselves. A student described it as “cringey” to listen to their own voice, another student described recording as an extremely difficult task because the lack of confidence in their voice. Through all that, they persevered and turned in their work to be part of a virtual choir. Our annual Madrigal Dinner was virtual, and we had the opportunity to share that online with our community and invite past alumni to record and be part of our project. Despite the level of vulnerability and scariness of recording their voice, students recorded their videos and showed up to class willing to learn and grow. Each student took what they have at home, and turned it in into the best recording set up possible. They learned the importance of details when they lined the voices up in a digital audio workstation like BandLab and battled wifi and connectivity issues to turn in their work.

Filling the Bucket

It is a privilege to get to hear the music or see the art when a child shares what is inside them, on the outside. This remote environment did not provide many opportunities for our children to CREATE and share what inside them. We took tests in a new way this year because there was no way to monitor the fact that each test would have been an open book test. Instead of memorizing musical terms and tempo markings, my students were assigned to make up a rap that places the tempo markings in order of beats per minute, and talk about each word. To hear the creativity, to hear the laughter, to see them cheer each other on for their work, was truly one of the bucket filling moments for me as a teacher. My teacher bucket was not filled in the same way this year, and I’ve learned to love the beauty of Zoom in its ability to connect me with colleagues that I wouldn’t have normally had the time to physically be under the same roof with.

2019 Madrigal Feaste performance. Photo by Ziggy Spiz

Rebuilding for Next Year

I’m excited for the summer to come, because now I will have the space and time to be out in my garden, and reflect on what parts of this year I would like to keep and what parts I wish for to go away. I have a bunch of “studio musicians” with recording skills that I’m excited to see how those skills will transfer to in person ensemble skills. I have students that have been alone in their space, and teaching them how to socially interact with each other again is paramount in addressing the social/emotional aspect of our children’s’ future. As we rebuild our performing arts program, we need to continue educating the community of the value of creating artists. We have been given a giant reset button and I hope as we return to more in person events, that we continue to prioritize the beauty and importance of allowing our children to create and to be artists.