A high school violinist typically comes to their music class, places their bow on the strings and hears the sound of dozens of other student musicians around them.
But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, that experience has changed.
“Ensemble playing in all of music is really what we do most of the time in school,” said John Rasky, coordinator of fine arts for Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools. “But now we’re focusing most of our time on getting students together [virtually] as much as we can but their progress is going to be measured on an individual basis.”
Rasky said music lessons at all levels will continue even through the challenges of virtual platforms in the fall. But as many teachers prepare for virtual learning, music teachers have to consider the unique challenges that come with teaching an instrument over a video chat.
For example, typically band, orchestra and choir students would practice their ensemble pieces together for a performance. Now, Rasky said students will practice more individually and record their separate parts which will then all be combined into one audio performance.
While that might seem complicated, Rasky said WJCC music students were able to do exactly that in the spring for a production of America the Beautiful.
“The one part that’s different with this is that when kids are together virtually, they’re not in sync as well as they are in person,” Rasky said. “But again, there’s still a lot of individuals playing their separate pieces together.”
Rasky said most music classes will focus more on individual improvement as opposed to ensemble work. This means even though students are scheduled for their music class at the same time, teachers might meet with students individually or even have students pair up for individual feedback.
“We’re able to improve them as much as we did in person as an individual player,” he said. “So we don’t feel we have been lessened in any way.”
For some other music teachers, the experience of virtual education has become a frustrating challenge.
“From the teacher perspective, it’s more difficult because we can’t show them in person the different hand positions or help them pay attention,” said Nadia Ilardi, owner of Nadia School of Music in Williamsburg.
Since the spring, all of the school’s five teachers and approximately 80 students have operated through virtual music lessons in order to promote social distancing. The experience has proven a challenge, especially for younger students who might not be as familiar with their instruments yet.
In fact, Ilardi said she isn’t currently allowing any students to start with the school who do not have previous musical experience. The first six months of learning an instrument are the most critical, especially for learning hand mechanics, and she doesn’t feel comfortable doing that through virtual platforms.
Rasky said WJCC has made a commitment to hold fifth grade beginning band and orchestra this year. The process will move slower than normal in the beginning because the focus is to provide a good experience for the beginning students.
“We are very careful to have a positive experience in beginning fifth grade because we know we can lose them if the experience isn’t good,” Rasky said. “So we can meet them wherever they need as we move into the future and possibly return.”
But as students and parents might be concerned about the new virtual learning process, Rasky said it’s always a possibility they might turn to private lessons for additional help.
Ilardi said her music school has already experienced an uptick in students for the coming year and the school is preparing for even more.
“I was worried about the effectiveness of virtual learning but I think kids had a lot more free time which allowed them to enjoy practicing more,” she said. “In that way, it has almost worked better for us in a pandemic.”
She added the virtual lessons have also provided joy to many students because for some it was the only form of interaction they were getting outside their household over the summer.
“Music is about life,” she said. “Students can have a difficult time overcoming the music and get frustrated and want to give up…but I teach them to be patient and try and and when they overcome it, they’ve learned how to be persistent and control their emotions.”
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