Is this premature? Is there a post-pandemic era for this generation of high school student musicians? As with our future in general and this pandemic in particular, who knows? At this point, music educators need to do more than just “keep the music alive” while waiting for normal to return, aware that the new normal will not be the same as the old normal. And they need to use the current challenges to guide them as they reshape what that new normal looks like, what music education is, what it means, and what it can be for their students now and for those who will follow.
That self-examination will be different for each person as the pandemic, depending upon their school duties, their school district and their state, affected their ability to perform those duties in various ways. As school music became exceedingly difficult and often impossible while following the CDC or state or school district guidelines the past 18 months, the adaptions and accommodations ranged from complete cancellations to several layers of mitigation. Some worked well, some worked poorly, some worked adequately, some were abandoned and reshaped or restarted. As music educators look ahead and move forward, the learning that accompanies such successes and failures needs to be the basis for this new normal.
So, what did those teachers learn, and what does it mean in terms of high school music education practices, procedures and policies? It is uncertain as to whether music educators learned anything new; rather they had what they all embrace reinforced. Students love music, love performing, love being in school music groups and love the feeling that comes from that participation. Together, teachers and students (and their supporters) found ways to make music. Social distancing, masks, outdoor rehearsals, covers on instruments, live stream concerts, Zoom classes, individual recordings, editing software – all overcome using imagination, creativity, determination and the shared belief in the music itself.
If anything, the pandemic brought focus on the core value of high school music – the active participation of students, each at their own skill level and each with their own goals for their improvement and musical contribution. Conversely, the pandemic hampered the individual and group musical improvement of those students, based on the challenges they faced and the solutions that were discovered or denied.
The musical opportunities for students at all levels, especially those in elementary and middle schools, saw significant reduction or elimination during the past 18 months. And this has increased the difference between skill levels of students, a difference that high school music educators have dealt with for decades. Unfortunately, their varied skill levels are an issue not easily corrected in ensemble settings.
As music educators head into another year of uncertainty, music programs need to step it up. They need to do what music educators have always done – provide students with an environment that supports their efforts while reducing the effect of the pandemic restrictions that remain. This will take some adjustments and some thinking outside of the box, but most of all it will take a modified approach to what a successful music program looks like and – more importantly – sounds like.
The level of performance achieved in the past should not be a bellwether to measure the new normal. New standards should be set that provide students with clear goals to reach based on their new normal skills. The goal should be to move students’ level of performance upward both individually and as a group. And make sure it is fun and satisfying for students. The pandemic reduced the number of students participating in music, and providing those who remain with a quality, enjoyable and successful experience is the optimum way to entice others to return.
By focusing on the enjoyment that one receives from making music with others, the excellence will return. By putting students at the center of everything being done, music educators will reshape the new normal and restore the quality that was a pre-pandemic staple. And soon the new normal will feature the best parts of the old, appreciated in new ways by everyone involved.
Steffen Parker is a music and digital media educator from Vermont who serves on the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.