Friday, October 23, 2020

RSU 14 middle school music programs shift focus during pandemic

Seventh-grade students rehearse for an upcoming
video concert with Applied Arts Coordinator
and Music Teacher Morgan Riley during band
class at Windham Middle School on
Wednesday morning. PHOTO BY ED PIERCE
By Elizabeth Richards           

Middle school music programs in RSU 14 have been altered this year because of the pandemic and CDC guidelines, but that’s not stopping students from learning and creating music in innovative ways.

Chorus has been put on hold at both Windham Middle School and Jordan-Small Middle School.

"According to the guidelines, if we were to sing together, we would have to have the kids spaced 14 feet apart, all wearing masks, and all facing the same direction. And if possible, be outside," said JSMS Chorus and Orchestra Director Rose Underkofler. "Singing in a mask is also very difficult as it's hard to take a very deep breath with masks on, and it's hard to hear yourself sing because there's really no place for the sound to go."  

General music and band classes have a different focus this year, since wind instruments can’t be played inside and sharing instruments isn’t possible. Morgan Riley, Applied Arts Coordinator and music teacher at WMS, said students are learning how to play percussion instruments one day each week.

In these classes, students work on rhythm, playing as part of an ensemble, and performing, essential aspects for all musicians, Riley said.  

In addition, Riley creates lessons/play along videos for students to use on days they are at home, to
allow students to play their wind instruments and keep their skills sharp.

JSMS music teacher Alex Adams also said band students are working on their instruments at home. On Fridays, they have a private lesson via video chat to help meet individualized goals.

“Some of that has been really great for individual attention and differentiation for students but for some kids it takes away the experience of being in a band with others and the joy of making music in school on wind instruments,” Adams said.

Instead of choosing instruments this year, JSMS fifth-grade students are learning pre-band skills through a curriculum based around learning popular music and rock band instruments, Adams said.

These unique times have led to a broader focus in music education.

“Music isn’t just Band or Chorus, though we hope those will be back soon,” Adams said. “It’s all
around us all the time and there are hundreds of ways to be a part of music.”  

Students are learning the technique and art of recording and editing sounds by working to create oral history podcasts as a class, Adams said.

“Students are going to be interviewing each other about the current moment in history and editing together a podcast with a script, student generated score and interviews that tell their own perspectives in their own words about this remarkable time we’re all living through,” he said. “Our work not only allows us to master some skills that are essential to recording and making music in a modern context, it also allows for some curricular integration with History and English.”

Underkofler said that sanitizing challenges that make teaching instruments difficult have led to more creating and composing in general music classes.

“Asking students to think outside of the normal general music box has been really interesting, not only
for the students, but for me too,” she said.

Orchestra classes are being held as usual, with students safely distanced. The biggest difference, Underkofler said, is the goal the orchestra is working towards, since they know there’s no safe way to have an in-person, live concert.

“We're working on these pieces and learning all of these new skills with the questions looming over our heads of ‘how do we showcase this to the community?’”

Underkofler said her goal is to have a virtual concert around the holidays to showcase student work and show the community that they are still making music during the pandemic. They may even create a combined piece with the orchestras from both middle schools, something a typical year may not have allowed for, she said.

In addition to a  fifth to eighth-grade video concert that will include filmed in-class performances of rock band songs and virtual bands made up of at-home recordings, they plan to release the oral history podcasts on streaming sites so the community can hear both the perspective about the world today and the audio craftsmanship of the young folks at JSMS, Adams said.

Riley said he plans to use the district videographer several times throughout the year to record
performance videos to share with parents.

While the pandemic has presented many challenges, educators also look for the positives.

“We've gotten the opportunity, even during this awful, uncertain time, to look at our program through a different lens,” Underkofler said. “We're getting to do these creative and new activities with our students that's giving them new knowledge of what music can be and how we can experience and create! We aren't trying to put a square peg in a round hole. We've just changed the board.”

Adams said students say the smaller class sizes are helping them understand the material better and have better class experiences.

“One student told me last week that they wished that school could be back to full time but with the same sized classes because they got more teacher time and felt like they understood the material better,” he said.

“The bottom line is that the student musicians of WMS are being given an outlet in music, whether they are playing the instrument they started with or not, and are eager to share their progress with staff members who pop in to class,” Riley said. “They are ecstatic to be able to make music with their peers
again. COVID-19 won't stop music at WMS.”

“Students are creating great work even while coping with an entirely new school experience. Parents, students, and teachers are all in a new and difficult situation and from my perspective we’ve come together as best we can and are doing some amazing things both in spite of and because of the situation before us,” Adams said. “I would say a big thank you to the community for rising to these challenges and supporting our programs.” < 

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