“OrchKids is working hard to stay ahead of the curve!” That’s the message delivered this spring to friends and supporters of OrchKids, a free after-school music instruction program for more than 2,000 Baltimore students, pre-K through high school. In March 2020, OrchKids staff had to totally change their way of teaching. The public schools where they held their group classes shut down abruptly, because of a government mandate aimed at slowing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
OrchKids educators were determined not to let the shutdowns flatten their mission of bringing music-making to youngsters who otherwise would not have the chance to be involved in music. “We have a strong team that is action-oriented because everybody is so mission-oriented,” said Camille Delaney-McNeil, the OrchKids program director. It took just a few weeks for the OrchKids team to totally revamp their curriculum to full-fledged online instruction.
Most of their teachers had never done online music lessons, nor had most students. Staff had to provide informational support to help everyone connect online from their own homes, where all were sheltering-in-place. Music organizations began offering links to resources that could help with this new style of teaching. In addition to tips for tweaking the settings on online apps to make music sound better, there was advice from veteran online instructors that for very young students, it helps to have a parent or other adult sit in with the child during a virtual lesson.
The transition was especially difficult because many students’ families didn’t have consistent access to the basics required for online instruction: Internet coverage and a device to communicate with. Even more challenging, OrchKids’ instructional philosophy centers on group lessons and ensemble playing. So do the other free after school music programs that are part of El Sistema USA, an organization inspired by El Sistema, a music-education system developed in Venezuela more than 40 years ago that emphasizes ensemble playing right from the start. Online ensemble playing is impossible with today’s technology because there is a lag time in the transmission of sound between online devices. There’s no way musicians on either end of a connection can play or sing in sync. OrchKids and other El Sistema programs switched to a mixed approach—material for students to work on at home, some one-on-one online instruction, and online group get-togethers. They also found work-arounds for families that didn’t have the technology. A few commercial internet providers helped by offering free Wi-Fi in some areas during this crisis.
When Baltimore’s OrchKids program realized that local schools were about to close, they began researching options. Administrators sent a survey to students’ families to learn about their Wi-Fi and communication devices. “We solicited stakeholders in our community to donate tablets and phones for students who didn’t have them,” said Delaney-McNeil. Staff then reorganized the OrchKids schedule. Instead of students having group lessons four afternoons a week, each student would have one thirty-minute online private lesson a week. On the other three days, students work on assignments delivered to their cellphones, laptops, and tablets. OrchKids also made plans for how to organize virtual group get-togethers.
Soundscapes, an El Sistema program in Newport News, Virginia, switched from in-person group teaching to using music software to deliver music lessons to students to work on at home, if they have computers, laptops, or tablets. For those with only cellphones, Soundscapes posts a video of the lesson on a software program accessible by cellphones that students had been using in regular school. Soundscapes also holds small virtual group get-togethers. “The teacher can pose a question… and students can answer back in video. The teacher might say, ‘Please play these five measures,’ and each student will post their five measures. Everyone can hear everyone else’s submission. It allows them to stay connected a little more,” explained Reynaldo Ramirez, program director for Soundscapes. He realizes that it won’t be possible to connect online with all their students. “I have two staff members calling parents, trying to get them to the technology. The elementary school where we did our afterschool program has more than seven hundred students, a huge Title 1 school. They had only a hundred Chrome books that some students were able to check out when schools closed.” Even so, by mid-April “we have 68% of our eligible students enrolled in our virtual program.”
Enriching Lives Through Music, an El Sistema program serving a largely immigrant community in San Rafael, California, also has online access problems for some students. The program has held Zoom get-togethers for older students, but its main effort has been posting lessons for students to work on at home. If families can’t connect, a teacher sends a text message to a family member’s cellphone with a link to a video of the lesson on YouTube. If that doesn’t work, “we’re getting together packets that we can provide at our office site that families can go and pick up,” said brass and woodwinds teacher, Matt Boyles. “One colleague is also mailing personal notes to her younger students that she knows aren’t comfortable using technology, sending them music to share. We’ve heard that siblings are playing music together. So we’re sending songs siblings can play together, along with music that the rest of the family can join in and sing. That way there can be an uplifting event within the household of people making music together.”
Enriching Lives Through Music students’ public schools closed so suddenly that some didn’t have a chance to bring home their instruments, which are usually stored at school. The program’s cello teacher managed to retrieve the instruments so parents could come, one at a time, to pick them up. She also tunes instruments for families. A parent can come into a waiting room at the program’s office and drop off the instrument. The teacher takes it into a different room to tune it, and then brings it back to the waiting room.
For OrchKids students who weren’t able to bring their instruments home, the program posts general music lessons for them to work on at home, on music theory or musicianship. One who couldn’t retrieve his flute has a piano at home and wanted to learn to play it. An OrchKids teacher is giving him online help with piano, an instrument OrchKids doesn’t usually teach.
Camille Delaney-McNeil is looking forward to a return to in-person teaching, but she has found benefits to this experiment with virtual learning. OrchKids might continue sending online lessons to students to offer “quality practice options over weekends,” she explained. She feels it might also be good to keep the option of having one-on-one online lessons for some students after in-person teaching resumes. “Normally our students are in group classes. But at some point in your development, you need one-on-one attention.”
Jane Kramer, executive director of Enriching Lives Through Music, noted another benefit of the online adventure. “We are distance sharing with kids in our community now. That opens up the possibility of distance sharing with kids in programs all over the country,” she said. Her organization has links to programs in other regions. “One of our teachers is eager to create something we can use between our programs, a song that we can all learn and share,” Kramer said. “Once we get a comfort level with the technology, the opportunities for that kind of sharing are unlimited.”
Another positive outcome of this crisis could be how it shows inequity between institutions. News reports highlight the lack of access to online learning tools for many children, not only in music programs but in regular schools. Lessons learned from this terrible crisis may lead to a much-needed national conversation on how to make online resources available for all students going forward.
Featured Image Credit: courtesy of students from two El Sistema USA programs