off the grid

Would you believe me if I told you this has been one of the most satisfying, rewarding and happy years of my career? The phrase, “going off the grid” is a spot on reflection of what every music teacher in the country has gone through the past 14 months. Nothing has been “normal”, and a lot has been taken from us and our students since March of last year. How that has individually impacted us is dependent on many factors including whether we’ve been allowed to be in person or not, what grade level we teach, general choral or instrumental, single teacher in a school district or one of many. In any given year prior to this one, each music teacher’s journey is incredibly unique. That’s never been more true than this one.

But a funny thing happened to me right around the middle of November, and it carried through to this very week: my kids and I were learning and growing, and realizing that we were learning and growing. We started enjoying this journey together.

If you’ve ever read a single post from this blog for the last nine years, you know my emphasis on music being an academic subject and how it is up to us to make it so. As a high school choral director, I consequently have given the same speech at the start of every school year to my choirs – on the very first day together – which goes something like this:

“For every one one of you in here, there is a different motivation for you having signed up. For those of you who signed up because you love to sing, I have a request for you. Before the end of the week is out, whenever you get a free moment, do yourself a favor and do me a favor, go down to guidance, and drop this course. The most irrelevant thing you bring in here is a love of singing. It doesn’t matter to me. IF, on the other hand, you signed up for this course because you love hard work, want to develop your own personal and musical skills and musicianship, further your knowledge, and your highest priority is to see the people around you succeed, I’ve got good news for you: you’re going to love this class.” Invariably, by the time I close out my course overview, I do add the following: “If you love to sing and you’re crazy enough to choose to stay in here, don’t be surprised to find out in the end that you love singing even more than you ever did before.” 

The worst thing about Covid restrictions last Fall? I didn’t give that speech. The best thing about Covid restrictions last Fall? I didn’t have to. Like everyone else, I sucked it up and dove into this new crazy world we were confronted with, a choral program with no singing together. I developed a skeleton of my curriculum last Spring, and with some modifications it served us well. Singing in my program at York High School was replaced with music performance critiques. And music history units. And units in interval ear training. And mastering sight reading complex rhythms. And music literacy. And discovering contemporary choral composers and literature. And talking. And connecting. And valuing what we each brought to the table and valuing what that is in each of us. We not only learned, we talked about what we learned. Watching Daniel Barenboim in Berlin in 2006 playing the 1st and 2nd movements of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” together in context to the months of music history we had studied leading up to it… tears. Students asking if we can work on ear training intervals today? Priceless.

Along the way, the students’ remote work included vocal work and video submissions of them singing so I could keep providing them feedback. I made a transition from Doctopus to Google Classroom embedded rubrics (if you want to find out more about that, contact me! rwesterberg@yorkschools.org) and screencastify feedback in real time, recording myself as I was watching/evaluating their videos in real time. The most rewarding moments for me was when my students videos were accompanied by, “I am so sorry about my tone…” or “I can’t believe how bad my breathing has become…”. I had so many students ask for tips on how to keep their singing technique in check without being able to sing in class. That made me incredibly proud. It didn’t matter under the circumstances that their tone was poor and their breathing was much worse if not altogether missing: they were being analytical, and that’s been my goal all along.

When the singing restrictions were lifted a couple of months ago, we took a dual approach in our honors choirs of learning literature outside of class, and using the first 6 weeks of singing to redevelop our tone, breathing and reading skills in class. We’ve worked a ton on ear skills too. Ear exercises we used to do without blinking an eye were now really difficult again. We had to shore that up. 

Last week we started singing literature again. It’s felt great. It’s brought a bit of “normalcy” back into our lives. The first three classes we began by watching excerpts of Robert Shaw running his masterclass rehearsals, and the students filling out a google form to provide feedback on their takeaways. It really helped focus all of us on getting back to utilizing rehearsal for analytical purposes in addition to just feeling good. The result has been wonderful. Getting the kids back into an analytical mindset, utilizing literature to apply technique and musicianship has paid dividends. My Seniors never got to sing our annual Silent Night procession this year. They haven’t sung it in a year and a half. Thursday I passed it out to them (half the group; my cohort “B” with my seniors in it). 10 minutes later we went out to the hallway and performed it. They were nearly concert ready. It cemented in my students that singing with technique and analytical skills is what the choral program is all about. They experienced first hand what it was to go an extended period of time without either, and then what the change was when they were able to bring them both back in. Game on.

When you go camping, or spend extended time at a place with no wi-fi or first world luxuries, you adapt. You find other ways to spend your time, you change how you spend your day. You change your interactions with others, and most importantly you learn to view things differently while you are in that environment. The best result of going off the grid is when you come back and choose to alter your otherwise normal, every day life to incorporate the best parts of what you loved the most when you were off of it. For me, my choral program will never be the same again. What’s fun is that my choral colleague at the Middle School, Jen Etter, has had an absolute identical experience as me this year, and she is making permanent changes of her own. Our conversations around this have been a revelation.

When I saw on social media last Fall how difficult this year was going for so many colleagues in the field, I decided to just keep my mouth shut and focus on what I was doing this year. If I learned anything last Spring its that too many were comparing their programs with others and what they were doing. That is fine, as long as doing so is limited to learning from them. My fear is that too many were viewing other programs from a “comparing” point of view, and there’s not a lot that’s healthy about that. Everyone has been in a different boat this year, and it was no time for me to be putting out blog posts on music education. But as this year winds down – I only have 4 more classes with my seniors – I woke up this morning with just a lot of joy in my heart. I am one of the lucky ones who has had the ability to meet with my students in person all along (going remote last Spring will always be one of the low points of my career, if not my actual life). I finally started to find my footing by late Fall, and every day I’ve driven into school since Thanksgiving or so has been the same joy I woke up feeling this morning. I decided it was time to share it. But not to compare. It is about learning and growing and rediscovering why I chose this profession. I love teaching voice, I love teaching choir. But I love teaching music more, and the variable that never changed was teaching kids. I went off the grid for a year. I hope when I get back to the grid I don’t go back as the same teacher I was 14 months ago. I KNOW I will not go back with the same curriculum or objectives. Has this been one of the most satisfying, rewarding and happy years of my career? Yup.

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