I have a special story for you in this first column in June, the last month of the strangest school year in recent memory.
Orillia Secondary School is having a Virtual Spring Concert on Wednesday June 9 at 7 p.m. on YouTube. These words don’t convey the struggle and heartache that is behind this event.
This has been a school year like no other for both students and teachers, and music class has, quite simply, been devastated, with both playing instruments and singing together banned during the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been easy to throw in the towel and just teach music theory, throw some music bios at the kids, and let the year go.
OSS music teachers Laura Lee Matthie and Laura Christie couldn’t do that. They both recognized that music class is important for so many reasons beyond learning music, and they needed to give that experience to the kids this year, no matter what hurdles had to be jumped.
“If you ask any graduating music student who has taken music throughout high school what they will miss most, they will not tell you about the performances, the trips, the festivals, the guest clinicians, or the repertoire," said Christie.
"They will tell you how important it was to feel like they were part of a caring community of teachers and fellow students, and that the music room was a place where they felt safe to be themselves, to learn, and to grow without fear of judgment," she explained.
“Through music, they will have developed far more than musical skills. They will have learned how to take on a challenge, pull their weight, contribute to a larger goal, be in an environment that is inclusive to everyone, and to keep trying even when it's hard," she said.
"As teachers, we have the immense privilege to witness students coming into their own from the tentative kid we first meet in grade 9 to the confident graduate going out into the world to follow his/her own path," Christie explained.
"We see it happen slowly every week in class, in band, in lunchtime practice sessions, on field trips and in big performances at concerts and festivals. Student musicians are a diverse group of kids who share a common passion: making music together. And they haven't been able to do any of this for 15 months. This year's music graduates did not get to play together in person even one time this year.”
So, how do you teach music with no instruments? How do you give kids this one-of-a-kind formative experience, when everything you previously used to build that experience is banned, and you are working remotely, in a silent classroom?
“We started with the belief that it is important to teach fundamental musical skills as well as ensemble skills even if we can't do it how we normally would," said Christie.
"Laura Lee opted to set up her classroom with drums and other percussion as the main performance instruments, and I opted to set up my classroom with piano keyboards for each student," she said.
“We were very fortunate to have some of our equipment loaned to us from our family of elementary schools as well as the Orillia Youth Centre. In addition to the performance components, our students have learned music theory, music history, and attended virtual concerts and workshops. Laura Lee and I have had to be very creative and have reimagined and redesigned every day of every music course this year," said the OSS teacher.
“Although these activities may sound engaging, the truth is that kids still wanted to play their instruments, and we wanted them to, as well," she said.
"After school hours, we ran virtual lessons for students in our classes online so they could actually get out their instruments and play. We also established a Virtual Concert Band, a Virtual Jazz Band and a Virtual Brass Ensemble," she explained.
These extra-curricular groups met once a week to 'rehearse' online after school. All interested music students were invited to join.
"Our online meetings were nothing like in-person rehearsals. For starters, due to internet lag, it is impossible to play together out loud because differing internet speeds between homes means that each student is on a different delay," she said of the frustrations that were encountered.
"We created play-along tracks for the repertoire we were working on and often split into smaller groups as students would take turns playing their parts individually to check notes and rhythms," she explained.
“Eventually we were ready to put together some virtual performances. For these performances, students recorded their parts for each piece individually at home with their phones and sent me the files which I then pieced together using audio and video editing software," she told OrilliaMatters.
"We have been getting pretty good at doing this and we now have an amazing spring concert to celebrate our accomplishments against all odds.”
The OSS Virtual Spring Concert will include performances by the OSS Junior Band, Senior Band, Jazz Band, Brass Quartet ("Brazzledazzle"), band classes, virtual choir, guitar, and computers and music class.
“In the OSS Music Department, we have all been doing the absolute best we can and after the most challenging year of our lives, we can now take a moment to celebrate a slice of accomplishment and pride with this virtual concert the students have put together," she said with pride.
“Although we did our best this year as music teachers and students, I want to be clear that what we lost is much greater than what we accomplished," she said.
"What we lost is the bonding, the joy, and the magic of live music making that can only happen when we are together in the same room. None of our Grade 9 students really knows what music class is like, and our music program will now suffer going forward. For every success there was also struggle, isolation, and uncertainty associated with navigating the unknown," she explained.
“From a music teaching perspective, each time we moved from face-to-face learning to online learning, it was back to the drawing board since what we are allowed do in person is completely different from what we are able to do virtually. As for hybrid learning, it is confusing, logistically difficult and incredibly taxing for everyone. There is no doubt in my mind that the most meaningful and effective music teaching and learning can only be done in person," she stressed.
In conclusion, Christie says, “The pandemic has been absolutely devastating for music programs (not to mention the performing arts in general) everywhere. I don't want it to come across as if everything is fine just because we have had success 'pivoting' and 'innovating.' School music programs are in danger due to this pandemic. Full stop.”
Please tune in to the OSS Virtual Spring Concert on Wednesday June 9 at 7 p.m. on YouTube. Follow the OSS Music Dept. Facebook page here to get the link.
Coming up next week: OMAH Spring Back Art Auction, new history speaker event, possible opening of art galleries coming soon, new Sustainable Orillia call for artists, and more.
If you have arts news, send it to [email protected] by Tuesday at noon to be included.