CUSD teachers use tech, creativity to teach voice and instrumental music during pandemic

By Cathi Douglas

Capistrano Unified music teachers are harnessing both creativity and technology to develop virtual voice and instrumental lessons for students from kindergarten through high school.

Meeting the district’s standard of excellence while simultaneously mastering the new virtual learning system and helping students navigate it, not to mention troubleshooting students’ internet issues, has meant an especially challenging beginning to the fall semester.

At the same time, music teachers say, it’s a time of renewed innovation and creativity.

“The pandemic is bringing out a lot of aspects of the music experience that are normally not possible in class,” notes Samantha Gossage, K-5 music teacher at San Juan Elementary. “We’re focusing on learning different instruments, the parts they play, the way they sound. And because they are at home, the younger students are singing along with videos.”

Younger students increase literacy by singing the page of a book or an entire book, and older students are drawing to music, combining several types of artistic learning into one lesson, Gossage says. “This not only lets them experience creativity but teaches them to listen carefully to different sounds.”

At a time when teachers and students alike are learning to navigate virtual learning, the children have been understanding, respectful, and patient.

“It’s a stressful time, and it stresses their patience,” Gossage says. “They are doing very well with a set of new expectations.”

Music and the arts are critical, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everything is so focused on math and English or dual immersion that music and art provide great places to be creative and to find a release,” she explains. “It provides a mental break and a type of incubation for the things they’ve been learning all day.”

Andy Waldukat, director of instrumental music at Capistrano Valley High School, opens each class with icebreaker questions so students get to know each other and feel comfortable sharing. “The dialog that’s ensued is great to see.”

In band, choir, and orchestra ensembles, Waldukat explains, students study music history and culture as well as the music itself. An example is learning the call and response of West African drumming and how it translates into traditional Western music.

A newly purchased computer program allows instrumental students to receive computer-graded feedback as they play, he says. As lessons progress, he will consider ways they might be able to perform together virtually.

In addition, as the musicians feel their way through the separation of the pandemic, they are coming up with ideas of their own, he says.

“We ask each other what we want to do and then talk about how we can take their creative ideas and bring them to life,” he says. “After the first few weeks we’re going to look at the type of concert we can do.”

Music offers students an opportunity to share themselves with others, Waldukat notes.

“They can pull out their instruments and play together with people on their blocks or in their driveways, or as soloists. It provides a unique challenge for them to listen, sync and blend with others, which are things that have been missing these past few months,” Waldukat said. 

He is grateful to the district for maintaining the arts curriculum.

“We have hit bumps along the way, but we can still make art and music together,” Waldukat said. 

Tesoro High School Choir Director Keith G. Hancock and his assistant Mikayla Feldman have spent hundreds of hours creating ways to teach vocal music virtually.

Hancock uses three large computer screens in a master studio that allows him to play piano and sing with his students, who perform from their homes. At the end of the semester he wants to compile each student’s performances on a master video highlighting the class.

“The technology isn’t there to have large group rehearsals just like we would in the classroom in real time,” Hancock says. “But they have sheet music, learning tracks, and other resources, and we are giving them feedback as to how well they’re learning the music.”

In addition to music rehearsals and self-paced lessons on vocal techniques, he teaches music theory, sight reading, and music history.

“We break up the period with vocal warmups, some kind of connective activity, then some independent work so they’re not just staring at me the entire period,” he says. “At the end we come back for some group work, sometimes in breakout rooms by sections.”

While the logistics are challenging during the pandemic, Hancock says, he is striving to keep things are normal as possible.

“You’ve got to look for things we can do during this time to recreate what happens in the classroom,” he notes. “I want my classroom to be a place where they can smile and laugh in addition to learning great things.”

Music instruction provides an atmosphere of collaboration that is distinctive from the rest of the academic curriculum.

“The students are thankful there’s a place for them to express themselves creatively,” he says. “They appreciate the atmosphere of fun and seeing their friends – many of these kids have been isolated and haven’t been out of their houses in months.”

“They appreciate the connections – social, artistic, and creative – that bring them the most joy right now,” Hancock said. 

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