As John Catoliato tells it, the main challenges facing music education at Edgemont Jr./Sr. High School during COVID are the same as those before the pandemic: space and time. Only now, he says, those challenges are amplified.
“Students must utilize ensemble periods, lunch periods, study halls and the transitions between cohorts” to perform as a group, said Catoliato, instrumental music teacher at Edgemont Jr./Sr. High School. Practice times must fit in the campus’ am/pm schedule to maximize frequency while fitting into the available indoor and outdoor spaces.
“Even with all those time slots in use, the best we could do only ensured that students had one rehearsal per six-day cycle for most of this year. At least now, the new guidelines allow most students to double up on rehearsals, which is a welcome change to the program.”
As of April 9, the CDC dropped its recommendation for using physical barriers when social distancing wasn’t possible. Instead, the public health agency now endorses enhanced ventilation and air filtration in public spaces to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
However, in schools, the public health agency still requires strict social distancing protocols: a minimum of 6 feet (previously 12 feet) between students, teachers, staff and visitors, emphasizing protection from activities that require “playing a wind instrument or projecting the voice (e.g., singing).” Performers must keep at least 6 feet away from the audience during performances and concerts, and in common areas, including auditoriums.
Kelly Morse, who directs the district’s vocal music program at the Jr./Sr. High School, said obstacles to successful music instruction remain formidable.
“The biggest challenges have been remote learning and teaching. It’s impossible to sing while remote, due to latency issues, the loss of large group ensembles, and performances,” said Morse. “Singing with masks greatly inhibits our proper choral singing techniques.”
But Morse, like other music instructors in the district, have developed workarounds, like “deconstructing” a typically large chorus of 110 to 150 students into smaller groups. And on April 18, the Edgemont Vocal Jazz Ensemble, under the direction of Morse, recorded four songs that will be submitted to the National Jazz Festival in Philadelphia. The group was awarded first place honors last year at the 2020 festival, as well as first place at the Berklee Jazz Festival in Boston for six consecutive years, 2014-2019.
Music at Greenville, Seely Place
The district’s orchestra and band teachers in the elementary schools, Brittany Robinson-Chen and Dr. Ni Naaman, are holding in person and remote lessons, and band practice remains outdoors.
Principal Jennifer Allen described the current music participation at Greenville School as “push in,” where music teachers visit homerooms instead of students coming to them, “to reduce student movement in the building.”
Students in grades 4 through 6 at Greenville participate in "virtual chorus," to rehearse and record themselves singing along with prerecorded tracks made by choral teacher Katie Calnon.
“The ultimate goal,” said Calnon, “is to make finished and polished virtual chorus videos. Currently, the final videos are in the editing stages.”
Seely Place Principal Eve Feuerstein said that while the district isn’t where it was before COVID-19, “we have had the chance to create new ways of teaching and learning that may forever impact music instruction in a positive way. Some aspects of this are easier when done remotely, such as practicing the saxophone or singing in chorus.
“What is difficult is using the remote platform to 'perform.' This has been done virtually by our teachers putting together compilations, but of course we would love for students to perform live at concerts.”
Edgemont has also incorporated new technology for creative expression in grades K-6, such as Quaver for teaching music, breakout rooms for practicing skills remotely, and Go Noodle for getting their bodies moving.
Both Catoliato and Morse said that music organizations like NYSSMA, the National Association for Music Education, and conversations with other music educators in Westchester and the tri-state area have been helpful.
Filed under “unexpected outcomes,” Catoliato noted that splitting the 258 high school and junior high school band students into smaller groups to accommodate their schedules “has resulted in some interesting combinations of instruments.”
“The biggest surprise, which is also one of the greatest adaptations that students have made, is that with significantly smaller band groups and often unbalanced instrumentation, each player has needed to be more independent and confident on their part. The students rose to that challenge and often exceeded expectations.
“Some students are thriving in this environment; some are struggling,” Catoliato went on to say. “As long as we continue to help and support one another in the ensemble, we will continue on the path to success. That's how band works. That's what I want the community to know about the program.”