Navigating Music Teaching in Uncertain Times

An Opportunity to Re-Think What Matters Most in Music Learning 

By NAfME Member Chiao-Wei Liu 

This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of General Music Today.

Looking back at this year’s major events, I found myself wondering how history textbooks would describe this particular year. How will historians create meaningful accounts of these various events and interpret people’s response during this period of time? I am curious about how these events affect teaching and learning and shape human relationships. How do we make sense of the present? Instead of denying the likelihood of a future crisis, I ask what we could learn from these events and be more prepared and resilient when facing a new risk. As teachers, how and what could we do (and continue to do) to support the well-being and music learning of our students in crises?

Three middle school boys walking, talking outdoors during uncertain times in learning | kali9


COVID-19 pandemic has led to international lockdown, suspension of most close-contact activities across the country, and record-high unemployment rate. Schools are one among many institutions that shut down due to COVID-19 outbreak. In the previous column, I proposed that music teachers take this time to rethink music learning. As more schools reopen and students return back to the classrooms, I suggest that teachers take into consideration the various elements involved in creating engaging learning experiences. Whether your school district has decided to reopen with fully remote instruction or a hybrid/blended model, there is no doubt that technology will remain a significant part of teaching and learning.

Nevertheless, how do we plan our curriculum accordingly while recognizing the changing classroom climate and student-teacher/student-peer relationships in the virtual classroom? What risks, such as digital distraction or lack of resilience, are involved in this form of music learning? How do we balance (not just blend) between digital use and screen-free activities or assignments? What strategies may be used to help our students learn independently? The answers to these questions will likely vary based on the age and the family background of your students, the resources available, and the teaching content. One question that may be worth considering is: Does your choice of digital technology (and material) provide valuable experiences that cannot be rendered in any other way? For instance, will students drift off or get distracted sitting alone in their home watching a video clip, if so perhaps a better use of class time would be to assign students the video link with written response beforehand, and use the class time for students to interact and discuss with each other in the virtual space. It is critical that we explore ways to spark students’ motivation and generate meaningful dialogue, while recognizing the challenges of online learning.

Girl sits on windowsill to watch video on tablet | SDI Productions


Another prominent challenge that continues to grow with this year’s various events, including COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the 2020 presidential election, is the verification of information. Although the internet and social media offer abundant information, increasingly we see the spread of misinformation and disinformation. I argue that the general music classroom is one of the most suitable places to develop critical media literacy and verification skills. In my own work with middle school students, I have learned that the music these middle-school students engage with pertains rich topics for critical dialogues like racial stereotypes, gender roles, and racial colorblindness, which continue to perpetuate the social inequality of marginalized groups. Even though some teachers assert that the music classrooms should remain apolitical, I would suggest that all teachers recognize the lived realities of our students and commit to issues of social justice. Our students don’t start becoming children of color when they step outside the classroom. Ignoring their racial background may not only perpetuate existing racial inequities (Knowles, Lowery, Hogan, & Chow, 2009) but could have detrimental effect on children’s identity development (Liu, 2007).

One teaching activity that I often incorporate in my own classroom is inspired by the idea, Rashomon effect. It is named after Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film Rashomon and later interpreted as an instance when the same event is described in significantly different (often contradictory) ways by different people who were involved” (“Rashomon Effect,” n.d.). This activity can be used to explore different points of view on issues such as racism, police brutality, and gender stereotypes. For instance, you may invite students to read a short story or watch a music video and have students play the different roles from the plot in small groups. All characters will come together to share their story as they elaborate their thinking process and the rationale behind their actions. One prominent aspect about Rashomon effect is the contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. Creating the opportunities for students to be deeply invested in thinking through the assigned character will help them learn the critical skills of perspective taking and empathy. With the development of critical thinking skills, they may also learn about the strategies to verify information. This project may further be extended as a music video composition project and offer counter-narratives to fight against social injustice. While the ability to critically think through as well as listen to different points of view will in essence prepare students to be active participants in a democratic society, the ability to “talk back” and provide counter narratives allows students to exercise their agency and help fight against social injustice.

Students Learning via Computer at Home | RichLegg


In the last part of this column, I turn to the importance of repairing and sustaining teacher-student relationships in our classroom. Having a positive and supportive relationship in the classroom and school has long been identified as a critical factor attributing to students’ motivation and learning (Stipek, 2006; Suárez-Orozco et al., 2010). Yet, with school instruction shifting to remote learning, it has posed challenges for teachers and students to sustain a stable relationship. As Liz Willen, editor of a nonprofit organization that focused on inequality and innovation in education, stated on the Washington Post (2020, April 22),

The coronavirus has in many ways become an unprecedented test for teacher-student relationships, forcing a readjustment of expectations . . . Of course, teachers want their students to master content, develop a love of learning . . . But these teachers also know that success requires time and trusting relationships.

How do we connect with our students and address their emotional well-being while being physically separated from each other? I agree with Pamela Cantor, M.D., co-founder of Turnaround for Children, who said “the most powerful tool that we have to manage stress and to help our young people manage stress is the human relationship” (Riback, 2020). Inspired by Dr. Cantor’s suggestion of building small communities and restoring relationships, I share a few ideas here for readers to consider in your own classroom: One idea is to set up time with individual students for about 10-15 minutes (depending on your schedule) at least once a week. The aim of these sessions would be to listen to and to re-connect with the students. This time can also be used to help students structure their own time and help them develop strategies to stay focused in class. Another idea would be to set up a virtual “hallway” talk. This “virtual hallway” aims to resemble the physical hallway. Students can decide with whom they would like to converse and stay for the duration, if they prefer, in the virtual hallway. Or, creating a virtual space for children to share their story, coping strategies, as well as encouragement with each other. I believe that it is vital that we consider the key elements, like relationship and emotional well-being that so strongly play into our students’ music learning so as to create engaging learning experiences. After all, music education is not just about learning content knowledge (teaching a tradition) but is also about “an understanding of education as a way of seeing that looks simultaneously ahead and behind” (Allsup, 2016, pp. 64-65). It requires us to acknowledge the past [be it music tradition or social injustice] and simultaneously attends to the students’ needs and desires [be it learning an emerging music style or the desire to produce a counternarrative through music]. While we commit ourselves to an education in music, we shall not forget, “whom we teach? Do we. . . teach a tradition, or do we teach a child?” (Allsup, 2016, p. 65). As trivial as these ideas may appear on the surface, I believe that only when we truly listen and attend to the needs of our students will we provide the space for our students to flourish.

Happy middle school age girl stands in front of school | SDI Productions



Allsup, R. E. (2016). Remixing the classroom: Toward an open philosophy of music education. Bloomington, Indiana: Indianan University Press.

Knowles, E. D., Lowery, B. S., Hogan, C. M., & Chow, R. M. (2009). On the malleability of ideology: Motivated construals of color blindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 857–869.

Liu, C. (2017). The musical experiences of Asian immigrant youth in New York City’s Chinatown (Document No. 1908595271) [Doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University]. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

Rashomon effect. (n.d.). In directory. Retrieved from

Riback, C. (Producer). (2020, March 18). Coronavirus: Keeping our children and ourselves safe, with Pamela Cantor, M.D. [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Stipek, D. (2006). Relationships matter. Educational Leadership, 64 (1), 46-49.

Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2010). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society (1st ed.). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Willen, L. (2020, April 22). How relationships between teachers and students are being tested in covid-19 crisis. Washington Post, Retrieved from

About the author:

Chiao-Wei LiuNAfME member Chiao-Wei Liu ( is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City. Her research focuses on cultural diversity and issues concerning immigrant students. Prior to her study at Teachers College, she was an elementary school music teacher in Queens, New York.


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The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 15, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (

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