The Promise of Artistic Process
Here’s how Social Emotional Learning aligns our curricula with the standards, particularly in a virtual teaching world.
By NAfME Members Lori Schwartz Reichl, Fran Kick, and Scott Edgar
This article first appeared in the January 2021 issue of Teaching Music and is an expanded version of this original article from “Music in a Minuet.”
“An ounce of performance is worth pounds of promises.”
— Mae West
The pandemic has limited the ability of performing arts educators and students to perform to the degree we once had. In many schools, reductions have been placed on the quantity of students permitted in a given learning area, restrictions have been placed on how close students can be spaced from one another, rehearsal and performance venues have remained off-limits, and opportunities for performance have been cancelled or postponed. Safety, which needs to be educators’ prime focus as we continue to move forward this academic year, is dictating how frequently performances occur and how differently they look, sound, and inspire.
Many ensemble directors will confirm that performing is the Core Music Standard for which we spend the most time preparing. It’s the ultimate result of an ensemble’s preparation and often its motivation. However, the National Core Music Standards in the United States also include Creating, Responding, and Connecting. What happens when the standard of performing is restricted? Will music educators consider other performance avenues, both live and virtual? Or, will we perhaps focus on the three remaining standards with greater emphasis? The promise of artistic process still exists. Are we, as music educators, acknowledging and accepting this?
Prior to the pandemic, a number of music educators might have painted themselves into a corner by defining music education primarily based on performance success. However, at the onset of the pandemic, if perusing social media, one may have seen music teachers posting in a frenzy about not being able to “do” what they and their students once did—perform. Quotations such as: “I have to lower my bar of expectations.” “What will we do now?” and “I’m a band director!” were plastered everywhere. The idea of the concert band, or the concert choir, or the full-orchestra, or the dance company, or the full ensemble versus the individual being the focus of the arts curriculum has permeated our thinking for years. Yes, the full ensemble is important. Yet, it is the individual musician/performer who is ultimately the primary core contributor in any ensemble.
When the individual student performers improve, the entire ensemble will improve. Many performing-ensemble directors forget that our licensure is in the field of music education, which involves teaching students how to learn music—not just perform it. It is the individual student and their development as a person, learner, and musician that makes any program successful.
If we define our role of band director, choral conductor, or orchestra conductor as fixers of notes and rhythms in search of a clean performance, we’re going to find ourselves not meeting our students’ needs this school year. The trauma our students experienced during months of not engaging in a formal educational setting—and the numerous disruptions all of us have had to navigate—demand a different approach to make music education relevant to our students. We’ve always taught students to be resilient in our performing ensembles. Now, we need to help them be resilient at the individual level for the greater good of music education.
When performance is restricted, many music educators become concerned about what they will accomplish in their learning spaces. However, the pandemic has broadened our point of view beyond “just performing” and has provided the possibility of more equally aligning the remaining standards. This realignment could potentially allow students to individually fall in love with music in a new way. The challenge is how to build relationships with students when we’re not able to meet in person.
Creating a Path to Performance
Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a skill-based approach that can help navigate this transition by building students’ self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship-management, and responsible decision-making skills (simplified to the three goals of: self, others, and decisions). SEL enables us to respond to challenges instead of just reacting to them. Music is inherently emotional. It makes us feel. Music is social. It has always been a rallying call for human beings. It is essential that music teachers capitalize on the connections between SEL and music. They are our secret weapons with the superpowers our students need—SEL and music education—now more than ever!
For SEL to be effective in teaching students the life skills needed to navigate their world after they leave our music classrooms, it must be embedded into curricular content. For us, as music educators, it must be musical. We must make SEL intentional and meaningful; it does not “just happen,” and we cannot rely on the inherent fertile ground and potential that music education provides to teach our students these skills. If we are relying on music to latently teach these skills instead of music educators intentionally embedding SEL into their work, we will miss a great opportunity. SEL is not another box we need to check or another item we need to squeeze into our time with students. When done well, Musical SEL (MSEL) should feel like great music teaching. If it feels like SEL is distracting us from teaching music, then we are not doing it optimally nor maximizing the true power of music.
Unpacking Voice and Choice
Two central thoughts are at the heart of SEL when troubleshooting this concern. We need to honor our students’ voices.
Maybe we haven’t provided a space to amplify their voice and vision as much as we should have in the past. However, now we can ask students what they want out of their musical education. What can they bring to the table? What can they do to help our programs thrive? Then, we need to give them choices. Our students, while highly effective at working well within our programs, generally do not have a lot of choices. If we can start to unpack voice and choice, then our students will still have the ownership and pride we have come to develop as an entire ensemble. Students will be energized and inspired to contribute productively to our programs by building relationships in more individualized ways.
Aligning with the Standards
How can we use SEL to align our curricula with music standards (when performing is restricted) and allow students to have a voice and choice in our program? Consider these strategies:
Use the essential questions from the national music standards to form lessons, produce writing prompts for reflection, or facilitate significant discussions with students:
- How do musicians generate creative ideas?
- How do musicians make creative decisions?
- How do musicians improve the quality of their creative work?
- When is creative work ready to share?
Understand how students are responding to music during a global pandemic, a social justice movement, and an evolution in education. Their responses to music are often informed by analyzing the social, cultural, and historical context. Ask students to elaborate on the following prompts:
- Explain what music you have chosen to listen to or perform recently.
- Identify reasons for selecting this music.
- Interpret the expressive nature of this music.
- Identify the effect the music is having on you.
- Identify music that is the theme song for a social justice issue you are passionate about.
Make meaningful connections to real-life scenarios. Many authors, composers, and performers have admitted to experiencing writing/performance block during the pandemic. They have shared the reasons for this; how they have overcome it; and the motivation that has inspired them to write, compose, or perform again. Invite these artists into your learning space (face-to-face, virtually, or through a recording) to share their personal interests, experiences, ideas, and knowledge of creating, performing, and responding. Allow your students to ask questions to these artists. Then, ask your students how they can relate through their discipline, experiences, and daily life. (See www.selarts.org for more ideas to intermix SEL and the National Core Arts Standards.)
Embedding SEL into the Musical Curriculum
Darlene Machacon, an elementary music teacher and chorus director at Garden Grove Unified School District in Garden Grove, California, whose school began the academic year with 100 percent virtual instruction, says, “It is essential that SEL is not practiced just because it is the trend in education. We must be actively critical about how it is implemented with our specific students’ cultures.”
Machacon says teachers must aim to be culturally responsive and anti-racist in their approaches of SEL and that strategies should be implemented with what is best for students and families. “The challenges can be one’s initial mindset,” she says. “We prioritize what we want to make time for. The challenge is eliminating the mindset that our classrooms are only about music and nothing else.”
Jonathan Grantham, director of bands at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, California, states, “It is critical that music educators understand that they are already building SEL bridges regularly in their classrooms. Allowing teachers to align what they are already doing through an intentional SEL lens will help to allay stresses that this is just another fad to follow or program to adopt.”
Grantham, whose school also began the academic year virtually, reminds us that teachers are busy, and so a strong entry point for engagement is to start with what is already being done. “Remember to breathe,” he says. Graham points out that we don’t have to meet all the usual expectations and targets in our classrooms to make the time we have valuable. “Relationships will take longer to build virtually. Be patient with how much longer things take. It’s really helpful to remember that we have more control than we think.”
“Relationships will take longer to build virtually. Be patient with how much longer things take. It’s really helpful to remember that we have more control than we think.”—Jonathan Grantham
Bobby Olson, choir director at Round Lake High School in Round Lake, Illinois, says, “I’ve found SEL activities to be most effective when they seem like a natural part of a lesson.” Olson believes in placing “less emphasis on creating new activities and more emphasis on highlighting the social and emotional components of our existing curriculum.” Embedding SEL into the music curriculum is the key to SEL effectiveness. Olson is convinced that good SEL instruction relies on a positive classroom environment, regardless of whether you are engaging in virtual or in-person instruction. Teachers need to be aware of how they are doing to be responsive to students’ needs.
Olson adds, “Comparing remote learning to in-person, pre-pandemic instruction or comparing ourselves to the social media highlights from our colleagues is disappointing and usually unproductive. At some point, we have to reset our expectations of ourselves and of our students in order to be satisfied with our teaching and their learning.”
This isn’t always easy to do. Olson admits, “I struggle with feeling like I’m not doing enough. Seeing kids who thrive in person but are just getting by online is demoralizing.” He says it is also tough to be spontaneous in the virtual setting or “to make on-the-fly lesson adjustments.” This challenge causes the amount of planning and necessary communication to be much higher than normal. “Balancing this with other life responsibilities is difficult,” notes Olson.
Putting SEL into Action
Through his virtual teaching, Grantham says students are initially greeted with a video of music (selected by a student and shared on the landing page) as well as verbal greetings provided to them as they “enter class.” Grantham ensures that “every day when the students log on, my co-teacher and I have a question of the day prepared to engage them in dialogue, either in the breakout rooms or in the class chat.”
Mindfulness sessions are a regular component of his lessons, too. Students collaborate in stable cohorts to build trust and comfort in breakout rooms. Students are provided time in those rooms to collaborate on musical and SEL skills. Grantham concludes each class with an exit question that allows him to gather feedback from the students on how they are doing and how the day’s activity fared. Sometimes the exit question is in the chat for everyone to see, giving students an opportunity to connect with one another virtually.
Grantham credits Scott Edgar for a powerful trick. “I add a prompt to any of our existing reflection documents, practice cards, or exit questions,” he says. Grantham simply asks his students: “How did you feel about that and why?”
Grantham believes that having regular conversation with students about their playing/singing is really important. “After you finish rehearsing a segment, ask your students to share with one another a high and a low from the segment and to target a conscious goal they are going to work on in a second repetition.” Grantham has observed that this, “engages good discussion between the students and puts them in control of their own music-making, while allowing them to process and share how they felt about their work or performance.”
He also suggests that teachers take time to discuss how students prefer to give and receive feedback peer-to-peer. “Practice that feedback,” he says. “Make the teacher the student and let them try out that feedback on you. Provide sentence starters to students to know how to begin dialogue on musical concepts.” Examples include: “I really like how I/you ____.” “I think I/you could improve on ____.” “To make it better I/you could try ____.” Lastly, Grantham advises, “Make sure students have a common musical vocabulary they can rely on when giving feedback in small groups.” With these steps in place, “the seeds are planted for a robust small group experience for the students,” he says.
“Building a welcome community and showing trust are essential before implementing SEL.”—Darlene Machacon
Machacon ensures that she sets an intentional tone of acceptance in her classroom, be it virtual or in-person. “Building a welcome community and showing trust are essential before implementing SEL,” she says. Machacon has a song she wrote with the lyrics: “I am loved. I am important. I belong. All are welcome here.” She uses this song as a tool to remind students that they belong in music.
Machacon suggests other easy ways to embed SEL into the music curriculum and to make it musical are to “take simple activities as warm-ups or classroom openers, such as mindful breathing and meditating” and focus on reading the temperature of the room by giving emotional check-ins. “If I see a student who has expressed they are angry or frustrated, I try to check-in with that student later. Sometimes students just need to be heard,” she says. “Creating movement to specific works of music can lead to discussions of social justice.” Machacon also mentions that implementing children’s literature can be “an opportunity for wonderful music-making with ostinatos and singing short melodic phrases to layer on a teaching concept.” She suggests that teachers ask students whether they have ever felt like the character in the book and encourage discussion.
“There are no established best practices for this virtual situation, so using the students’ expertise as e-learning students during a pandemic is really important to me.”—Bobby Olson
Olson reminds us that we are all re-learning how to be social in a remote and distanced environment while experiencing intense emotions. “Our typical avenue of the concert cycle is closed,” he says. Because of this, Olson is experimenting with a wide array of activities and is consistently asking students what they think is working in each. When lesson planning, he considers questions such as, “In our curriculum, are there musical elements that evoke an emotional response?” “How do we feel when we play and sing?” “What causes this emotion?” “How is the music we study relevant to right now?” Some of his lessons include “favorite song show-and-tell, “My Life in Music” portfolio projects, Soundtrap collaborations, “5 Love Languages” quizzes, music listening, choir karaoke, and lots of breakout room discussion time.” He admits, “There are no established best practices for this virtual situation, so using the students’ expertise as e-learning students during a pandemic is really important to me.”
Fulfilling the Promise
The promise of artistic process still exists and can be amplified through SEL regardless of distance. The strategies of Creating, Responding, and Connecting, allow us to honor our students’ voices and continue to build relationships with them. We can acquire the knowledge, attitude, and skills to understand our students’ emotions, help to navigate these emotions, establish and maintain positive relationships with them, and provide students with choices to make responsible decisions about their music education.
While we long for traditional performances to resume, we can still achieve artistic processes. We must promise that music education can survive and thrive during times of uncertainty, even if it looks
About the authors:
Lori Schwartz Reichl is an active adjudicator, clinician, conductor, instructor, and speaker as well as the author of over 60 articles and interviews for music education publications. Learn more about Lori at MakingKeyChanges.com.
Scott Edgar is an associate professor of music, music education chair, and director of bands at Lake Forest College.
Fran Kick has taken a leave of absence from teaching instrumental music and now speaks virtually and in-person to over 100 programs every year, engaging with thousands of students and the many people who work with them.
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January 12, 2021. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)