Weird Instrument Week: Happening Now

Well, it's weird instrument week for young instrumentalists in Plymouth. Why? Because fairness matters. Also, we have a sense of humor. 

There are four instrumental teachers at the elementary level about about 500 students. Normally, we see our kids once a week in before-school band and once a week for a half-hour group music lesson. To keep the learning going at home during pandemic closures 2020, we've provided our kids with weekly lessons that they access through the Google Classroom. What to teach was as important as how to teach it, though we were a little ahead of the game in the "how" department just because we have some prior experience in developing and teaching online learning for musical topics.

The "what" was the challenge—because of equity during the remote learning/school closure. We knew the kids had instruments at home; the ones who can afford it rent them, and we loan instruments to those who cannot. This means that any child who wants to learn an instrument has access to do so. We have more instruments than takers every year, and that's pretty special. As far as technology access during the school closure: Well... not all students have computers at home, so the school generously provided free laptops to anyone who needed them—and these were loaned "for keeps." With these tools in place, the playing field was mostly leveled for some form of online, at-home learning.

But leveling the playing field doesn't stop there. What sort of parental support might they have at home? Never mind musical knowledge; how computer savvy are the grownups at home to help their kids navigate this new world we're asking them to learn in? We don't say "parents," because we don't know: Are kids living with parents, or grandparents, or guardians, or are in foster care? And can their grownups at home provide learning support as the kids struggle to learn new things? These are young children, not teens, so some degree of parental support is necessary for many. But are the parents even home? Maybe they are struggling with their own emotional issues or substance abuse. What can we give young kids that is accessible enough for them to do at home that they can do entirely on their own, without parental support? And what about the kids: How are they feeling through all of this? Are they overwhelmed? Are they ok? We felt that we needed to keep the online assignments simple but also engaging so that we are adding to levity and not adding to stress. These were our topics of conversation over the last couple of months as we designed online lessons. Truly, to design lessons that worked in this unusual time, we had to ask ourselves: What is music for, anyway? 

In online video meetings, we talked. Weighed. Worried. Laughed. Struggled, then threw our hands up. The only answer seemed to be: fun. In our own educations, we four musicians have all been deadly serious in our personal development of musicianship. We have worked hard to get where we are and invested a great deal of time and money to study music and be able to teach it so that young children can play music too. We've done all the emotional struggles, too; we've felt alternately defeated and victorious in our many years as players. We have sat alone for hours on end in practice rooms, systematically and slowly building skill and agility over time so that we could better use our instruments to communicate. 

Music is a form of communication; it is about making other people feel something, but also, often, to help other people have fun. For music to be fun for me, I just have to make weird sounds. But to make it fun for you: I have to make listenable sounds. And in this equation, the listener (that's you) matters more than the music maker. Which means that even fun-making is legitimate and valuable, and it requires a degree of musical skill. 

We teach serious musical skills, too, but there is a time and a place. This has been a hard time for many and the conversations we've been having with parents at instrument return this week have confirmed it. Some just dropped and left, but others wanted to talk about how hard it's been. Many apologized that their kids hadn't been more involved at home. I kind of wanted to hug every one of them and say it's ok. Because we get it. And as music teachers, it's our job to get it. Making good art and also teaching requires sensitivity and some degree of compassion and a whole lot of caring. And also, a healthy taste for fun. 

It being the end of the year, half the kids had to turn in their instruments. We just couldn't assign a playing lesson because it wouldn't be fair to them. So, instead, we said make your own instrument. Get weird. Have fun.

Click any of the links below to see the videos we made for weird instrument week. (I'll try to embed them, but that doesn't work on every device.)