Rebuilding the primary school music classroom after the pandemic

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Surrounded by classroom walls adorned with colorful violins and music theory posters, Roshan Reddy counted to three. He raised his palm, a chorus of blaring horns and wind instruments hummed, and the opening notes of Adele’s “Easy on Me” filled the PS 11 Primary School music room at Brooklyn.

Despite the clarinet squeaks and the occasional bleat of a rogue saxophone, nearly all of the students were smiling.

It had been two long years for the students of Mr. Reddy’s orchestra in fourth and fifth grades, as well as for the music teachers and their students in New York. When the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools, PS 11’s music curriculum was one of many that struggled to go online, interrupting children’s introduction to music for some of the busiest years. important for musical development, according to educators and experts.

PS 11 students who had instruments at home practiced in their living rooms, on their fire escapes, in their grandparents’ basements. But many had left their instruments behind and had to watch from the sidelines as their peers tried to keep time with each other via Google Meet.

Fifth grade student Diara Brent, an aspiring saxophonist, was appalled that she hadn’t brought her saxophone home amid the chaos of the school closure. “I was typing in the chat like crazy that I didn’t have the instrument,” she said. “I just listened to them play. I could not do anything.

Now that the students of the PS 11 group have returned to class, they are regaining their confidence as musicians. But it was no small task to fill the hole of lost education. “Covid erased my curriculum,” said Mr Reddy, the school’s group director. “It didn’t come back for all the students like it did.”

The pandemic has interrupted music education for many elementary school students at a critical time – in the years when their brains are just beginning to make connections “from sound to meaning”. In New York City public schools, elementary music instruction, which had been stable for five years, fell 11% between the 2019-2020 and 2020-21 school year, according to the Arts report. in Schools of the New York City Department of Education.

For students whose only access to music education is through their public schools, the pandemic school closures have been particularly disruptive. But research also suggests that music could help children rebuild what has been lost.

PS 11 principal Abidemi Hope said having a music program at school helps her students develop skills beyond academic readiness, such as sharpening listening and speaking skills, learning to ask questions and make complex discoveries. It’s also about giving students at his economically diverse school access to music, regardless of their economic status.

“Everyone should have the opportunity to touch at least one instrument, to learn an instrument, to understand that instrument, to play that instrument,” she said.

When Ms Hope was appointed headmistress in 2014, the school was academically focused and the music program was small – around 40 students. “I always wanted to change that,” she said.

Ms Hope hired Roshan Reddy, a practicing musician, as full-time music director for her band program in 2018. He had previously spent two years as a substitute teacher for the Department of Education at the New York State and taught in almost every neighborhood. in Brooklyn, but he was impressed with Principal Hope’s vision for the music program.

“Principal Hope is always trying to do something new,” Mr. Reddy said. “You think you’ve reached the limit, then Mrs. Hope is like we need to go a little higher.”

By the end of Mr. Reddy’s freshman year, lessons had been added for string instruments, guitar, and ukulele. “Before it was really select,” Mr Reddy said. “When I arrived, I wasn’t going to say no to anyone.”

The program quadrupled in size, supported by a mix of school and PTA funds. At their last concert in the spring of 2019, the students of the reinvigorated music program performed for three hours. “People who had played earlier started leaving at the end because it was so long. They were like, ‘I have to go home.’ said Mr. Reddy with a laugh.

PS 11’s Class of 2020 couldn’t play one last gig. When schools closed in March, Mr. Reddy wrapped electrical wires, tied classroom chairs, detuned violins, sanitized his instruments and put them away in the music room closet for storage.

Virtual teaching was difficult. “At first it was a nightmare,” Mr Reddy said. He spent hours making video recording assignments that students could upload to their Google classroom. Over the summer, he scoured YouTube for ideas to bolster his program.

The following school year, each music student was given a recorder or ukulele to play in class. Students used Chrome Music Lab to create songs and submitted them as assignments. But nothing compares to being in the physical classroom, and some students have stopped attending, Mr Reddy said.

Julian Sanon started out as one of Mr. Reddy’s violin students in second grade. He hasn’t taken online music lessons during the pandemic. Instead, he, his dad, and his brothers played music together at home and even started a family band that lasted a week. But Sanon missed his in-person music lessons at school, where he could play more complex arrangements with his friends in the drum line.

Now that school is back in person, “everyone around you is connected in the same music,” Sanon said, back in one of his favorite places: Mr. Reddy’s music room.

“Yeah,” chimed in another fifth grader in the drum line, Miles Dutra. “Because you have to play in harmony. If one person does anything, everyone does anything.

Sanon nodded. “So when you get it right, it’s kind of peaceful.” he said.

Next year, budget cuts may force some schools to reassess their arts programs. School budgets are typically tied to the number of students enrolled, and many schools will see declines next year, after student numbers in New York public schools have dropped 6.4% since the start. of the pandemic.

Elizabeth Guglielmo, director of music for New York Public Schools, said while music has been hit hard during the pandemic, the arts are essential to the resocialization process. “It’s still our hope that it will be considered a grassroots topic,” Ms Guglielmo said.

At PS 11, enrollment has fallen by almost 3% between this school year and the previous one, according to Ms Hope, who said she may have to rely more on PS 11’s relatively large PTA budget, a resource that many schools do not have. , to fund the music program. “I hope the mayor can rethink the way we invest in our children,” she said.

As his final year of elementary school draws to a close, Zair Johnson, a 10-year-old percussionist who made his own cardboard drum kit in his apartment during the pandemic, can be found practicing drum line on Thursdays. with a shiny aluminum harness of drums slung over his shoulders.

Johnson likes to have all the classroom instruments within easy reach. “You can try congas, violin, piano, djembes, ukulele,” he said. The one instrument he doesn’t recommend is the cello, but he likes to “pick up a guitar and start playing,” he added. “It’s quiet for me.”

At home in the evenings, Johnson watches instructional videos on YouTube and uses scenes from the 2002 film “Drumline” to learn new drumming techniques.

Mr. Reddy credits the enthusiasm of his early days as a musician, growing up on a farm in rural Delaware. “Music was my best friend,” he said.

At school, music gave him confidence and allowed him to participate socially in class without words. He does the same for his calmer students now. “Kids really find their voice through music in a way that they couldn’t find through anything else,” he said.

As PS 11’s fifth-grade class of 2022 prepares to graduate this month, some of Mr. Reddy’s students have already accepted internships at colleges with specialized music programs. One of the goals of the harmony program is to prepare students for a more challenging musical education. But most of all, says Mr Reddy, he just wants kids to leave school loving the music.

“It’s not about trying to create a little Mozart, it’s about students finding their own strength,” he said. “We are the people who have to carry the music through this moment.”

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