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By Dr. Tony Rasmussen, Director of Education

If 2020-21 was the year of adrenaline-fueled pivots to remote learning, 2021-22, our second full school year under the pandemic, was one of resolute determination for Meet the Music (MTM). Weighing the potentially catastrophic developmental impacts on students were remote learning to continue against the significant health risks of public gatherings, the Los Angeles Unified School District determined to return to in-person instruction for the entire school year, mitigating those risks with stringent safety protocols: proof of vaccination for all adults on campus, weekly PCR testing at designated sites, universal masking and various adjustments limiting where and when individuals could gather on campus. The challenges that these protocols posed to MTM–both in creating spaces of collaborative music making in a masked, plexiglass-covered environment, and in ensuring the safety of students and teachers alike–tested our resilience as educators in new ways and lifted the scope and responsiveness of MTM to new plateaus. 

Making music is always a physical activity and in the case of MTM’s core programs Roots of Music Program (RoMP) and Recorders in schools, this activity begins with the breath. RoMP explores multicultural music making through group singing. In Recorders in Schools, students learn the rudiments of playing a wind instrument by playing together, listening to each other and adjusting their rhythm and volume to that of the group. In both cases, this involves students assembled in a small area, blowing air with the full force of their lungs. But how could these activities be done safely when COVID-19 is primarily airborne? Besides encouraging us to hold classes outside, weather permitting, District protocols didn’t address this particular problem. So we improvised. 

Recorders in Schools Gulf Ave Elementary

Something that sets MTM teaching artists apart from many of their peers is that beyond being excellent teachers, they are skilled music practitioners, many from deeply improvisatory traditions where “making do” under challenging conditions is essential. One of our veteran teaching artists and current music education specialist, Sukari Reid-Glenn, did just that. In the late summer of 2021, Mrs. Reid-Glenn hit upon the idea of creating a strategy for modifying recorder instruments using materials at hand, one that classroom teachers would supervise and students could easily do during class time. The plan was to take 2-ply surgical masks, which schools had in great supply, cut them into into specific shapes, and using masking tape, create flaps of material to cover the instrument’s “window” (the hole near the top where excess air exits) and a loose covering over the “foot joint”(the hole at the bottom). The first flap captured aerosols before they could spread and the foot joint covering captured condensation before it could drip on the floor. Students changed these coverings once a week. Through this innovation, MTM staff built upon safety protocols already in place to meet the special demands of group music making and in doing so, maximized students’ face-to-face learning while also prioritizing their safety.

Another unforeseen outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic is that elementary school administrators from throughout Los Angeles, from Tujunga to Historic South Central, reached out to MTM staff to provide quality music education for their schools–an effort made all the more urgent by the social emotional learning gap experienced by many students following more than a year of quarantine. As a result, MTM underwent a dramatic expansion, both in scope and depth of programming: between 2020-21 and 2021-22 we added four new schools, two new programs (i.e. Percussion & Violin) and three new grade levels serving a total of 2,300 students, up from 1,800 last year. In order to meet this demand while maintaining the quality of our programming, MTM staff took a number of steps: we recruited new teaching artists with a broad range of musical expertise and cultural competencies, reinforced teaching artists’ training by increasing professional development opportunities, classroom visits and developing new teaching resources; deepened our partnerships with school faculty and staff–both new and old–through frequent strategy meetings; and fine-tuned our responsiveness to the needs of particular school communities through outreach and data gathering from a range of stakeholders. The growth of MTM means that more students, in more neighborhoods across the greater Los Angeles area are experiencing music as part of their normal school routine for the first time. It also gives us the opportunity to streamline our approaches, innovate others, all the while moving closer to our goal of making culturally-responsive music education a reality for all students.  

Recorders in Schools Gulf Ave ElementaryEnsuring the quality of MTM programming at each school is our utmost priority. One of the most important ways that we measure quality is through the feedback of classroom teachers and their students. For instance, Mr. Ruiz, a fifth grade teacher at Barton Hill Elementary, considers Recorders in Schools to be a bridge for students to succeed in a range of subjects, leading to an overall increase in school engagement. “I think all my students benefited from MTM,” said Ruiz. “One of my students was going to be transferred, but he convinced his parents to let him stay because he wanted to continue with the music class. He also spent more effort in learning to read; he improved significantly in reading.” Ms. Gaiter, a fourth grade teacher at Plainview Charter Academy, spoke to the inclusivity of MTM: “One of my students is on the autism spectrum. He really loved learning how to play an instrument and really lit up every time we met with the music teacher.” Above all, MTM brings music to students who would otherwise have little to no arts exposure during elementary school. “I never played an instrument before,” explained Natalia, a fifth grader at Leland Street Elementary. “I am glad we had this chance to have our own recorder and learn how to play it. Our teacher made it easy for us to learn and how to work together to be on the same beat. I like to play it at home and learn.” 

What fall 2022 will bring remains an open question. Whether MTM will be  in-person, remote or some as yet unimagined combination, we will continue to enrich our approaches through the guidance and wisdom of the diverse communities that we serve. We will expand our community networks so that we can respond effectively to the learning needs of different student populations. We will deepen our partnerships with classroom teachers so as to give them the resources to reinforce music lessons throughout the week. And we will continue to uplift our students by giving them programming that is both rigorous and inclusive. The ongoing musical growth of our students, in the face of remarkable challenges, would not be possible without the generous support and thoughtful stewardship of Meet the Music’s major funders, including: California Arts Council, LA County Department of Arts and Culture, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, Crail-Johnson Foundation, Dwight Stuart Youth Fund, the Music Man Foundation, Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation, Pasadena Showcase House for the Arts, U.S. Bank Foundation, and the office of LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn. We are grateful to all of you for giving us the resources necessary to realize our grand vision.