Students at desks play the recorder while a teacher stands in the foreground

“May you live in interesting times.” This expression sounds almost quaint after more than a year under quarantine. But what have we, as educators and community members, learned from these interesting times? Will the reopening of schools mark a “reset,” say, back to the fall of 2019? Or will the new skills and shuffled priorities of teachers, students and parents alike, permanently change how education is conceived of and valued in our society? I, for one, believe that amid the many traumas that COVID has caused–some clearly visible and others only emerging–there lies a profound opportunity for growth.

The pandemic both exposed and intensified systemic inequities that disproportionately affect our students and their families. For example, of the nearly 1,800 students served by Meet the Music (MTM) during the 2020-21 school year, about 70% experienced significant technological challenges, such as unstable internet connection, that substantially limited their ability to participate in distance learning. Added to this, most schools lack the resources to support comprehensive remote learning, and few parents work from home, making it impossible for them to supervise their children’s progress.

In order to address these challenges, we grew our communication networks with teachers and parents. This included troubleshooting glitches and adopting strategies during remote lessons like verbal call-and-response and text check-ins to keep students without video capability engaged. It also involved realigning our lesson plans to maximize student participation while also addressing the stress that distance learning can cause, by nurturing students’ sense of belonging, connectedness and self-worth.

Under normal circumstances, MTM is an in-person, in-school music education program consisting of two tracks, Roots of Music program (RoMP) and Recorders in Schools, program highlights include an annual youth-tailored concert by the LA Opera as well as culminating student recitals for family and friends. During the 2020-21 school year, despite LAUSD’s many protocols and scheduling adjustments, MTM delivered each lesson to each classroom without exception, using Zoom and an assortment of online resources customized for each classroom.

In situations where our regular programming couldn’t be easily replicated for safety reasons, such as large concert gatherings, we improvised, drawing on the collective wisdom of our teaching artists and community partners. For instance, the LA Opera concert, normally a single, massive event, became three virtual ones: a Zoom training for classroom teachers, the virtual concert itself and to wrap up, a live Zoom Q&A session during which students had the chance to chat with LA Opera cast members.

The pandemic confirmed that music education is a highly impactful way of granting students access to a larger world of ideas and social relationships in which their own creativity and sense of self are integral. Further, the fact that making music with others can enhance language skills, support memory, and advance creative problem solving is well documented and yet, unfortunately, it is so often considered a luxury for those students who need it the most. Distance learning under quarantine has shown us that the best way to support our students is by striking a balance between their academic achievement and embracing each individual’s identity and cultural perspective.

For instance, we put a renewed emphasis on Social Emotional Learning in our curricula by checking in with students, giving them opportunities to put themselves in others’ shoes (i.e., growing empathy), reflecting on their own reactions to musical material (i.e., building self-awareness) as well as drawing on their own life experiences to better understand what they learned (i.e., building critical thinking and validating students’ subjectivity).

But of all these valuable insights, the most important things we have learned during the pandemic came directly from classroom teachers and the students themselves. “One student I have is extremely shy,” recalled Ms. Rodríguez, a fourth-grade teacher at Cabrillo Ave. Elementary. “The only time I would see her turn her camera on was during the RoMP program. She would even dance and sing. RoMP truly helped my student express herself. Especially, during a time when it is hard to express yourself during distant learning.” For Ms. Sardisco, a fifth-grade teacher at Harry Bridges Span School, Recorders in Schools proved to be a catalyst for her students’ growth beyond musical study: “I love seeing the students surprise themselves at how much they can learn. Learning to play an instrument and read music invigorates students to try new things and continue to grow other parts of the brain they have not tapped into… Yet.”

Describing her experience in RoMP, fourth-grade student Valerie at Point Fermin Elementary made it plain that learning more about the music she already knows alongside the new and unfamiliar kept her interested despite learning from home, stating, “I loved all the bands [and] the different lessons with them. All the culture. Even my culture! It was a good experience for me to have.”

As we resume in-person teaching in fall 2021, we will continue to refine the techniques and lessons learned during COVID. We will expand our teacher and parent networks so that we can respond effectively to the learning needs of individual students. We will make use of new digital resources like play-along videos and interactive games in order to extend students’ music learning throughout the week. And we will uplift our students by giving them programming that is both rigorous and inclusive.

Our students’ success during this difficult year would not have been 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.