Music at Renbrook Is Not Just Enduring – It’s Thriving!

Last spring, as Zoom classes carried on, students in Upper School missed sports, art, and music—the non-academic areas of school life. But each of those departments found ways to include their joys in the lockdown experience. Woodworking and photography challenges were issued, and PE videos appeared on Instagram. 
The music department kept students singing and playing and enjoying each other’s talents, too. Living Room Soirees were an innovation that lifted the spirits   of students, parents, and faculty. When school went remote in March, musicians were invited to sign up to perform once a week by Zoom. Every Thursday evening was a new line-up, full of surprises. Soon joke tellers joined the roster, and the results were intimate, fun, and hugely popular. A virtual chorus was engineered for a moving performance of Phil Collins’s “You’ll Be In My Heart.”
           
This fall, music spilled into outdoor spaces at Renbrook. A wanderer on campus could encounter ukulele players in the archway, a band sectional in the courtyard, flutes on the quad, singers under a blue sky. Music was everywhere! Emma Burger and Katie Dawson, our music teachers, have been an unstoppable team. They report that playing and singing outdoors have generated a new sense of freedom in making music. 
 
Choral Music
           
Multi-grade choruses belting out songs simply could not happen this year. So Mrs. Dawson launched Music Connections, an interactive class in music literacy for small groups. Her eyes shine as she describes the class. “It’s what and how I’ve always wanted to teach music. Normally chorus is a lot of rote learning. Now students learn how to read and create music. We go back to the how and the why: ‘When I listen to music, what am I hearing? How can I connect with music personally?’ Asking, ‘How does this song please my ears?’ leads to learning time signatures and keys.”
           
The need to keep grades in the Upper School separate from one another resulted in another silver lining—interdisciplinary connections. Mrs. Dawson and Ms. Burger have been talking with English and history teachers. In eighth grade, learning about the role of music in movements for change, such as the civil rights movement of the 1960’s  and the movement for women’s suffrage, enhances the study of American history. Seventh graders’ study of South Africa and the Caribbean and sixth graders’ humanities course offer new opportunities for discoveries in music, too.
 
Instrumental Music
           
The instrumental program last spring was completely remote. Challenging as that was, there were positive developments. Ms. Burger found more opportunities to coach students because they were submitting individual practice videos to her. The extra help and feedback students received paid off, and video tutorials have continued this school year. When an individual struggles, Ms. Burger makes a video for the student to take home and use to work on a certain skill. 
           
Indoors, Renbrook musicians have reduced the risks of blowing into brass and woodwind instruments in picturesque ways. There is something whimsical about flutes with masks across their mouthpieces. Masks on the bells of horns look like comical costumes. When playing indoors, brass players also wear face masks with tiny holes in them where the mouthpiece goes. Indoor playing is broken into 30 minutes of music alternating with 30 minutes of rest, so that particulates disperse. During the resting time, students have more music literacy activities, which helps beginners stay engaged and makes the time productive for players of all levels. 
             
The separation of grades makes instrumental instruction more rewarding, too. Students in each grade are playing music at their own level. No one is overwhelmed or under challenged; therefore, instructional time is better spent. In grade-level groups,
kids can dig in deeper and improve more quickly.
 
Performance
           
Large gatherings, i.e., audiences, must be avoided, so how were students to gain performance experience? We know that performers thrive on deadlines, and they must learn to conquer their nerves when concert time arrives. Concerts are also important for the community. How could we bring families into the experience, with pride in their children’s accomplishments? There was no doubt that, with ingenuity and determination, all the small group instruction would—must—culminate in performances at the end of fall term. All the pieces must come together and make musical sense!
              
Holiday concerts were live on Zoom and available afterward on video. Families delighted in the performances, and students experienced the satisfaction of sharing the fruits of their practice. The bands, choruses, and ensembles were still able to be the glue that brought the whole community together in a year of distancing.
           
And what about theater? After the success of last winter’s musical, “The Little Mermaid,” Upper School students faced a year with no stage production. What could take its place? Each grade has a different solution, and each one is a good fit. The eighth graders are working with Mrs. Dawson to plan a Musical Showcase, choosing favorite songs from Broadway musicals to perform as solos, duets, and trios. The seventh graders will produce a radio play, and for sixth graders there is a new Acting Club. In addition, Broadway Choreography is being offered as a sport during Winter Term.
           
Ms. Burger and Mrs. Dawson say that, to their surprise, the strictures on making music during a pandemic have offered them “a cool thought experiment. What if the adjustments we have made for health and safety actually serve us better? This experience makes us look at the future of the program differently. What if we could staff for these outcomes; that is, the optimum experience for each young musician?”
           
Curiosity, creativity, and community—because the adults at school model them, pursue them, and value them, our students take them in and make them their own.
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