Beth Hahn has been teaching at MHS for 11 years. She teaches band students in grades 5-12 as well as a high school group guitar class.
“Teaching music during the pandemic has had many ups and downs,” she said. “Overall, I am incredibly thankful to be in person, making music with my students again. In Menahga, we are fortunate to be one of few schools in the state that have remained in person this school year. This is thanks to the hard work of our superintendent, principals and health professionals as well as the diligence of our staff.”
Lessons from the pandemic
Last spring, the district was doing distance learning for everyone, and still some students have chosen distance learning from home.
“I have learned a lot about instruction and about myself as an educator,” Hahn said. “Distance learning has forced me to hone my technology skills in a big way. Technology has never been a strength of mine, but I've learned a lot of valuable new tech skills that will continue to be useful even when distance learning ends. The most important lesson I've learned, however, is the importance of connecting with my students, both distance learners and in person. Engaging with my students and seeing them interact with music and each other is what makes teaching meaningful.
“As a band director, I often obsess over performances, curriculum, contests, and so on. Teaching during the pandemic has taught me that none of those things are truly the important part of what I do. The truly important thing is that students grow and connect as people and as musicians.”
Hahn said in addition to schoolwide safety measures, such as social distancing, there are many extra guidelines to follow in music classrooms.
“Most wind instruments are played with a double layer of protection over the bell: an elastic bell cover and MERV 13 filter,” she said. “This prevents aerosol spread from the instruments. We limit rehearsal length and clear the room between classes so that fresh air can cycle in before the next class. The students have to go somewhere when we clear the room, so we usually take the band classes outside or to a gym space during that time.
“A year ago, I would have never imagined having short rehearsals and hauling a bag of gym equipment back and forth from the gym all day long. We have learned how to keep rehearsals streamlined and very efficient, and I actually really enjoy seeing my students play outside and in the gym.
“I think of it as a type of ‘recess,’ even for the older students. Research shows that recess helps students learn, helps them socially and emotionally, and of course helps them physically as well. At this point I really don't mind giving the students a little bit of that time at the end of rehearsal.”
Hahn said that during a year with so many changes, it is important for teachers to help students by creating new ways to celebrate milestones.
“Milestones in our music classrooms are performances, such as the Veterans Day program and the Christmas concert,” she said. “We aren't able to have packed concerts this year for obvious reasons, but that doesn't make these milestones any less important for the students.
“I was recently doing some research on parenting during the pandemic and came across excellent advice. As adults, we can still provide milestones that have meaning to our students in this unique time.
“For the music program, this has meant doing recorded concerts. It's meant that instead of going to contests we bring in college directors to work with our groups. It's different in that we don't have a big, live audience, but we are also easily able to share our performances with more people and with people who live far away and wouldn't be able to attend a live concert. Keeping the perspective that we can create new and meaningful milestones has been an important perspective shift.”
Choosing to be thankful
“As a teacher during this pandemic I'm choosing to take this opportunity to be thankful for what we have rather than lamenting the challenges,” she said. “I've learned to center the importance of relationships and the joy of music making. I've also had to learn to give myself and my students more grace and think outside the box.
“Life often shows us that we don't appreciate what we have until it's gone, and this is no exception. Missing out on musical milestones last spring during distance learning taught me to appreciate the gift of being together with students and making music now.”
Finding comfort in music
April Hodge is the choir director at Menahga. She said that while the pandemic has meant additional precautions to stay safe, such as spacing chairs six feet apart, having students wear masks at all times, and lots of hand sanitizer, it has also brought gifts.
“When students enter my room, they are ready to make music,” she said. “I have been very encouraged at just how compliant our students are, in order to be in school and carry on in the classroom with their peers. Menahga has never really shut down due to the pandemic, as we have been face to face all year. Thus, being face to face with my students and being allowed to sing is not something I have taken for granted.”
Hodge said that the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines state that singing and instrumental music produced by woodwind or brass instruments are thought to be high-risk activities for COVID-19 spread due to the aggressive expelling of respiratory droplets that can result in aerosols that can hang in the air for hours.
“Much attention has been given to the risks of singing because of ‘super-spreading’ events documented during this pandemic,” she said. “It is important to take extra precautions when participating in musical activities, especially if they involve vocalists and wind instrument musicians. This seemed terribly devastating at first, which propelled me to modify my plans to incorporate not singing this school year, rather emphasizing an even more concentrated focus on music theory activities and stressing the importance of sight reading practices in addition to implementing the proficiency of learning to play ukuleles.
“We are so thankful for the many precautions we can safely provide in our venue to sing and make music in the classroom. While students struggle to process all that is going on in the world, within their isolated thoughts, they are growing more lonely and more anxious than ever before, so, being able to make music in my classroom has become a real ‘out’ for them. I can see their demeanor change throughout the hour and it truly warms my heart to observe them smiling as they leave when the class concludes!
“I love what I do, in presenting a positively safe place to not only build relationships, but develop musicians, as well!”