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Strings attached: School orchestra directors staying in tune with students
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Strings attached: School orchestra directors staying in tune with students

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This month, school orchestra directors should be busy with spring concerts.

Instead, with schools closed and gatherings prohibited, they are having to get creative to keep the sound of music alive.

Local educators are teaching lessons through video conferencing programs, setting up Google Classroom for instruction and using online music learning resources. Also, students are taking part in the virtual Solo and Ensemble Contest.

Here are some of the ways the music continues even when the participants can’t meet in person:

Heather Kamikawa: orchestra director at Bradford High School, Bullen Middle School

Heather Kamikawa delivering instruments.jpg

Kamikawa

For her Bradford students, Kamikawa “works closely with Karl Mueller, my band colleague at Bradford. We host a private Instagram page for all Bradford music students, alumni and families. I check the page daily and aim to keep us connected to the international world of music, while keeping humor and inspiration at the forefront.”

Also, she and Mueller “meet” online every school day “to update our combined instrumental ensemble Google Classrooms, which have three components each week: Listening, music theory and performance (through SmartMusic.com).”

Their weekly “check-ins” with students through Google Meet video conferencing has included fun stuff like a virtual “pet show and tell.”

“My dog, Ida, and Mueller’s dog, Neva, got in on the video chat, along with parents and several other cats and dogs,” she said.

Also Ruth Gray, her student teacher from Carthage, attends the video chats.

At Bullen, Kamikawa works with Katie Poole, the band director, to “grow our music program.”

For Bullen orchestras, Kamikawa hosts a Google Classroom for combined grades six-eight.

Even students without access to school instruments can benefit, she said.

“I met with several sixth graders on Google Meet, and it was great to see their faces light up when they saw each other for the first time since March 13,” she said. “They all shared one of their favorite online activities so far and one thing they wanted to continue to learn about in orchestra. Their overwhelming response was they miss playing music together.”

Her “three favorite Bullen Orchestra moments” since March 13 are:

Putting as many instruments in her car as possible on March 17 and having parents meet her for pickup at Kwik Trip from a safe distance.

Representing Bradford and Bullen music in the community car parade of teachers around the Bullen boundary area.

Connecting with Pacetti’s Maestro of Music for instrument repairs and supplies, then doing drive-by tunings, sanitizing and repairs for several families from a safe distance. Thank you Kevin Velvikis and all staff at Pacetti’s!

Jennifer Marvin: orchestra director at Lincoln Middle School

Jennifer Marvin Zoom string lesson

Lincoln Middle School orchestra director Jennifer Marvin, right, works with a student online using Zoom.

“It has been a challenge to try and keep kids engaged in music during this time of online learning,” said Marvin, who has been sharing lots of YouTube videos of both classical music and pop music for each instrument.

Marvin has “definitely had to branch out and learn more technology to make it all work. I’ve used Finale a lot to adapt parts, making them accessible for all ages. We’ve learned some American folk songs and Disney songs and even some John Williams’ songs.”

Her students “send me videos of themselves playing the songs and I provide feedback. We have also had some check-ins and one-on-one meetings on Zoom.”

She also wants to “give a huge shout-out to our Lincoln administration. Star Daley, Lincoln’s principal, has personally picked up both band and orchestra instruments and loaded them into our cars so we can get them delivered to students. Erik Schilk, our assistant principal, allowed me to get in the office on that last day we were allowed in the building, to scan music to put in Google Classroom for my students.”

Elizabeth Tercek: elementary school orchestra teacher

“The elementary orchestra team is four members strong,” she said. (The others being Jessica DeBoer, Lorikaye Kristiansen and Serena Terra.) “At this time, we are keeping our fifth-grade students engaged in many ways. Initially, we invited them to sign up for a free web-based music education tool called SmartMusic. It is super fun for students to use while practicing.

“We have been offering four Google Meet sessions per week that students can join. At the sessions we help them tune their instruments and give them mini lessons. We also use our FaceBook page to post tutorials about technique, about software and also to give parents ideas on what activities their children might enjoy.”

She added, “We post funny videos, too!”

Each teacher has posted lessons on Google Classroom “and we are reaching out to give real-time lessons on the internet, with parent permission and with a parent in the household. Together we can keep our students interested in music.”

In general, she said, “The best tip I have for students and families is to enjoy music while you play and practice. Also, a little practice goes a long way, especially if it becomes part of a healthy routine of learning at home. Enjoy practicing!”

Robert Wells: orchestra director at Harborside Academy and Lakeview Academy

Robert Wells Zoom lesson

Robert Wells, orchestra director at Harborside and Lakeview academies, teaches a lesson using Zoom.

Wells has been busy working with students through Zoom to prepare for the online only State Solo and Ensemble Festival.

He’s also using the SmartMusic program “that has a considerable music library, complete with method books and various selections the students can utilize. The program offers students almost immediate feedback as to their intonation and rhythm. It then allows the student to submit their assignment to me.”

“There are numerous resources on YouTube as well,” he added. “Using Google Classroom, I have posted a variety of videos that range from how to use the pegs to tune to vibrato development.”

Helen Breitenbach Cooper: orchestra director at Tremper High School

Helen Breitenbach Cooper and Tremper students

Tremper High School orchestra director Helen Breitenbach Cooper, center, poses with the seniors in the Tremper orchestra seniors at Orchestra Festival. This year's event was Feb. 29 and March 1 at Indian Trail High School.

“I am asking my students from Tremper High School and Prairie Lane Elementary School to record themselves each week performing a scale or an excerpt from new music and send it to me via Google Classroom,” she said. “I have been recording myself (video and audio) playing violin, viola and piano to attempt to teach my students and give them the comfort of seeing me teaching.”

She’s also using the app Acapella, which allows students to record themselves playing their instrument and create a duet by combining their clip with a friend’s video clip.

“What’s most important to me, besides the health of my students and their families,” she said, “is to keep my students playing their instruments.”

For all music students, she recommends exploring “all of the musical opportunities that are provided online. For example, professional musicians such as violinist Augustin Hadelich, violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and cellist Hans Jensen are posting daily videos on social media performing and teaching.”

Serena Terra: elementary school orchestra teacher

Serena Terra

Serena Terra, an elementary orchestra teacher, works with students before the coronavirus shutdown.

“Music is one of the most beautiful, powerful and beautiful forces on Earth,” Terra said.

Her message to students at this time is “all the KUSD orchestra teachers, including me, would like our students to know that we miss you and hope you and your families are doing well.”

The Kenosha Unified School District, she said, “didn’t get to be a well-known music program by accident. Over the years the teachers in this strong department have a history of collaboration. You may not be seeing your orchestra teacher in your usual classroom right now but the whole KUSD orchestra department is working behind the scenes for our students.”

The elementary orchestra teachers, she said, “split up, with each teacher manning a two-hour block of time Monday through Thursday that one of our teachers nicknamed ‘tuning triage.’ Tuning triage helps students and parents to tune their instruments at home with our help.”

In addition to teacher-directed activities, she recommends that students:

Keep playing!

Take this time to make sure you’re paying attention to the correct playing positions as taught to you by your orchestra teacher. Check your positions in a mirror or by viewing a video of yourself playing.

When you practice, repeat your songs a few times each. With every repetition, your brain-to-muscle connection is being strengthened.

Send a video of you playing to someone you care about. It will make their day!

Try to learn to play a piece “by ear.”

Try to compose a short piece on your instrument. Write it down or record it so you remember it later.

“Connecting through video,” Terra said, “gives us some security that we are all doing all right and that we may be socially distanced, but we are all still available for each other.”

Lindsay Pytel: orchestra director at Lance Middle School

Because not all of her students have their instruments with them at home, when she posts online learning activities through Google Classroom, she posts one activity that requires an instrument and one that does not “so everyone can participate to some degree.”

Her students “have been using FlipGrid to take videos of themselves performing small sections of music that we began rehearsing in class. This program allows the students and the teacher to be able to view each other and post video feedback.”

For a non-instrument activity, Pytel asked her students to “watch the 1985 and 2010 videos of ‘We Are the World.’ They were asked to compile a list of current artists they would include if a new version of the song was being recorded today and to defend their choices.”

During this time at home, she added, students should “look online for music they’ve always wanted to play. Some websites have free sheet music available. If no written music can be found, students can try to figure the piece out by ear. Some of my best learning on my instrument has happened this way.”

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