Reimagining Music Class

How Garfield’s music department is changing its curriculum to adapt to the pandemic.


Art by Molly Chapin

COVID-19 has made every teacher’s job harder, but Garfield’s music department in particular has had to make drastic changes to adapt to online learning. The core performance and rehearsal aspects of these music programs aren’t feasible during the pandemic. Yet Garfield’s three music department heads—Mr. Sessink, Mr. Saunders, and Mr. Kolk—see this struggle as a chance to reflect upon and reinvent Garfield music.

“Our programs have always run very rigorous calendars, where we’re going straight from one performance to the next. There’s this focus on fundraising, there’s this focus on making sure that there’s trophies lining our walls”, says Brian Kolk, who teaches orchestra. “This is a great opportunity to question that.”

Without the focus on rehearsal and performance, music teachers have to reinvent their curriculum this year, but Kolk doesn’t see that as a bad thing.

“This is an opportunity to focus on things that traditionally didn’t receive the emphasis they could have … For instance, exploring music theory is something that happens on a more individual level and can happen in a textbook or online quiz type of setting. Incorporating that into classes now doesn’t necessarily make that learning less effective than what we would do in class. Talking about music history—we can deliver that and converse about it in small groups online the same way that we would in person.”

Jared Sessink, who teaches jazz, symphonic, and concert band, plans to teach students about careers in music.

“The teachers and I have been talking about getting some guests who do things like music therapy and different careers that don’t require you to be a performer. I don’t think we talk about that enough. There’s so many business jobs that are like secretary kind of work that are in music … I think lot of people love music but they know they can’t—well they think they can’t make money in it, and I think it’s because we don’t really show many aspects of capitalist music industry stuff.”

One way that Garfield’s music department is questioning tradition is by exposing students to music technology. Two programs in particular are being used—Upbeat Music and Audacity.

“It’s the 21st century, everything is going to be digital. To teach music students in just the classroom setting is doing them a disservice”, says Blake Saunders, who teaches choir and drumline. “So Upbeat is a digital app that allows students to line up and perform live together and quickly get feedback, which is not something we have in a latency-filled world like this. Audacity is a digital audio workstation that allows an individual to manipulate with and record audio. These two tools are critical in a digital collaboration setting around music.”

These programs aren’t perfect, however. Mr. Sessink says Upbeat is “very glitchy, but it’s about the best thing we’ve found”, and Audacity has “a bit of a steep learning curve”.

Despite how clunky these programs are, Sessink believes they are yielding encouraging results—so encouraging that he believes that music technology should remain a focus even after quarantine.

“In Audacity, we’ve gotten some very creative recorded content, like nothing that I would have ever gotten from students in normal sit-down music class. And I want that to never go away. I want recorded music to be incorporated into the experience of any student that does music at Garfield.”

Mr. Saunders believes that using these programs post-lockdown would also make individual assessment in music classes more convenient and less stressful. “Let’s put it this way: I need to hear you sing your part by yourself. You may not feel comfortable doing it in front of the entire class, but you do feel comfortable and have been trained to do it on your computer, giving me all that feedback immediately, the same way.”

Just like everything else about school right now, Garfield’s music programs are far from ideal, but Mr. Sessink, Saunders, and Kolk are handling it exceptionally well given the circumstances.