As teachers across the country navigate their way through online learning, a specific group of teachers has had to take a more creative path in their instruction. Arts classes like drama, choir and visual art faced the struggle of how to keep students interactive in classes that are generally hands-on. Choir teacher Bethany Houff attempts to keep her normal schedule of choir classes even while online, but knows that the experience would never match up to singing as a group in person.
“This semester, I’m teaching Honors Choir and Camerata Choir. We are singing in choir class every day. It feels different because we can’t all unmute and hear each other singing, but the students are able to hear me and sing along with me. I’ve tried to keep as many things the same as possible,” Houff said. “We still start every class with stretching and vocal warm-ups. We still work on individual musicianship skills every day. We still sing lots of wonderful pieces of music. I know the students miss hearing each other’s voices; I miss that, too.”
Due to internet issues of online classes, Houff was forced to find a different way of singing that would work for all of her students.
“The biggest change we’ve had to make is that we can’t hear each other. The technology just doesn’t work well enough for all of us to unmute our microphones and sing together. The other big change is that our concerts will not be able to happen on stage, at least during [the] first semester. We are working to create a few virtual choir experiences so that students can perform their music, but we will miss singing on stage together,” Houff said.
Although choir classes are different, junior Micah Wickline finds that he can still enjoy the class and feel like he is participating in a real singing class.
“Choir class has always been interesting, [so] a lot of it can translate to online pretty easily. She’s definitely [been] keeping it interesting with little extra homework assignments. We did a project on one of our pieces trying to figure out what all the lyrics were and what they meant,” Wickline said.
This being his second year in choir, Wickline notices the differences and similarities between both years.
“It’s not a lot different, [but] there’s less of a social aspect. You don’t get to get to know the person sitting next to you, but otherwise it’s basically the same,” Wickline said.
Although the arts classes face many difficulties, interaction between Houff and her students is not one of them. Wickline is simply happy to be able to take the class at all.
“[With] a lot of the choir students, [interaction] is not really a problem. Most people are there because they really, really want to be there so there’s not a huge problem. She’ll ask questions now and then,” Wickline said. “Right now it’s the only music class I’m taking and it’s probably the most interactive class I have. A lot of my teachers are just lecturing, but [in] choir you have to be with her and [participating].”
For sophomore Ella Young, the smaller class size helps make connections and encourages collaboration.
“She’ll have specific voice parts sing at a specific time. Our voice parts are really small since there’s not that many people in the class,” Young said. “She also makes us stand up the whole time which is different and it’s not like another class where you can turn your camera off. You have to have your camera on,” Young said.
By using features like breakout rooms, Houff has been able to create a more personal setting for her students to practice in. She recognizes that although the class time is limited, it is just as important to have time for socialization as it is for content.
“Singing in a choir is a musical and social experience. When the social aspects of choir are taken away, it’s hard to make it feel like choir. We take time to check in with each other nearly every day,” Houff said. “Honors Choir has tried going to breakout rooms where they meet in small groups to work on their music. I think it’s worked well, and it allows student leaders to run sectionals and hopefully get to know the singers in their sections a little better. All of the choir students also keep their video turned all for the entire rehearsal, which helps all of us to feel like we are together even though we’re in different places.”
While the group aspect is essential to a class such as choir, Houff has found that it could be helpful for her students to use this time to improve their own skills. Her hope is to help each singer grow independently as much as possible.
“My goals for my students during online learning include an increased focus on their individual musicianship. When we sing together in a classroom, we talk a lot about how we sound as an ensemble and how we work together as a team. Since we can’t do that this year, there is a greater focus on each individual’s musical growth,” Houff said. “Since every student is singing alone during class, they are able to hear themselves better and notice their mistakes or hesitations or insecurities. I think, in the long run, this will help them be better choir members in the future when we are able to sing together again.”
The experience of teaching online has proven to Houff just how much she appreciates her students and the moments that are shared in her class. While she recognizes that the connections made face to face cannot be replicated through a screen, she strives to bring a positive and optimistic environment to her class through her songs and her words.
“We are doing what we have to do to be safe; I firmly believe that. There is nothing about [online learning] that is nearly as good as seeing my students and singing together. We are making the best of a terrible situation. We are singing every day. We are singing songs that have messages of hope. We are singing songs of loss and songs of triumph. We are singing songs that help us feel that we have a fighting chance in making the world a better place. We are looking at each other in the tiny boxes of our Google Meets and sending smiles and as much positivity as we can muster out into the void. Is online learning awesome? No. But we’re doing our best, and we’re okay,” Houff said.