By Karey Sitzler, B MEd, MM
Orchestra Director, Ocean Lakes High School
When I completed my degree and accepted my first job almost 47 years ago, I knew only one thing for certain. Teaching was my passion and I could not wait to start the journey. It’s been a “couple” of years, so the journey has taken me through many places, figuratively and physically. I often think back and smile and sometimes shake my head! The challenges have varied from lack of funding for music programs, starting new programs from scratch, seeing the tides of education change with new developments in technology, and juggling schedules to meet student requirements. This journey has been all I hoped and more and the sharing of music with students in public school settings has remained my passion. Having said this, nowhere in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that the path would lead us here, where we find ourselves today.
For one of the first times in my career I am faced with the challenge of virtual teaching of something that I have “preached” as sharing and interacting with others through communication that is full of body language, visual cues, breathing together, and coming together as an ensemble to bring beauty to an audience in performance. Lifting the composer’s vision off the page and transforming it into a connection with others is such a joy, one that I have made it my life work to share with young people. Music is not a competitive sport, not only dry techniques. Proper study of technique will free up the students to be expressive and give from deep within.
So much of what I am describing is missing from what we face today in our world. As I walked out March 13 I, like my colleagues in all areas of education, couldn’t help but wonder on that car ride home, “how will I make this work?” My mind went immediately to reminding myself that I needed to focus on what we CAN do, not what was gone from the norm. We CAN share our love for our art. We CAN reach out to students through the technology at our fingertips. We CAN remind them that what each individual brings to an ensemble makes us better. After all, we are a compilation of sounds that we make individually as we strive to become one sound together. It made sense to me that turning our attention to personal growth would make us come back together when this is over as a stronger orchestra full of confident musicians with a new sense of empowerment. Knowing that they had moved forward in a difficult time should give them that, right?
What has changed is I spend countless hours answering each email or schoology note as it comes in. When students need us, teachers are there. I am certain that that is across the board In our schools. My husband is downstairs working from home. My 30-year-old son with Down syndrome can’t quite understand the changes in our lifestyle. I miss our adult children, all in other cities and states. I spend time concerned with loved ones who are fighting the virus and friends who have lost someone. As far as methodology, I now use technology to deliver material and meet one-on-one for tutoring sessions to guide them through mastering difficult techniques. I scour the internet for videos of great artists and fine teachers’ offerings. People are so giving! I had a bassist from Germany who is a friend of a friend make a video of a difficult passage in a piece we are planning to do together when we come back. She said it was a pleasure and could not wait to hear the recording of the group down the road.
What does NOT change is the fact that people need music in their lives. Teaching our students to keep the music going at a time when they have little control of so many things in their life is essential to their balance and mental health. In a weekly log (I have them doing a short paragraph regarding what they are doing) a sophomore young man said that “there is nothing better than playing soulfully outside on a beautiful day.” He is strong academically and quite athletic but knows that his music is adding to his contentment during this time.
So, we teachers will do it. We will teach the students. We will focus on the positive and do all we can to let them know that we know that we are still here for them. We will let them know that we know that they are balancing more than anyone ever has. They have new family responsibilities. They are sharing work and practice space with siblings. They worry over mom being a nurse and try to understand what got us here and how it will end. Our job as teachers of the arts is to keep the beauty in their lives and to keep that essential self-expression open and flowing. I am grateful for this privilege and proud of the students as they face this time with honesty. It remains my passion and, in the years to come, I don’t see that changing.
“When Schools Are Closed” is an ongoing guest column that anyone in the VBCPS community may contribute to. If you are interested in writing about how the school closing is affecting your daily routine, please contact Sondra Woodward in the Department of Communications and Community Engagement.