How Music Teachers Can Make Virtual Lessons Work for Your Students

02, Feb 2021 5:33 AM

For many teachers, the transition from classroom to virtual education has been a challenge. Many traditionally hands-on subjects, like music education, are especially difficult to adapt to the virtual world - but educators like Ayanna Freelon prove it’s absolutely doable.

Freelon has been teaching in Baltimore and Washington D.C. schools for three years, but the pandemic turned her attention to virtual education for the first time when landed a virtual, long-term substitute music teacher assignment through Teachers On Demand.

The key to making it work in classes that range from pre-K to 8th grade?

Freelon harnesses interactive platforms and experiences that instill a wide cross-cultural perspective and encourage students to take their knowledge outside the classroom and into the rest of their lives.

The Motivation Behind the Music

Freelon grew up singing, but after starting voice lessons at 16 years old, her teacher encouraged her to try opera. She continued on to study classical music in college.

Coming from a historically disenfranchised community, Freelon says teaching music “gives me an opportunity to instill all the things I love about music into the community I came from. There’s still a lack of representation.”

Currently, she teaches Elements of Music classes of roughly 15 students each in a Capitol-area charter school. She takes pride in teaching from a culturally informed perspective and emphasizes both world music and the diverse music history of the United States.

Music Education Through a Multicultural Lens

Freelon’s general music education classes include the fundamentals: from texture, rhythm, timber, and form through quarter-notes, half-notes, beats and measures. But she prefers to teach them alongside relevant cultural knowledge, like when her 3rd graders learn about beats in combination with jazz music, with a YouTube video to reinforce it.

While Freelon capitalizes on February as Black History Month to teach about formative Black artists, she knows the rich history deserves more than a month each year:

“Representation is so important. Students need to see we exist in many different aspects of music history.”

That’s why she’s taken her students through the gamut of Black opera singers, jazz and blues artists, and Black Broadway with figures like Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, BB King, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., and cultural showstoppers like Dreamgirls and “The Wiz.” She finds ample connections to U Street, an African-American cultural and nightlife hub in Washington D.C. where jazz greats like Duke Ellington once performed.

But her students’ exploration of culture through music doesn’t end there.

In her classes, they are exposed to a wide mix of Latin, Japanese, Cantonese, Caribbean, South African and more artists.

Freelon wants her classes to get a taste of all the cultures that make up America. That’s why she leans on intersectional cultural milestones throughout the year to honor them, from Chinese New Year (January/February) to Women’s History Month (March) to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (May). Her students may learn songs in languages like Mandarin and Spanish, à la Cuban artist Celia Cruz.

How to Create Engaging Virtual Music Lessons

In the classroom, music education is often a hands-on experience. In a perfect world, it’s a full-body experience. Freelon does her best to simulate this with a range of digital tools.

“YouTube is my best friend and companion,” she says. “I’m always looking for interactive sites where students can look at and play instruments that I can attach to Google Classroom.”

Some of her favorites include The Kennedy Center, which provides a wide range of educational resources as well as a Digital Stage to watch performances, and the Dallas Opera, which offers a TDO Education Portal and Opera 101.

Freelon also uses Chrome Music Lab, a platform with a variety of colorful, enticing tools like “Song Maker” and “Shared Piano” that allow young students to use a choice board, play with key centers, and create rhythms. Soon, she plans to introduce Incredibox, a music app that “lets you create your own music with the help of a merry crew of beatboxers.”

Beyond these tools, Freelon “sings a lot,” making up and recording songs and devising crafts students can do at home. This is especially popular among her younger classes, from pre-K to 3rd grade.

“I’ve had them make rhythm instruments like maracas from objects they have lying around the house. They loved it.”

It’s more difficult to keep her 8th graders’ attention, but “that comes with the territory. I have to meet them where they are, incorporate music they like in the lessons so they stay engaged.”

Freelon explicitly distinguishes between project-based learning and evaluative assignments. She keeps the former simple and focused on qualitative learning outcomes:

“I ask them about what we talked about in class rather than ‘testing’ their knowledge. If they can communicate what they’re hearing and have an intelligent conversation about music, I know they’re more likely to walk away being able to use it in their lives.”

And she’s certainly on to something. A recent study that found a theoretical approach to music education had little effect on participants’ lives, whereas an emphasis on emotional connection to music has positive outcomes for children’s personal development and social and emotional wellbeing.

Teaching Music to Older and Younger Audiences

It’s the latter that Freelon values most, which is why she tailors the content and format of her classes to the natural energy of different age groups.

For example, Freelon’s 3rd graders are “willing to try whatever she throws at them.” They love the “Hello Song,” which teaches students to sing greetings in 20 languages, from Arabic (salaam aleikum) to Hawaiian (aloha) to Italian (buon giorno) to Cameroonian (morembe). The YouTube video features animated children with a wide range of skin colors playing musical instruments, which reinforces Freelon’s key value of representation.

“If I forget to play ‘The Hello Song’ in lessons, they let me know,” Freelon says with a laugh.

In one of her favorite lessons, she walked her 3rd graders through the history of blues music, which led to the activity of the day: Students would write their own blues song.

She gave them the first line - “I’ve got the blues” - while the students brainstormed rhyming words to complete the lyrics, including “I don’t know what to do” and “I’m running with blue shoes.”

On the other hand, one of the most successful classes with her older students involved a lesson on sampling in hip-hop, which they may see as more directly relevant to them.

“I know they’re engaged when they’re asking questions,” Freelon says.

In the near future, she plans to combine the energies of these two student poles for the older students’ third-quarter project. Her 8th graders will use Soundtrap, a software that teaches basic music production, to create a song and record it while the younger class puts it to lyrics.

“Across the board, all teachers with older kids are facing a problem: They don’t want their cameras on,” notes Freelon. In her experience, about half the class enables video and half doesn’t, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of the lesson: As long as students she can’t see are active in the chat, she doesn’t mind, and responds while she teaches.

The Most Important Virtual Teaching Method

The experience has taught her the importance of getting to know her students, which helps them feel at ease virtually.

“All activities have to be underlined by true connection. It’s especially important now because students are already spending so much time alone.”

This is why she always starts class with a “temperature check,” part of a social-emotional learning approach, asking the students how their day is going and allowing them to share jokes.

Freelon also tries to incorporate mindfulness into her lessons, which might be end-of-class yoga postures for younger kids and moments of meditation for older ones.

While this method pairs perfectly with music education, it’s universally applicable from math to history.

“The virtual world is very intense,” she says, “and students can barely take a step back to breathe. I take every chance I can to give them a moment of peace.” Her students certainly appreciate it!

Chloe’ Skye Weiser
Chloe’ Skye Weiser

Chloe’ Skye Weiser is a freelance writer from New York City. She specializes in education, sustainability, and SaaS writing and maintains travel and expat culture blog Chlohemian.