Shanti Gruber’s varsity choir class was in the midst of rehearsals for their recital season when COVID-19 shut down everything—classrooms included—last spring.
“Our spring semester is where we do a lot of travel, we have big concerts, we have competitions,” said Gruber.
Gruber is also the district lead music teacher, and the choir director for both the high school, and Glenwood Springs Middle School. She’s taught her varsity choir group since they were in 6th grade. The ensemble ultimately had to scrap their in-person performance due to public health protocols, and record one song virtually together instead.
“Unfortunately everything that we had worked so hard on since the beginning of the school year, we weren’t able to do … it was really, really hard,” she said.
After a summer in flux, Glenwood Springs High School decided to resume online classes for fall. They follow a virtual bell schedule, with 15 minute “passing periods” between classes before students and teachers log on for their next lesson. Gruber said that the online format has been particularly challenging for music instructors.
“Because of the audio limitations, I can’t hear the students sing,” she said. “If I’m trying to present something, I can’t have a shared page and an audio file going at the same time.”
Since the start of the school year, she said her average class size is down. Students who are marginally attached to arts programs have dropped them altogether from their schedules, and unreliable internet access has been a deterrent for others. It’s been an unprecedented challenge for all teachers, but arts and music teachers have unique limitations.
“Ordinarily, teachers will come and ask you a question, and you look back on your 20, 30 or 40 years experience and there’s probably some events or experiences that you can say, ‘well, this would be a good way to do it,” said Glenwood Springs High School’s Principal Paul Freeman. “And I was thinking, ‘I just don’t know how you can do this.’”
He says that teachers have been resourceful, though. For example, art teachers sent home boxes of clay with video tutorials for pottery class. Gruber sits down at her piano for classes each day, and has students mute themselves so they can sing along on their own. Varsity choir member Jillian Bray said that’s been helpful in her development as a musician.
“Most people, especially with singing, are very conscious of their voices, so, being able to sing at your full volume, while not having to be self conscious is so comforting and it allows you to grow even more,” she said.
Bray added that her family has enjoyed hearing her practice more often around the house, and that online learning has created more one-on-one opportunities to ask teachers questions. Fellow varsity choir member Jary Martinez said that the most important thing right now is staying in touch with music, regardless of the challenges.
“Choir is one of my favorites, it has always been the class that fulfills my happiness at school,” he said. “Since we’ve had to switch it to virtual learning it’s like, that happiness is still there, but it’s a little harder now.”
That’s what Gruber says she spent her summer break thinking about—how to give kids a creative outlet during tough times.
“I was presented with an opportunity and a challenge to become a better teacher,” she said. “(I) spent the summer reflecting on my career and what my responsibility really is as an educator, but also as someone who inspires art and tries to ignite talent and passion in students.”
Gruber said there’s lots of unknowns for teachers like her as schools try to navigate back to in-person classes. She doesn’t know whether her students will be able to sing with masks, or if there’s even a way her classes can safely sing in-person. She added that arts and music teachers are also concerned that future funding cuts might affect their classes.
Students, for their part, are just happy to be back, and some, like Jillian Bray point out that—virtual or not—the show must go on.
“I’m just really hoping that everyone else sees that it’s not the end of the world,” Bray said. “Just know that there’s always a way to be able to do something and as long as you’re willing to do it and lean on others and put your brains together to figure it out, you can really do anything.”
Even if that something is finding perfect pitch through a computer screen.