Music and Arts teachers reimagine their classes to meet the challenge of distance learning


Potomac SmugMug

Potomac students in art class on the first day of classes in 2019.

Katie Rebhan, Culture Editor

As the 2020-2021 school year starts at Potomac, both virtual and in-person music and art classes are being reimagined. Although the main priority is safety, teachers also strive to ensure that even in a distance-learning environment students will still enjoy their music and arts electives. These classes allow students opportunities to take a step away from academics and to de-stress, albeit in a format that’s different from traditional on-campus studio and instrumental classes. 

For band, Michael DiCuirci is prioritizing student-led involvement, individual music growth, and collaboration, in either a virtual performance or Zoom meeting. “If we are in virtual mode for an extended period of time, we have to flip the entire concept of band,” Mr. DiCuirci said. 

“Band is a unit, so usually you’re working on ensemble concepts together, while individual work is expected to be done outside of class. However, when you go into a virtual world, you’re thinking more of individual growth as opposed to ensemble growth,” he continued.

When campus opens again, because students will be on campus at different times and in smaller groups, Mr. DiCuirci plans to emphasize music that can be played with any configuration of instruments. He is also focusing on safety standards based on a study conducted by the College Band Directors National Association in conjunction with the University of Colorado.

“This study measured the aerosol spray of each instrument and looked for mitigating factors. We took the best practices from this study and ordered all kinds of band-specific PPE, including special masks that you can play a wind instrument through, bell covers that mitigate spray, plexiglass shields, and increased ventilation,” Mr. DiCuirci said. 

The format of chorus is also changing this year. According to Jerry Rich, Intermediate and Upper School chorus teacher, “For the beginning of the school year, while we are still in distance learning, chorus will be using some of the same things from the end of last year, including backing tracks and professional recordings to learn from. We also want to incorporate some new tools, like FlipGrid and breakout rooms, which other teachers have found very valuable.”

Once in-person learning resumes, freshmen and sophomores will attend school on different days than juniors and seniors, making full meetings difficult. However, there is a relatively equal divide between underclassmen and upperclassmen chorus members, so balanced numbers will still allow for productive classes. To simplify things, Mr. Rich will use music with three parts—soprano, alto, and baritone—rather than the usual four-part arrangements. 

“It will definitely require a bit of adjustment, and our tenors and bass twos will have to work a little harder, but I think it’s going to work,” said Mr. Rich. “We’re really focusing on making a smooth transition from virtual to hybrid learning.” 

As for music selection this year, Mr. Rich aims to choose from a variety of different genres. 

“I have some really great pieces picked out: some from the canon of western European music, a Duke Ellington song, folk songs, a song from Kenya that was the inspiration for Hakuna Matata, and Who Lives, Who Dies from Hamilton,” Mr. Rich said. “I think it’s really important, especially in such an unpredictable year, to have a mixture of styles and eras, ones in which people can see and hear themselves in the music and the composers.”

Even though Mr. Rich believes there is a low likelihood that traditional concerts will take place this year, he is hopeful that the chorus can share their music in different ways. For example, he aims to get access to professional recording engineers, which will enable each ensemble to make recordings to share online. 

Art classes, too, have been rethought and adjusted to ensure safety while also allowing students to maintain a creative space.

“Our core goals are the same: to help students develop their ideas through an iterative process, create a space where students can think with their hands, and teach visual literacy alongside technical skills,” art teacher Kristin Enck said. “We have more synchronous learning time together than we did during the spring schedule, so we’re looking forward to working more closely with students to help them develop as artists and thinkers. With the added challenge of meeting students through a screen, our emphasis is on getting to know students and establishing a community. We always try to focus on the ‘who,’ but there is now a heightened need to do that,” she continued.

In addition, art teachers were able to prepare materials for students to pick up and take home, making it easier for students to have an in-studio experience at home. In fact, because of social distancing guidelines, much of what is normally done in the studio is no longer possible. When Potomac moves to a hybrid mode, most of students’ work on campus will have to be discussions and prep time, and hands-on work will actually happen on at-home days. 

Ms. Enck said, “We’re really happy to be building off the unexpected benefits we experienced in the spring. Students were taking more risks because they weren’t comparing their work to others; they were focused on expressing an idea and less concerned about doing things ‘right.’ Their work was more personal, and they were thinking like real artists, which is something we want to continue to encourage.”

Ms. Enck also recognizes the importance of art, especially in this time, as a way to create and communicate meaning with others.

“Art is a vehicle for exploring and expressing challenging emotions,” said Mrs. Enck. “It is a counterpoint to the way of thinking that is often encouraged in other disciplines. No matter the location, we are committed to giving students the chance to work with the part of their brain that they don’t get to exercise during the rest of their day. We want students to explore and fail, which feels even more urgent during this time, and we’re going to remain committed to that no matter the format.”