ERHAPS MANY Corpus Christi Watershed readers have already returned to normal or near-normal, liturgically speaking. But here in California, there are still many COVID restrictions in place. For example, in my diocese all indoor classes have been suspended.
The problem is, I normally offer four levels of musical instruction for children during the schoolyear. It’s something many families plan their schedules around. It’s something many kids look forward to. And it supplies our parish choir with a steady stream of new singers.
My pastor recently told me that, as per the diocesan guidelines, I can offer music classes this fall but they must be outside, in our parish courtyard. I initially balked at the idea, but then I thought, “Why not?” So I put word out—and received about 100 enrollments, shattering my previous record of seventysomething.
Either sacred music is alive and well or families are getting stir-crazy from the lockdown.
I planned a late start this schoolyear due to the heat wave and the horrendous air quality from the many California wildfires. Last Thursday, we finally held our first classes. Here are some thoughts on what I’ve experienced so far.
Overcoming the Challenges of Teaching Music Outside
Outdoor music classes do work. There are a few challenges: It’s hot and kids get thirsty easily. There’s no piano (unless I set up a portable keyboard) and no blackboard. We have to set up chairs. And it’s harder to hear the singers. But I think the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Training in suboptimal conditions is better than no training at all. I can’t imagine telling our parish, “Sorry, no music program this fall due to COVID.” Of course, if the lockdown continues into the damp and chilly months, then I may have to suspend classes.
I’m frankly not too worried about how working outdoors will affect my classes. My greater concern is the same one I have every year: keeping families committed. I find that most children show a sincere enthusiasm for classes and enjoy the challenges therein, but their parents struggle to make the weekly commitment because there’s tremendous competition for their time. Even for homeschoolers, who theoretically have more flexibility than families that use schools, the dropout rate can be higher than we teachers would like.
I suspect it’s a cultural thing. We tend to take music less seriously than academic subjects, overlooking the fact that it’s an essential part of the formation of a child. We see it as something a student can somehow “pick up” even if he has missed a month’s worth of classes or rehearsals. And even among devout Catholics, I think there’s a lingering perception that when the week gets busy, sacred music is the logical first thing to skip.
Five Ways to Increase Engagement
None of us knows what could happen with COVID or other societal disruptions this fall. Regardless, here are five ideas for keeping a parish music education program going strong:
Require people to sign up. Invite parents to complete an online registration form, or hand them a printout. Even if you’re running a small program and you think you’ll already know everyone who participates, asking them to register sends the message that music class isn’t something to take casually.
Hand out rules and regulations. Put down on paper your class rules, such as staying in seats, no eating in class, and no cell phones.
Sell the benefits. Your goal is to increase signups and encourage participation all schoolyear, right? So tell the parents up front what their kids will get out of the classes. I don’t believe in selling music classes based on ancillary benefits such as “Kids who study music do better on standardized tests” or “Your child may earn a scholarship to study music at a university.” Sell music for its own sake. Mention that learning sacred music opens up a lifetime of serving the Church, enriching one’s spiritual life, and making sincere friendships based on charity. Anyone who doesn’t want these benefits probably doesn’t belong in your music program anyway.
Require notification of all absences. Provide your contact information and make it a rule that parents must tell you whenever their children will miss class.
Require notification of dropouts. Ask parents to let you know if their children plan on ceasing participation in the middle of the schoolyear. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency simply to stop showing up. This makes it hard on the teacher, who is left wondering whether a student may suddenly reappear after weeks of absences and need significant help catching up.
Whatever we do, let’s not give up. Our work is far too important—and I take the increased enrollment in my program as a sign that Catholics are hungrier than ever for beauty.