Music Still Plays at Milton Hershey School Amid the Pandemic
Featuring Ed Varner, MHS Director of Visual and Performing Arts
Just like the sign says at Catherine Hall, although physically distant, the Milton Hershey School music program is still musically together through music education. This past year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s taken teamwork, tenacity, creativity, collaboration, and patience to keep students playing and engaged both virtually and in the classroom.
“Last spring [March 2020] was hard,” said Ed Varner, MHS Director of Visual and Performing Arts. “It was hard to make [virtual music education] engaging for kids but what our teachers discovered, was by building better relationships with our students and having conversations, they were able to build a program that worked.”
Through virtual interactions with their students, the teachers in the Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) department at MHS realized that the well-being of their students was priority number one.
“We focused on the key elements of our curriculum in all of our VPA disciplines and then narrowed in on what those key elements do for our students from a social and emotional perspective,” said Varner. “To us, it became more important to focus on a trauma-informed approach to our teaching so that we could help our students make it to the next school year.”
At MHS, teachers play an important role in their student’s lives. They spend hours with students broadening their knowledge, teaching them academic skills, and helping them grow and develop inside and outside of the classroom.
“It has been a challenge and, to our teacher’s credit, what they miss most of all is time with the students,” said Varner. “We can’t fill a band room with 80 band kids and have a class. We have 111 choir kids and we can’t pull them all together and sing. We’re missing that emotional connection of a shared group of people striving for that one similar performance goal, and that’s hard for music education.”
Once students returned to the classroom in the Fall of 2020, the music teachers were ready. They had done extensive research into how they could successfully teach music education in the classroom, keeping in mind mitigation strategies that followed CDC and state guidelines.
One of the areas they looked at closely was the impact of singing during a pandemic.
“We looked at a large multi-university study from the Universities of Maryland and Colorado on the effects of aerosol and how COVID-19 spreads directly in relation to performing arts. We started following the science of it and determined our students—unless isolated—would not be singing, and that was disheartening for everyone.”
But that didn’t stop the MHS teachers from encouraging and motivating their students through different beats.
At the elementary school, instead of singing, they played percussion instruments to the beat of a song. Piano lessons continued and the teachers introduced something new—the ukulele. They also found success with an online program called Quaver Music—which provides interactive music lessons.
During the holiday season, teachers found a unique way to keep the idea of a joint performance together. Instead of doing one large performance, the band teacher recorded the students’ individual performances and edited the video together for parents and sponsors.
The piano and the ukulele also found a place in the curriculum at the middle school. Following state and CDC guidelines, the classrooms were set up to keep proper distancing and students wear masks in the classroom. The teachers focus on music composition and music listening skills. Band also continued—but work together in small groups to follow state and federal mitigation guidelines.
“At each division, elementary, middle, and high school, our band students are using bell covers on their instruments,” explained Varner. “More scientific research points to aerosols as spreaders of COVID-19, so as a mitigation strategy, we’ve incorporated them into the curriculum along with large boxed off and taped off areas for practicing.”
The teachers even abided by the recommendations from the CDC for specific distancing for specific instruments. For example, the CDC recommends for trombones that students stay nine feet away from each other. At MHS, the teachers keep it to 10 to 12 feet.
“Our teachers are strategically mitigating for COVID-19 while also providing important music education engagement opportunities for their students,” said Varner. “We can’t thank them enough for keeping the music going.”
At the high school, the band and choir have been modified to a block schedule. They meet every other day and everything is individualized—there are no groups.
“One of the really cool things to come out of this approach to education is all of the individualized attention for our students. For example, the band teacher has a rotation of students assigned to individual practice rooms. He can monitor their lessons through a glass door.”
Through it all, Varner says his teachers have grown through this past year. By focusing on what they could do in the classroom instead of what they could not do has helped keep things in perspective.
“We keep looking for ways to keep our kids engaged,” said Varner. “We cannot spend our time being angry about what we lost, instead we are focusing on what we can do well. It’s the social and emotional part that we’ve focused on because that helps us connect with our kids and keep all of us connected as a team.”