Music tells the story of our ‘shared connection’: Why arts education is crucial in times of crisis

(Courtesy of Settlement Music School)

(Courtesy of Settlement Music School)

Seemingly overnight, our lives and the lives of our children have been turned upside down because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen before — in times of great financial strain and uncertainty — how arts education is often of the first things left by the wayside.

Yet we have countless examples throughout history where music is what kept us together — no matter what was happening. That is why art organizations across the nation are moving mountains to offer online instruction because we know this may be the time when our students need us the most.

I look online today and am awestruck by how communities are responding to this crisis by making music. From the #SongsofComfort movement encouraging musicians across the world (championed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma) to post homemade videos of performances meant to provide us all with a sense of solace, to viral videos of neighborhoods in Italy stepping out onto their balconies and filling their now empty streets with melody and harmony — these are some of the most expressive things I have ever known. Indeed, some of the best things we can do in a crisis are stay engaged, productive and connected.

Here at home, I am watching Settlement’s faculty members go above and beyond to adapt their teaching to overcome some of the challenges distance learning poses for music education. Voice instructors are sending their students pre-recorded audio files of themselves playing the piano to adjust for the lag in video conference that prevents them from playing together; our choir and string ensemble directors are exploring how to equip their students with play-along videos so they can continue to practice; and early childhood music instructors, now without access to all of Settlement’s percussion instruments, are planning to host digital classes where our youngest learners explore the sounds in their homes, showing us that music exists all around us, no matter where we may be.

It has not been easy. Connecting all of our students and finding ways for Settlement’s varied programs to excel online will take further bounds of creativity, but artists and musicians are always up for challenges. With the help of invaluable input and continued support from our students, families and neighbors, as well as our fellow arts educators, we know we can continue to inspire through the power of the arts.

We are already hearing from parents about what it means to continue their child’s musical instruction online.

“It is extremely important for children to maintain normalcy and have a sense of reassurance that this is a temporary change in our ways of life,” one parent said.

Another parent added, “It brought a big smile to my daughter’s face today to see Ms. Andreia and to be able to keep going with her violin.”

We should be sure not to take these smiles for granted during these concerning times.

(Courtesy of Settlement Music School)

We must all prioritize the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones, and as we practice social distancing and take all necessary measures to stay well and weather this storm, we must also remember our humanity. We must continue to sing and dance, and we must continue to play, for every chord from our pianos and every note from our strings tells the story of our shared connection.

I urge you to turn to music and art during these difficult times. I urge you to continue to hone these otherworldly powers of expression online and continue to support our creative economy, so that as a community we will emerge from this crisis ready to take back the stage.

Helen S. Eaton has been CEO of Settlement Music School since 2010 and is vice chair of the Board of the National Guild for Community Arts Education. Visit settlementmusic.org for information on virtual music programming for babies, children, and adults, including soon-to-be-released free digital classes for communities everywhere.

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