BY BROOKE WILLIAMS
Elk Lake band students were right in the thick of preparing for their spring concert season when schools in Pennsylvania initially shut down for two weeks in mid-March for COVID-19 precautions.
Ensembles spanning grades 5-12 were enjoying rehearsals and reaching their performance peak, with fifth grade beginners excitedly mastering their first pieces of “real” music.
“It was so rewarding to watch them put the skills that they had been learning all year towards their first big performance,” said Elk Lake Band Director Kathleen Amabile. “The spring concert season can be chaotic at times, but it’s a fun sort of chaos, and the feeling of accomplishment that the students have after their concerts truly cannot be replicated.”
While Amabile expected the closure to last longer than two weeks, she never imagined that Friday, March 13 would be the last time she could have her students in class for the foreseeable future.
With the closure extended for the remainder of this school year, the senior high, junior high and elementary band concerts at Elk Lake have been canceled.
Amabile has been working on a master’s program in conducting through Messiah College and looked forward to recording the concerts.
“I was so proud of the work they were doing and I couldn’t wait to share it with others,” she said.
Luckily, her students had enough notice ahead of the initial closure to grab their instruments and sheet music before dismissal.
“When I left school that day, I fit as many instruments, books and educational resources as I could into my tiny car,” Amabile said. “I joined some music educator groups on Facebook and searched for webinars where I could talk to other music teachers about how they were handling the possibility of distance learning.”
At that point, her adjunct teaching duties for Clarks Summit University and Marywood University had already moved online for the rest of the semester, and she figured a similar plan could take shape at Elk Lake.
Each week, the music educator has been scheduling a virtual office hour for each ensemble through Google Hangouts, with evening hours available for students who cannot connect during the typical school day.
“So far this has been a way for the students to check in and say hello, to see their friends and keep me posted on how they are doing,” she said. “They are able to ask me any questions that they have about their music, as well as any assistance that they need with signing up for some of the online platforms that I am utilizing for their practicing, such as SmartMusic and Flipgrid.”
Amabile has also introduced individual and group lessons in addition to her office hours.
Audio lag times have made playing as a group through video conferencing challenging, but she continues searching for solutions.
“I have had some of the groups try playing together by having the students mute their microphones, and I demonstrate on an instrument through my mic while playing a recording, so we’ve been able to get some playing in that way,” she explained.
The virtual office hours and lessons have been received positively, and Amabile appreciates the Elk Lake administration for getting on board.
“I am so grateful to our administration for their continued support and reassurance through this process, as it is quite an adjustment for everyone involved: teachers, students and parents,” she said. “I continue to be amazed at the Elk Lake community. Everyone is working so hard to provide the best for our students.”
Paying attention to the news, Amabile had a feeling that a major schedule disruption was on the horizon. While she understands the reasoning behind the decision, it was still a tough pill to swallow.
Regardless, her main priority was to figure out how to best serve students during the closure. With this being a time filled with fears and unknowns, she hopes they could find comfort in music.
“I want to be able to offer my students a chance to forget about their worries for a bit of their day and have a chance to make music and feel a sense of normalcy. And if they are able to retain their skills and improve their playing through the process, that’s wonderful,” she said. “But my first priority will always be strengthening connections with students and families by fostering a love of music.”
It has been great to hear from her students, who she “misses terribly.”
“I think every teacher and student would agree that we feel robbed of those last few months of school where you’re really in a groove with your classes and your classroom feels like a family,” Amabile said.
She expressed sympathy for all students who are missing out on something, particularly seniors, as their last few weeks of school include “highly anticipated events that are a rite of passage.”
In the band room, her senior students have been with her since 2012.
“I’ve watched them grow up since fifth grade and to not have the closure of a senior send off at the spring concert and those last few weeks of school is just heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s important for the students to know that we feel this pain with them and want to do everything we can to still give them a meaningful end to this school year.”