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Despite Distance Learning Limitations, Choir Teachers Find Ways To Make Music Happen

Laura Tsutsui
Valley Public Radio
Choir director Michael Gutierrez stands before empty risers in the Firebaugh High School choir room. Gutierrez has been trying out new styles of music lessons when he can't sing with his students in person.

With public schools still operating remotely, one subject particularly challenging to teach online is music. Despite the limitations, choir teachers in Fresno County are brainstorming new ways to instruct, even through a screen.

On one Thursday morning, halfway through the high school choir class that Jacob Bailey is teaching on Zoom, he leads the students through a warm up.

“Reach up nice and high to wake up that voice a little bit,” Bailey tells the students while stretching. “Wake up those ribs.”

As they exercise their voices, he jokes, they might wake up their neighbors: he lets out a “Whoo, whoo, whoo!” like a siren. 

“Bug our neighbors, here we go!”

One student puts in the chat, “My poor dog is trying to sleep, I feel bad.” But of the few students who turn on their videos during the Zoom class, you can tell they’re still singing. 

Bailey has been teaching with Selma Unified School District for two years now, and says he’s approaching distance learning like he did when he started at the district.

“I’m gonna throw a lot of spaghetti against the wall, and see what sticks,” says Bailey.

So far, some trends are forming: the students like group projects and working together in breakout rooms, which, he says, makes sense.

“The big starting point has to be relationships,” Bailey explains. “They did some getting to know you assignments, and I was in there responding and asking questions about the things that they said. I think they’re kind of starved for that kind of interaction.”

In addition to maintaining the choir program, Bailey is also trying to plan ahead. As the district’s visual and performing arts coordinator, he’s working on Selma Unified’s Five-Year Visual and Performing Arts Plan, to be implemented in the fall of 2021. It includes goals like more community engagement and bringing in more arts staff.

“We only have one and a half full-time teachers covering all of the elementary schools in the district,” Bailey says. 

While he irons out the plan with other arts faculty, Bailey is facing major barriers to teaching through distance learning. For example, reliable Wi-Fi access and even electricity remain problems, although Selma Unified has distributed devices and Wi-Fi routers. One student said during the class that she has to go to her sister’s home to use her Wi-Fi  for school. 

“The struggle we have, especially as a rural district is that, even if you’ve done everything right, and our district has tried, but I don't think anybody is doing this 100 percent right right now,” Bailey says. “There are kids that are gonna be out of reach.”

In Firebaugh Las Deltas Unified School District, Michael Gutierrez, the middle and high school choir director, says he encountered the same access problems early on in the pandemic. These days, he tries to also be mindful of students’ home lives, and says there are still other barriers that make it difficult for his students.

Credit Laura Tsutsui / Valley Public Radio
Valley Public Radio
Sitting before a laptop and monitor, Gutierrez speaks into a microphone to address his class via Zoom. He shares his screen and uses breakout rooms so his high school students can practice different skills, besides singing.

“A comment that I hear often from students is that they love being here because they can sing out, but at home it's very different,” says Gutierrez. “Sometimes it's a situation of, they have a younger sibling like an infant that they have to make sure they're not singing around or waking up.”

In the meantime, Gutierrez is focusing on other skills during his classes.

“This is a respiratory virus. Singing is a respiratory activity, so clearly there's a chance that choir might not be possible, that it will be very limited, which it is,” says Gutierrez. “So I asked the kids, besides singing, what other skills do you want to learn in music?”

The suggestions Gutierrez adopted this year are music production, songwriting, vocal skills and piano skills.

One of his high school students, Adrian Ortiz, says he was initially skeptical about being in choir during a pandemic. 

“I didn’t really think this was gonna work well,” Ortiz admits. “But it actually has.”

Ortiz has been focusing on songwriting, and says it’s been one way to process his feelings. But he does miss singing.

“One hundred percent, I really miss it,” he says. “When we’re singing, it’s like emotional and like, just to know that we’re just gonna be on computers, just doing these assignments, it’s not really what we joined choir for. We joined it to sing all together as one.”

Once the kids get more comfortable singing on Zoom, Gutierrez does plan to record a distanced version of their winter concert. It’s something the students and community look forward to every year and he wants to make sure it still happens. 

“I told my students that our motto this year essentially is that anything's possible. It just takes more creativity.”

More creativity, and a daily reminder of good health practices.

“Every moment I get, I remind the kids, ‘Wash your hands, wear a mask, social distance,’” says Gutierrez. “And if your family asks why you should wear a mask, your answer should be, ‘Because I want to go back to school.’”

Laura Tsutsui was a reporter and producer for Valley Public Radio. She joined the station in 2017 as a news intern, and later worked as a production assistant and weekend host. Laura covered local issues ranging from politics to housing, and produced the weekly news program Valley Edition. She left the station in November 2020.
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