The New York Times asked people to describe the year 2020 in one word. Momentous, challenging, scary, tragic, frustrating, disturbing, perhaps illuminating. For me, it boils down to one word. Whoa. WHOA.
Things started out so routinely. I went about my business as an early childhood music specialist, teaching my usual preschool music classes. I had scheduled two workshop presentations, one in New Orleans in late March, about which I was quite jazzed!
At the end of March, suffice it to say I wasn’t enjoying a big bowl of jambalya in the Big Easy. I had decamped from Massachusetts to Vermont, where my partner Gordon lives, and where coronavirus cases were the lowest in the nation, a position the “Brave Little State” has maintained consistently throughout the pandemic. Dressed in our ski jackets and hats, Gordon and I delivered our first socially-distant outdoor concert in late March to nearby neighbors. We took a video of his song, “Coming Back,” feeling it was an appropriate anthem for the pandemic era.
To continue serving my preschoolers, I began making weekly videos called “Musical Fun with Miss Liz.” As Dr. Fauci urged America to “flatten the curve,” my learning curve with iMovie rose sharply. I learned a lot about best practices for filming with my phone, improving sound production, creating effective backgrounds, making art on an iPad and … Zoom!
Soon, the preschool where I spent the most time, the Children’s Own School in Winchester, requested that I offer weekly Zoom music to each of five classrooms. This was generally a lot of fun, although occasionally I used the wrong names for children, given their postage-stamp-sized images on my MacBook Air screen. I got to see my students in their natural habitats, wearing PJs while enjoying their breakfast cereal. It was fun to greet their younger and older siblings, who gathered around the table and sometimes joined in jumping on the sofa.
Gordon often joined me for a song or two, bringing his harmonica. This gained him one enthusiastic young fan who also owned a harmonica. Unfortunately, the little boy often missed Gordon’s song because he was off searching for his harmonica.
My most memorable Zoom came when a dad dropped off his crying child in front of the screen and quickly went elsewhere. Perhaps due to a scheduling mix-up, no one else in the class came to the Zoom. The child stopped crying after what felt like forever, with dad and other family members nowhere to be found. I could see only the top of her blond head on my screen, and she spoke a single word, “pink,” when I asked her favorite color. What choice was there but to sing on?
The Zooming school year ended in June with the Children’s Own School kindergarteners presenting a virtual play, an adaptation of The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry. Working with my co-director Val, I rehearsed the children on Zoom for several weeks. Family members created costumes and scenery and took to the great outdoors to film the children in their roles. One older sister fed lines to her brother from inside a bush. I spliced it into a video play. In a year when people had thought the school’s tradition of the annual kindergarten play wouldn’t happen, we showed that the whole “village” could make it work.
Some of my personal video highlights arose from the great outdoors in Vermont, including the day when an especially loud red-winged blackbird chimed in with my singing on the back deck. Gordon’s place sits adjacent to a pond, so inevitably one of our greatest hits of the year was “The Life of a Frog.” (You can find it at minute 4:30 in “Songs by the Pond.”)
During the summer, I dedicated a new song to babies born during the pandemic, “Shining Bright.” Amid renewed commitment to social justice and antiracism following the killing of George Floyd, I challenged children to be part of the change with a song Gordon and I co-wrote, “Big Changes in Little Ways.”
With the coming of fall, the Children’s Own School resumed full-time, in-person learning with the whole school population in masks, socially-distanced work spaces and tons of regularly-applied disinfectant. I was lucky to be offered a job as an assistant teacher. The pandemic had pretty much cancelled the concept of an itinerant music specialist, creating severe financial difficulties for many of my colleagues. Though this year produced some stellar art and performances, it’s been a true disaster for many arts organizations.
Working in person with children during a pandemic brings a unique set of challenges. Those little faces (and little ears) are not made for medical masks. While some kids are good at keeping their masks on, many others struggle to find a good fit. Masks dangle around some chins for much of the time.
There’s also the need to be vigilant about sanitizing. Frequently-used classroom surfaces must be cleaned twice daily; bathrooms are supposed to be sanitized after every use. Our school has a cleaning crew that comes in after hours, but during the day, sanitizing is done by the teachers. (And sometimes, with safe materials, by the children.) I am perfecting the art of teacher as cleaning lady.
On the positive side, most days I’m able to offer 20-30 minutes of organized music time with my classroom. All of the classrooms are kept separate from each other, so I don’t have the opportunity to provide music for the others, sadly. Our classroom, mixed in age from 2 to 6, is a group of enthusiastic music makers. We sing with masks on; play instruments that I disinfect afterward, act out stories and move in a mostly-socially-distant way. I especially enjoy marching around with the children to music in our large classroom.
Outside school, I got a chance to collaborate with two talented storytellers, Andrea
Lovett and Nicolette Nordin Heavey, for endeavors that might outlast the pandemic era. Andrea and I are offering a video/zoom presentation of stories and songs for science learning (STEAM) for Young Audiences of Massachusetts. Nicolette started a collaboration called Stories at Play, a set of monthly videos of thematically-related stories and songs, of which I’m happy to be a part.
All in all, 2020 could have been worse for me in many ways. I had some new experiences and developed new abilities, especially in video and remote communications. Those things are certain to inform the way I do things in 2021, but like most everyone, I’ll be delighted to welcome a new year and – dare I wish for it? – live music, without a mask!