What the pandemic has taught us about music and education

It’s month four, nearly month five, in which Covid-19 continues to dominate every aspect of our lives. The scale of the disruption has been unprecedented, and a society we’re now attempting to live with closures, lockdowns, and mass layoffs, often forgetting that the alternative to living with these new conditions is, for lack of a softer way of putting it, dying. Over 100,000 people in the US have been sacrificed on the altar of governmental denial and inaction, with more victims yet to come due to popular aversion to the measures imposed after belated governmental acceptance and action.

There are dark, discomfiting lessons in that reality about what this society values. But as the pandemic has revealed difficult truths about the American sense of social contract (namely that it doesn’t exist, to the surprise of few) it has also brought to light some fundamental truths about music and education. The fact that the pandemic hit during a school semester has provided what may be the largest natural socio-educational experiment of our time. And it’s been uncomfortable. There was no opportunity to plan for school closures, for stay-at-home orders, for social-distancing, or for transitions to online teaching: the changeover was brutally abrupt, and technological dimension of the adaptation has proven almost inconsequential in comparison to the mental or attitudinal shifts that it has compelled.


Finding No. 1) Schools are critical to the economy – just not in the way we usually pretend.

For all the altruistic, egalitarian rhetoric expended over the justification for modern universal schooling, the basic rationale for it hasn’t changed in over 200 years. It’s babysitting. This traces back to the early-mid 1800s in Britain where a series of Factory Acts were passed in response to the seismic social shifts brought on by the Industrial Revolution. One of the many Acts included legislation mandating that factory owners provide the children of workers with an education, as a simple means of keeping them off the street and supervised. Ivan Illich reiterated the “babysitting” function of schooling more recently (more recently being 1970), but the lesson here has been driven home on the most practical basis through the closure of schools. Schools are not just critical to the future economy, they are essential to the present economy through the child-care service they effect, allowing parents to work.


Finding No. 2) If you thought babysitting was hard, wait until you try teaching at the same time.

The politically popularized and utterly false image of teachers as individuals grossly overpaid for the simplest of tasks (i.e.: babysitting) has temporarily been shattered by the Covid-enforced transition of every parent to academic pedagogue (academic, under the charitable assumption the parents were teaching their children other positive non-academic matters before.) The general population is suddenly discovering that managing the behavioural element is quite hard enough even before attempting to manage it productively in the service of education. Spoiler alert: it’s quite easy to tell a kid something – and damned difficult to get them to learn it or act on it. But memories of both children and adult are regrettably, if not deliberately short, and the old perception of teachers will probably be resurrected to stagger around consuming more brains (Krugman calls these proponents of failed ideologies “zombies”)  in service of the short-sighted political movement to delicense/decertify the teaching profession -something Sistema in the US has actively been a part of, to its utter detriment.


Finding No. 3) We need to make music with others and for others

…to the extent that we’re willing to embrace the ersatz experience of making music with ourselves, courtesy of facilitating apps like Acapella, after which we then publish the results online, whether for approbation or ridicule, because of the fundamental truth that a performance is predicated upon, if not also validated by, an audience. Any audience. In this time of social distancing, the videos that have proliferated most broadly fall into two categories: those of ensembles synchronized outside of real time through digital means, or solitary artists delivering performances in public spaces as supportive gestures to their communities. In either case, an essential social dimension is being fulfilled, even if artificially so.


Finding No. 4) Technology is not the answer

No amount of digital trickery can truly recreate the act of live music making. Acapella and the like demands obedience to a preset click track, not the intensely personal, intuitive collaboration and negotiation in real time that defines great ensemble performances. Some efforts to create live ensembles over standard internet connections have been published online only to demonstrate how laughable the result is, even in this era of supposed technical achievement. And beyond live performing, we are discovering that no amount of online video instruction is a substitute for in-person teaching – especially in music but applicable to every other discipline as well. Human contact is fundamental to humanity, and if there is any silver lining to the tragedy that is Covid-19, it will be that we renew that contact with the heightened respect and appreciation it deserves.


Finding No. 5) A professional classical music industry is NOT essential.

The hollowness of the professional symphony orchestra’s self-justification for existence was laid bare by a few things, none more so than a naively impassioned Op-ed in the Globe and Mail from a conductor who attempted to articulate what is lost “when orchestras fall silent.” Peer through the false statements and false assumptions that are endemic in the industry and you realize quite quickly that whatever abstract and absurd “benefits” that exist are generally accrued by an insignificantly small proportion of the populace. If the pandemic doesn’t prompt deep industry introspection into the current conventional value proposition of a professional orchestra, nothing will. And technology is truly not the answer. If newspapers can’t get readers to pay a dollar for professional content, why would someone pay a full ticket price for the privilege of staring at their 13” laptop screen – or 4” phone for a symphony concert? Especially when orchestras are giving away that for free right now.

We do need a professional industry – just not for the reasons orchestras and their self-serving conductors have traditionally stated. I referred to a “current conventional value proposition”, which right now is merely a basket of clichés necessarily divorced from statistical or factual reality. Orchestras need a new value proposition if they are to survive, a new and genuine social justification for their ongoing existence. Amateur (educational and community) ensembles have an inherent social value in the service they provide to their membership – a service and experience people are willing to pay for, willing to pay to be a part of. We believe we need professional orchestras because professional orchestras tell us that. Of course they would. That shouldn’t be good enough any more.

Other lessons of the pandemic have yet to be imparted, but they are coming. Like 9/11, Covid has become a generation-defining event, changing the world in ways we have yet to fully understand. But the foremost lesson to date has been the forced reevaluation of who and what in our society is truly essential. We desperately need the farmers, the teachers, the clerks who stock the shelves and operate the registers at Walmart, or the nurses currently working 18-hour shifts. Not the hedge fund managers and investment bankers, not the C-Suite millionaires.

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