This was such a fun conversation with me. Stephanie is a fantastic musician and passionate music educator. She’s also my sister-in-law, and I love learning from her. I wasn’t able to include everything from our conversation. Stephanie is an incredibly engaging and thoughtful programmer, and I highly recommend just reaching out to her and asking her what she has planned. It’s inspiring.
Stephanie Gravelle, Middle and High School Music Teacher at The International School of Beijing, was on break when her school moved to virtual instruction due to COVID-19. They first used an asynchronous model, which was helpful, especially as teachers navigated some unique obstacles (ex: In China, Google and all of its products are blocked). Also, many teachers and students had been vacationing and didn’t have laptops, instruments, or other materials. Stephanie did one (optional) virtual choir, but was on the fence about the value. It was good for the community– one person commented “it’s so good to hear kids singing again.” But students were living with an unknown number of people. Imagine, Stephanie said, being a 12-year-old and going through a voice change… of course you wouldn’t want to practice in your own house.
When they returned mid-September, many students were in-person, but many teachers weren’t back; in addition to visa issues, teachers were trying to navigate their return in a global pandemic. There were teacher assistants for teachers who were away. For students at home, it wasn’t choral singing. Eventually students who were virtual went to an online school, without a music option.
In January 2021, high school students worked on solo recording projects: chose a song, analyzed text, prepared music, while Stephanie gave periodic lessons to students. She kept middle school students engaged with vocal exercises, stretches, sight-reading, canons, etc. She sang with students, and had to trust they were participating. She made tracks for rehearsals. Students completed practice journals– even if they didn’t practice. She wanted them to think about the music. She offered a virtual choir, but many students opted out. In class, students participated in listening discussions. Students who never said a word in class had great discussions through chat. In-person, she hasn’t figured out a way to replicate that. Still, it was inspiring to see students fully engaged.
Parents weren’t allowed on campus, so the performing arts department held a festival in April and invited the whole PK-high school. For three days, every hour, there was a concert, drama performance, or other performance art event, including their choir concert. Elementary kids were able to watch high school students. It was great for the school community.
After the performing arts festival, Stephanie wasn’t sure students missed evening concerts. She reflected: Do we need after school concerts? Can these concerts interact with the community in a different way? During COVID, there were no concerts or rehearsals on weekends or late nights. She went home and spent more time with family. And that was nice. Is there a way to hold this up as standard, instead of normalizing late nights and long rehearsals? She thought about Brené Brown– “It shouldn’t be normal.” How can she, and how can our profession, pursue doing things during the day? And “How can we do things that give us more time for family, friends, or even ourselves?”
This past year, she also did an audit on herself. She created a spreadsheet and listed the repertoire she gave students– everything they listened to and all the materials she used. The spreadsheet included time period, religious background, gender perspective, etc. She wanted to see what she used and then ask “do I want to change anything? If so, how?” She set up weekly themes where she highlighted different genres of music and a variety of performers. This work will continue as she asks “How am I amplifying various voices, and how can I diversify that amplification?” In addition to finding culture bearers of musics, she plans to teach these musics like they might be taught in their origin environment.
Each international school has a different instructional set-up, but there are some shared silver linings. For example, students recorded their solos for a virtual solo and ensemble. Participation levels increased dramatically due to the online format. With so many things being held virtually, Stephanie was able to attend more professional development, such as a Village Harmony course and yes, she went to the national ACDA conference for the first time.
As far as the fall, repertoire is selected and goals are set. She knows things can change quickly, but it makes her feel better to be prepared. She also recognizes that students are navigating a lot– not just their own changes, but also the stresses that many of their parents have. Some students are struggling with how to have a discussion or work collaboratively. Technique is very important, but right now they need to come into a room that makes them feel happy, safe, and wanted. Her focus will be what it always is: find the heart of her singers and have their hearts connected. This has always been where they get the best sound, and it’s even more true now.