Like many music educators, Remel Derrick (high school choir teacher at Abilene High School and choral composer– find his music here) found out about his school closing the week of spring break in March 2020. They were given a week to adjust and then made the switch to virtual. During remote teaching, his students recorded rounds, did research activities, practiced and recorded fluency drills and scales. His students watched choir performances and shared their impressions. And, unfortunately, some students stopped participating. “That was the saddest part,” Remel said, “to see kids really strong in the classroom, but not so strong with remote learning.”
In Fall 2020, school started in-person with COVID risk mitigation strategies. They needed more space in the choir room, so they removed risers and shells. Seats were placed wall-to-wall, creating room for physical distance. The baby grand piano was replaced with a smaller, electronic keyboard that took up less room. They kept masks on and sanitized chairs. Students found the set-up jarring, but they followed COVID recommendations that would still allow them to learn and sing. In Spring, students were mostly back in the classroom. Periodically, students had to leave class, letting Remel know “I’m going to get my vaccine.” That was uplifting.
The 2020-21 school year came with challenges and joys outside of music-making. For Remel, he knew the students wanted to be doing more, but teachers could only facilitate events that were within boundaries of COVID regulations. It was frustrating for everyone– students and teachers alike. On the other hand, the community was incredible. “We are in this together” was stronger than Remel had ever experienced with his students. There was a tightening of an already close-knit group.
As they look to next year, some things from pre-COVID will return, such as risers, shells, and the Boston baby grand (after a good tuning). However, because of COVID-19, there are a few additions to Remel’s classes. For example, there will be a renewed commitment to music literacy. While they worked on music literacy pre-COVID, but Remel found ideas that he’ll take with him into Fall 2021.
There are added health concerns now, too. Masks will no longer be required. In addition, students (and teachers) will be managing post traumatic stress. Knowing this, Remel is planning to leave space for his students to share their experiences. “[It can be] hard to talk about it when you are in the middle,” but afterwards, students may want to share, and may need additional support. He and his colleague (Wendy Weeks) will create safe spaces for their students; much of this will happen through music. He is looking for texts addressing collective grief, singing, and community. Finding the right texts is always important, but especially so this next year. As Remel said of his teaching, “You’re going to learn a lot of things in choir, and some of them will be about music.”
Remel wears another hat: choral composer. He never really thought his music would be performed, but over the past year, his music has seen performances across the country. The changes necessitated by COVID-19 gave him the chance to meet singers and conductors who performed his music. It also gave him a lot more time for personal reflection. “I needed that creative outlet [composing] to deal with some of the fear that came as a result of what we were being confronted with.” Being home gave Remel a chance to write, think, reflect, and sometimes, simply be still. Stillness, he believes, is something that was forced on him by the pandemic. And it wasn’t such a bad thing.
As he looks toward the future, he’s evaluating how to share his music; he’s also becoming more comfortable with being labeled a composer, a word that took him a long time to use to describe himself. As he spoke about working through his own self-doubt, he reiterated that he will “always respond to people singing, purchasing, and recommending [his] music.” It was clear that people singing his music was a joyful and moving experience to him.
As far as his compositions, he’s focused on finding texts that are true to who he is as a composer. What was striking during our conversation was this moment… Remel explained that he lives in his world all the time; he’s constantly in it. He has not found a way to talk about that through music (or, he implied, he’s not sure if that even should be his focus). When it comes to addressing equity, he says “Let’s just do it… in our own spheres of influence.” As he thinks about his own composing, he keeps coming back to the question: “How can I present music that does not divide, but brings us together?”
On a personal note, Remel is one of the kindest, most genuine people I have met. We are fortunate to have him as a colleague. His music is thoughtful and intuitive (so make sure you check it out… here).