The schools are once again alive with the sound of music — but the pandemic took a toll

Winnipeg music teacher Jewel Casselman is back in her element, leading elementary-aged students in song and guiding them on musical instruments after three years of pandemic restrictions and adapting lessons. Her students are finally getting their hands on the ukulele she purchased back in 2019, for instance, and they’re having a blast.

“You get to make music. You don’t really get to do that in math class,” noted 11-year-old Arun Sharma, a Grade 5 student.

“When we couldn’t do [music class] in the pandemic, I was a little upset,” added Grade 4 student Anna Lockerby, who’s nearly 10.

The pandemic silenced traditional music education with a raft of restrictions — no singing, no playing of wind instruments, limits on indoor sessions and no sharing of instruments, among others.

Even after other subjects and activities returned to normal, school music classes, bands and ensembles had not, with some only back this school year. That interruption has had a definite impact, say music educators: a gap in music skills, a swath of deteriorating, unplayed instruments and multiple cohorts who have not experienced or have let music class fade from their lives.

Yet passionate students, teachers and advocates are striking up the band to remind Canadians of the value of music in the classroom.

WATCH | Music is back in Canadian schools, but the pandemic has taken a toll, say educators:

Music programs struggle with lack of funding, aging instruments

Many music programs have now resumed in schools across Canada after being shut down by the pandemic. But some teachers say a lack of funding and aging instruments are making it difficult to run these programs effectively.

Losing music at school was difficult for many, said Casselman, whose students currently include second and third-graders who’ve hardly sung at all due to the pandemic, as well as Grade 5s who haven’t sung since their primary years.

“Music is in them and it’s all around them — and then when they couldn’t play it or sing it or dance, it was really hard,” said the 35-year teaching veteran. “[We’ve] had to backtrack and go back and reteach things.”

Learning music “can help you with much more stuff than just singing. It can help you with finding a rhythm or hearing stuff that might be a bit harder, and identifying sounds,” said nine-year-old Brian Huggard, one of Casselman’s Grade 4 students. “Sometimes it can actually sound really good.”

Middle school-aged students -- two males on the left and two females on the right -- stand smiling and flanking a silver-haired music teacher, whose arms are around them.
Casselman, center, is seen with Grade 4 and 5 students, including, from the left, Brian Huggard, Arun Sharma, Anna Lockerby and Smayana Sharma. The veteran educator was named 2023 MusiCounts teacher of the year at the Junos. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

From kindergarten onward, learning music stimulates student minds and “benefits their brain growth and their creativity,” said Casselman, who was named the 2023 MusiCounts teacher of the year at last week’s Juno Awards.

It also crosses into other subject areas, she added, and inspired new music fans, concertgoers, musicians, producers and more.

“In music class, when you learn music, you can, like, find your voice,” said Grade 4 student Smayana Sharma, 9.

‘A core subject’

The Canadian public school system’s music education programs were already hurting prior to COVID-19, “so when the pandemic hit, it just created a situation that was almost untenable,” said Kristy Fletcher, president of MusiCounts, the national music education charity associated with The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

A woman bends to hand items to students seen seated, from behind.  A man smiles at a student with his hand raised and music notes appear on the blackboard behind them.
MusiCounts president Kristy Fletcher participated in one of the charity’s Band Aid Celebration events with singer-songwriter and musician Dallas Green of City and Color in Toronto in December 2018. (Brandan Albert/MusiCounts)

She praised Canadian educators for their creativity in teaching the music curriculum while limited by restrictions on singing and playing wind instruments, for example. However, she notes that another pandemic rule — no sharing of instruments — has also severely hampered school music going forward.

“The sharing of instruments is fundamental to the music program because teachers don’t have enough instruments. Music programs don’t have enough instruments for each student to have their own,” Fletcher said.

With instruments at many schools typically 20 or more years old, music teachers were already doing whatever possible to repair and keep that aging inventory in playing order, she continued.

Add in a hiatus of a few pandemic years and now, “in many schools, you just have instruments that are literally unplayable and unusable.”

On average, Canadian schools receive less than $500 a year for music programs, according to Fletcher. Some have no money for a music program and require fundraising in order to operate.

MusicCounts provides instruments, equipment and resources to Canadian schools and “we can currently help maybe one in six schools, so we have a way to go,” she said.

Four smiling adult women stand behind a group of 16 sitting and kneeling elementary students, alongside bright signage, drums and other percussion instruments.
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, standing from left, singer Ruth B., Fletcher and St. Elizabeth Elementary School music teacher Natalie Andrews poses with students from the Ottawa school at a MusiCounts event in 2017. ‘STEM programs are incredibly important,’ Fletcher said. ‘But so is music. So are the arts.’ (Barry Roden/MusiCounts )

After countless conversations with administrators, Fletcher understands that music programs are regularly the last line item on very stretched school budgets. Still, she feels they absolutely deserve more consideration.

“We talk a lot about STEM and obviously STEM programs are incredibly important.… But so is music. So are the arts,” she said.

Fewer student musicians amid COVID-19

The return of music classes has been broken through the “exceptionally quiet” school hallways of the past few years, said Ottawa high school music teacher Lani Sommers.

Laggy online sessions, unwieldy band practices outdoors or awkward classes via video conferencing have mostly disappeared, but music teachers are facing a new obstacle — a noticeable drop in student players compared to pre-pandemic times.

“Students didn’t sign up for music class in order to play from home or online. They signed up to play and make music together,” Sommers said.

That matters because in-school exposure and experience gives students an equal opportunity to learn. “The effects of having no elementary instrumental music for two years has really trickled up to high school,” she said. “Not everybody can afford music lessons privately.”

Beyond benefiting students’ cognitive development, motor skills, hand-eye co-ordination and creativity, Sommers pointed out that music education can also positively affect social emotional growth: students’ ability to listen to and collaborate with others, set goals, build resilience, a sense of community and more.

A smiling woman in glasses, a denim shirt and leggings holds her flute while standing behind a music stand, with a family living room seen behind her.
‘We need to make a little bit of noise and make sure that people know what was lost [due to the pandemic],’ Ottawa high school music teacher Lani Summers. ‘If you were never a student band and you didn’t participate, then you don’t know what you’re missing.’ (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

“We need to make a little bit of noise and make sure that people know what was lost, because… if you were never a student band and you didn’t participate, then you don’t know what you’re missing,” said Sommers, who is also a volunteer with the Ontario Band Association.

“Music truly is a universal language that everyone can learn.”

Music ’90 per cent about collaboration’

Ottawa high school senior Isla Rennison has played flute since Grade 7 and added percussion not long after through her cadet troop, but she truly didn’t realize how core music was to her life until the pandemic hit. Online lag prevented her from performing synchronously with classmates. The alternative — everyone but the conductor on mute or playing along to recordings — left her feeling completely isolated.

“Listening to other people, working on my dynamics, working on my timing… you don’t learn those without playing with someone else in the room,” he said. “Music is like 90 per cent about collaboration.”

A teen girl with long blonde hair and wearing headphones shares a small smile in this screen capture from a video interview.  A dining room hutch is seen behind her.
Accustomed to making music alongside other students, Ottawa flute and percussion player Isla Rennison said performing alone at home or in laggy online sessions left her feeling incredibly isolated. (CBC)

Pressing forward, the 17-year-old is now trying to quickly level up her skills while also dealing with the shortfall of musical peers. Like Sommers, she’s seen students drop music during COVID-19 — including friends who played for years, but moved on after becoming disengaged with pandemic lessons.

“We don’t have enough students to make a senior ensemble, so we have to bring in Grade 11s, even Grade 10s, to the mix to help boost our ensemble, which means we’re not able to play those pieces that are really challenging to us,” he said, given the experience gap of the younger players, whose ranks have also thinned.

“[We’ve] lost two years of building that skill, working together, progressing, learning.”

Rennison has joined Sommers in visiting Ottawa-area elementary schools to perform, introduce kids to different instruments and hopefully inspire them to play.

“A lot of people don’t feel like they can pursue music,” said the teen, who along with playing in school ensembles and at cadets has also started a punk band with friends.

“You don’t need to have a future in music [professionally] to pursue music.… I don’t think I’ll ever not be a musician,” she said. “Music brings me a lot of joy.”

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