SEATTLE — Beth Anderson, a mother of two, suddenly found herself back in middle school music class this fall.
When school started, her sixth grade daughter Catelyn sat by her side while they learned and worked at the kitchen table. For the most part, Beth, an administrator at Seattle Colleges, tuned middle school out.
But she couldn't tune out Cuauhtemoc Escobedo, a 30-year Seattle Public Schools (SPS) veteran who teaches music and band at Eckstein Middle School. Through his virtual classroom, the tone of his voice, one that Beth said makes you sit down and listen, caught her ear. And "now I'm paying attention to middle school band class. I felt a little bit like I was his student."
Since schools shut down, districts have struggled to get students basic services: Meals. Wi-Fi. Instruction. But teachers of the most interactive subjects — such as physical education, art and music — have to go an extra mile to figure things out. Some kids live for these subjects — it's a time when they can be a little freer, move around their classrooms or homes, and be creative.
Music presents added barriers, with stories about how COVID-19 worked its way through choir practices adding an element of danger. And while technology allows for lectures and conversation, it's almost impossible to make live music using a video call; even solos don't always come through in real time. So teachers like Escobedo are turning into techies and DJs just to do their jobs.
Escobedo grew up in Mexico, where his parents were missionaries, and quickly took to music after learning the trombone. He'll try anything to engage and entertain his students, from keeping his class a purely positive zone — kids have enough stress right now, he says — to using technology in creative ways.
Live classes with Escobedo are for discussion, videos or demonstrations. In general, class online has gotten a lot quieter than the cacophonous din a colleague described the in-person version to be. For practice, he has 250 students submit files of their music, and he gives them feedback, one by one. Recently, he told his students he was considering offering to dump his face into a bowl of flour (a TikTok meme) or shave his head if they answer tough questions correctly.
Then there was the day Anderson heard the strains of a didgeridoo piping through her home. It was Escobedo, playing songs on the wind instrument developed by the aboriginal peoples of northern Australia. It sounded to Catelyn's ears like "voooom voooooom, very wavery and really fun."
Fifteen years ago, Escobedo began teaching a unit on the didgeridoo. He would build about 100 of them himself each year, using tubing and plumbing adapters. He taught students the special technique of circular breathing to play the didgeridoo, a method that's transferable to other wind instruments. To do the same this year would be harder — he'd have to disinfect everything and spend hours driving them from house to house. But he's contemplating asking parents for help with those tasks so he can bring back the didg.