With Coronavirus infection levels consistently low on the Isle of Man and the island of Guernsey, a sense of normality has slowly returned, and with it, music education has resumed. Both living and working on islands now almost free from Covid-19, Tim Wright, Head of the Guernsey Music Service, and Maggie Richardson, Head of Isle of Man Music Service, reflect on their experiences of the last 8 months as they begin to emerge from the pandemic. For those of us still contending with lockdowns, circuit-breakers, and tier systems, they hope to share a message of hope.
“If you’re sitting there in your pyjamas – there is light at the end of the tunnel…”
We write this having recently been involved in a Music Mark Zoom call for members from various ‘Wider UK Music Services’. We both must admit more than a little guilt after that call in that we both felt that our situation was almost normal amidst a sea of sometimes quickly changing uncertainly in the various parts of the UK that are still suffering the significant ongoing consequences of COVID-19.
We have both since had time to reflect on our situations since that call and write to offer you some hope that in the not too distant future, things will return to some kind of normality.
Tim Wright – Head of Guernsey Music Service
Last week I reported to the AGM of our very supportive Friends body, giving them an overview of our year which for the purpose of their AGM spanned from November 2019 to November 2020. In my previous report to them I had spoken of our trip to Canada in summer 2019, followed by workshop opportunities for our pupils that were hosted by visiting opera companies and string quartets.
On this occasion I spoke of our year from November 2019, recalling our Christmas concerts and carolling around town. I recalled how we had continued with our Jazz fundraiser for the start of January 2020, our showcase concerts for the end of January which then segued into the start of the Guernsey Eisteddfod. I’m sure many of you will recognise the relentless nature of the musical year, where one concert/opportunity quickly follows the last, all being fed into by our weekly lessons and ongoing support for teaching and learning in schools.
I then looked on the Friends Facebook page at our entries from March 2020. We went from celebrating the performance of some of our choirs to a literal musical cliff edge.
I looked at my messages to our parents and carers, first cancelling our Saturday Music Centre, (as it mixes pupils from all island schools) and then quickly moving onto explaining our plans to provide online resources and feedback.
We had our last face to face (albeit socially distanced in a school hall) staff meeting on the 24th March and the minutes read like a War Cabinet meeting. We discussed emergency access to our offices, our online provision, arranged to audition our senior players for next year’s ensembles online, how we would produce a demonstration video for our Year 5 starters and what we could do about ABRSM and Trinity examinations and online performances.
We then went off to our various homes and into our virtual world. We felt almost alone in finding solutions to these problems at that time and all felt the weight of responsibility for providing effective pathways for our young people to continue their music making which we all know is so important to their development and well-being,
We had to establish systems with the appropriate level of safeguarding that allowed us to feedback on what our young people were doing. We were mindful of those that did not have easy access to devices that would enable them to receive the support of our team. For us, Google Workspace helped us a great deal in being able to send and receive audio and video from our pupils that we could either send audio, video or written feedback to. The Facebook pages of our Friends body allowed us to post group messages in a way that helped people all feel part of what we were going through together and we then used these pages to post the first of our online ensemble videos that we started in April.
We were lucky to have some technically minded members of the team that had the right equipment and skills to put these together as they certainly helped buoy the spirits of our pupils, parents and wider community.
Eventually our Year 13s produced their own video, and it was fantastic to see that engagement, ownership and buy-in to the whole process. We also managed to produce a poignant video of ‘Softly as I Leave You’ in which our Year 13 leavers sang. Not a dry eye in the house at that point!
Guernsey was in the fortunate position at that point to be able to keep its borders closed and with no cases on the island we emerged from lockdown on the 20th June.
At present things remain as close to normal as possible. Guernsey is 24 miles square and this is the longest I have spent on it since I have lived here. I have recently completed the advice for our schools should we find ourselves in various stages of lockdowns throughout the winter and I am very much hoping to be able to plan another off-island trip for our young people which is really important for children from small communities.
As I write this I have a strange mixture of emotions. In a way it is cathartic to look back at the significant peaks and troughs of lockdown and the bumpy road out of it. I recall the difficulty I had in communicating the importance of music to some of the people who were making the decisions about access to schools. I remember the pupils who communicated with us that they were desperate for Music Centre on a Saturday to return so they could be with like-minded people and make music with them. I remember the messages from pupils and parents alike who thanked us for our support over lockdown which helped their child’s mental health and well-being. I remember the messages of thanks and support from some of the 45000 people that viewed our online ensemble videos.
What I remember most though is our return to group music making on the 20th June. The joy of our young people was evident to see and the relief of all our team to come out the other side was also obvious (this could be because they did not have to endure any more online staff meetings!). We all have our own views on working and communicating remotely, but I do look back with a certain amount of satisfaction of what we achieved during lockdown. Take a helicopter view of your work over the last 9 months and I’m pretty sure you will also share a similar sense of achievement.
It won’t be long now…
Maggie Richardson – Head of Isle of Man Music Service
The Manx Schools closed on March 23rd and, just like all our colleagues elsewhere in the British Isles, we found ourselves thrown into a situation where we didn’t know how we’d manage to keep our musicians engaged or whether we’d get them back once all this was over – whenever that was likely to be. Had we even heard of Zoom or Teams before then? Unable to teach students ‘live’ via those platforms, as a Service we spent the first week of lockdown collating resources and developing strategies so we could start to support our students, working from our own homes. Our teachers were also on standby to support the school hubs if necessary.
At first, many of our students were overwhelmed by the volume of work being sent to them from school and so we had to be patient, knowing that schoolwork would take priority, especially for our KS4s and 5s. We managed to get those already entered for Trinity and ABRSM graded exams through the new online assessment methods, very much in their infancy, with valuable guidance from the local representative. Any year 13s wanting to were able gain UCAS points through the ABRSM – which, in this year of all years, made a difference for some and did much to alleviate feelings of anxiety and exam stress. As time progressed we found more students engaging with us and that was gratifying. The feedback we received from parents and some schools was also encouraging.
We developed a range of ‘how to’ videos and recorded teacher feedback for any audio files sent in by students. Podcasts and virtual performances were popular and we found that most engagement came when our students could see us. Many of our students started to play outside their houses on Thursday evenings as everyone clapped for the key workers and the sense of community was sustained in some small way through music. As excellent as the internationally available, professionally produced resources were, and we did appreciate them, we found that our students wanted the comfort of engaging and learning with people they knew. We quickly learned that the wellbeing element of what we were offering was as important – if not more so – as the music. We are currently building upon and developing our remote learning offering in case we do have to close the schools again but with the benefit of hindsight and knowledge of what our students really want from us in such difficult circumstances.
The Island’s borders were closed straightaway at the beginning of lockdown in March and so we were able to contain the spread of the virus, but not without early-on tragedy. Lockdown continued until after what should have been the TT race fortnight. It was quite disconcerting not to have the constant hum of 40,000 motorbikes for those 2 weeks! Schools re-opened fully with no social distancing or mask requirements on June 22nd. While we were hearing about the safety measures being taken in schools ‘across’ in the UK, here we were so very grateful to be able to start teaching once again in schools, almost the same as ‘normal’ but of course with strategies in place. Borders were still restricted but we were able to operate freely but cautiously within our Island bubble.
We decided not to recommence our Saturday ensemble activities until September and I must admit to feeling somewhat trepidatious prior to that first morning, however there was absolutely no need! Our wonderful students were there in force, all smiling, full of energy and ready to go! And goodness! They are devouring the repertoire!
Our pupil numbers have grown at every key stage and we are starting to run out of certain instruments! We are disappointed that our planned Senior Orchestra tour to Italy isn’t likely to happen for a while and we did look at possibly taking advantage of the (currently closed) air corridor with Guernsey but, sadly, the uncertainty surrounding GCSEs and A levels next year is preventing our students from wanting to commit to anything just yet. In the meantime we are blessed to be able to carry on with our activities much the same as before, and to enjoy making music together.
We are 2 weeks away from our big annual Christmas showcase concert and our 200+ performers are so very excited. It is likely to be a sell out and we are looking forward to hearing our beautiful concert hall, the Villa Marina, resounding to our ‘Joy to the World’ finale. I always heave a massive sigh of relief after this big annual concert but I suspect the emotions will be very much more powerful this year.