Virtual Children’s Music Classes – A Teachers Prospective

This is part one of a two-part interview with Rebecca Cauthron, certified Musikgarten teacher at East Dallas Children’s Music. Rebecca shares her experiences and insight into translating in-person children’s music classes to a virtual environment as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. For more on Rebecca and East Dallas Children’s Music, please see the end of this interview:

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little bit about your experience teaching the Musikgarten curriculum?

Rebecca: I have been teaching Musikgarten classes since 1997 (23 years). We offer Musikgarten classes from birth to Year 3 Keyboard students. I have taught all classes through Keyboard Year 2. Whereas I am able to teach all levels, my specialties are Music Makers at Home and Music Makers Around the World.   

Please share with us how you came about offering Musikgarten classes online, and what influenced that decision?

Rebecca: It was a forced decision due to Covid-19.

Did you offer in-person Musikgarten classes before the pandemic? Did you have previous experience with an online video “production”?

Rebecca: Initially, last year, we attempted a class by video with my son, because he was getting over being sick (contagious) and could not attend class, so we attended virtually. It was a huge learning curve for Cathy and me. After analyzing the outcome, we concluded that there would be some potentially detrimental behavioral, social, and musical issues that could result from courses being taught on-line. This was discussed in the context of being on-line and then returning to in-person classes and the resulting behavior of going back and forth. Fast forward six months later, Covid hit and we needed to continue classes through the spring, but our teaching location closed and everybody was quarantined. We wanted to continue to bring music into the lives of our families and give some normalcy to the children. Video production was a huge concern as we wanted to connect with the students as clearly as possible. We worked diligently together to find solutions to lighting, webcams, microphones, conferencing platforms, and PARENT COMMUNICATION/EDUCATION to try to create the easiest and most lifelike class possible.

What did you find were the biggest challenges or hurdles around transitioning from an in-person children’s music class to an online format?

Rebecca: I remember the day I went to our teaching location just before quarantining. I had one hour to grab everything I needed for the rest of my spring teaching. I packed my car with as much as I could fit and I now use my closet shelves as my instrument and materials storage facility. My shoes and sweaters were not happy about this! On a more serious note, the biggest challenges that I faced were creating instruments from objects that children could find at their house, and, more importantly, it was asking myself “what do I want to accomplish” with each piece of music, poem, and activity in the curriculum. After establishing the goal, I created an online experience for each activity that would be appropriate, meaningful (emotional), and valuable (cognitively) to each family and child.

The pacing is also a challenge, because you do not get the same feedback from students and so the class tends to feel as if it needs to go faster than it should. For pacing, “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” is my guide. I calm myself down to “Fred time;” Slower, well-thought out speaking with smooth transitions from one activity to the next. The computer screen is stimulating enough and there are so many distractions in their home space; it is so important to draw them into your world for the special time that you have with them each week.

How do you think the interaction between teacher and parent/child differs for online classes vs. in-person, and from your experience, what tips can you offer to make that interaction meaningful?

Rebecca: Many parents are desperate right now to keep a sense of normalcy for their children and being home so much of the time gets long and lonesome. Because of this, they are very excited to get online and participate with their child or help their child participate in the music class. The biggest difference between in-person and online are the distractions: From the random dog walking through the room, to toys lying around, to couches that beg to be climbed on, they are all part of the home environment that the child is comfortable with and is used to not having much structure or restriction. I can imagine what is going on in the head of the child: Now, Ms. Rebecca is on a computer screen IN THEIR OWN HOUSE (how exciting!) personally speaking to them and they want to show you everything; or, they wonder and get distracted by a toy that they enjoy playing with; or, they hear their little brother playing outside and they want to go, etc. At their own home, it can be distracting, and we have no control over that as a teacher except to instruct the parents to find a room/area in the house that can be set up for the child’s room to attend class each week. It needs to be the same place and clear of distractions:  No toys, pets, siblings, etc. just items for music class.

Another interaction problem:  Many teachers have said, jokingly…sort of…what a wonderful thing the mute key is. I, personally, find it to be a crushing blow to interpersonal relationship skills that are developed in my class and a huge wall. I look for suggestions at all times, but there is something so impersonal when I have to teach most of the class on mute. Although, from the parent’s perspective (I have a three-year-old in music classes right now!), when we are muted it puts the responsibility on us to be fully engaged with the child and the class, but it is also hard to step back and not talk over the teacher.  The teacher can make the interaction more meaningful by allowing students to talk to you at the beginning and end of class, even if that means listening to everyone one-on-one while everyone else is muted. During class, reference each student at least a few times: Look to see how Sally is tapping her sticks, notice the smile that Bob has when he is bouncing, etc. Verbalize all of this so the children feel connected throughout. When teaching older students, this is easier.

In our next blog post, we’ll pick back up as Rebecca continues to share her experience with teaching virtual children’s classes from a technical standpoint, as well as her thoughts on what is gained and/or lost from an in-person classroom structure vs. a virtual environment.

Rebecca Cauthron is an early childhood music educator at East Dallas Children’s Music, a flute instructor for Duncanville, TX ISD, and an adjunct flute professor at Dallas College Mountain View Campus. East Dallas Children’s Music, established in 1989 and founded by Cathy Mathia, offers a full range of Musikgarten classes from Birth through age 9 and adults. Cathy and Rebecca are joined by Musikgarten certified teacher Jaycie Skidmore at East Dallas Children’s Music. For more information on East Dallas Children’s Music and its talented and dedicated staff, click here. Click here for a full studio bio.