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

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 adapted lessons. Her students are finally getting their hands on ukuleles 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 instrument sharing, among others.

Even after other subjects and activities returned to normal, school music classes, bands and ensembles hadn't, 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 haven't 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: 

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."

Randall McKenzie/CBC
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 inspires new music fans, concert-goers, 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.

Brandan Albert/MusiCounts
Brandan Albert/MusiCounts

She praises Canadian educators for their creativity in teaching the music curriculum while bound by restrictions on singing and playing wind instruments, for instance. 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 currently can help maybe one in six schools, so we have a ways to go," she said.

Barry Roden/MusiCounts
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 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.

Patrick Callaghan/CBC
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 band student 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 everybody 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 utterly 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," she said. "Music is like 90 per cent about collaboration." 


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," she 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."