Étude COVID-19: Music making as an innovative catalyst for hope and support in young learners

Matthew Yanko

University of British Columbia 
Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy 
Vancouver, Canada

To Cite this Article

Yanko, M. (2022). Étude COVID-19: Music making as an innovative catalyst for hope and support in young learners . p-e-r-f-o-r-m-a-n-c-e, 6.


The current study unfolds during the pandemic of the coronavirus COVID-19, whereby people throughout the world have turned to music as a means to develop a sense of togetherness. As an elementary school music specialist and university instructor of music curriculum and pedagogy, both of my classrooms are closed, and I have to revert to digital technology to continue teaching. Written as an evocative autoethnography, this study follows my experience with the teacher candidates in my university course as we engage in discourse and music making during the pandemic. I examine how teachers can position themselves to sustain foundations for learning that foster music thinking and doing from afar, and how digital media can support this instruction. As a result of that, I come to discover the role music can play in supporting the socioemotional well-being of young learners, and the importance of maintaining group learning experiences with music during challenging times. Thus, this study illustrates how teachers continue to seek to draw upon their creative capacities—by boundary pushing, inventing, boundary breaking, and aesthetically organising—to scaffold music making and understanding in contexts that explicitly invite learners to engage imaginatively and stretch their generative and evaluative capacities. 


Creativity; music education; teacher education; autoethnography; COVID-19; coronavirus; digital technology; socioemotional learning.

An étude is a considerably difficult piece of music that is designed to provide practical support and guidance to develop a particular technical ability.

Situating the study (auto-isolate e agitato)  

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote “[he] who sings in grief, procures relief” (1907, p. 169), and as the coronavirus COVID-19 spreads across Italy, causing massed isolation, Italians across the country join together to make music from afar (Spary & Braithwaite, 2020). Seeing videoclips on Facebook, YouTube, and newsfeeds about this brings back memories of my childhood, and reminds me of my Italian grandparents and how song was always an important part of their lives and mine. Although far from Italy, I also have to practice social distancing in Vancouver, Canada. As an elementary school music specialist and an instructor at the University of British Columbia, both of my classrooms are closed. In order to continue to support the teacher candidates in my course on music curriculum and pedagogy, I have to adapt the final classes to a digital platform. As online instruction differs greatly from teaching on campus, I have to be innovative in order to continue to empower the teacher candidates to not lose sight of developing and guiding student-centered learning experiences, especially during these turbulent days.   

As I prepare for my online sessions, I notice that the music making in Italy has had an influence on a global scale (Taylor, 2020). Music is closely linked with human emotions, and cannot be regarded as simply a disembodied system of relationships between sounds, as it can be used to stimulate mass emotion (Storr, 1992). People from around the world are singing and making music in ways that are meaningful to their community and selves. As the week progresses, I watch videoclips of opera singers performing daily from their balconies (Macdonell, 2020), and celebrity musicians using the digital world to continue to make music for their fans. The hashtag #TogetherAtHome is being used by One Republic, John Legend, Lindsey Stirling, and Shawn Mendez to perform at-home streaming concerts. Bono has written and performed a song, “Let your love be known,” for those in Italy (Beaumont-Thomas, 2020), while others have Coronavirus hits on Spotify’s charts in multiple countries (Leight, 2020). Considering the above, I think about this increasingly digital age, and how exposure to music is everywhere, both by design and by accident—I posit that most of the mentioned videoclips have already been seen by the children who regularly attend our classes.  

The elementary school classroom is a place and space that should evoke students to learn, explore, and make music with an artistic mindset, and as such, scaffolding creativity in this environment can lead to beautiful, undiscovered wonders with music. Yet, during times like these, I wonder if teachers can still enable their students to think, pursue, and engage with music in creative ways? Thus, I question how teachers can sustain providing opportunities for creativity while their classroom doors are locked. In my university course, I present the teacher candidates with music provocations from Italy and the rest of the world to provoke discourse on the power of music during this pandemic. In doing so, I examine how teachers can position themselves to sustain foundations for learning that foster music thinking and doing from afar, and the role of digital media in supporting instruction. I also seek to explore the extent to which educators can continue to support the socioemotional well-being of students through music in troubling times.  

Grounding Literature (Largo, quasi sostenuto)  

  As I plan for my final sessions with my class of teacher candidates, my mind is preoccupied with all that is going on in the world. I ponder over the role of music in my life, and think about how its effect on individuals and communities is dependent on the engagement by those involved—as illustrated in the videoclips of Italy during the pandemic. I reflect on music’s dynamic nature and ability to involve the performer and listener, and the effect to which it impacts our emotions and our individual and collective identities (Williams, 2006). With that in mind, many elementary school students see music as a way of connecting with friends, escaping bad moods, and releasing pent-up energy (Campbell, 2018). In adjusting to an online classroom, I learn that I have to engage with my creative capacities to develop opportunities for real-time music making, as the digital world restricts many of the affordances that I tend to take for granted in a live setting—such as performing in an ensemble, or composing with classmates.   

  There is value in music making in a social setting because it can enable a joint sense of shared action, and some believe that this ability to share is woven into the human capacity for culture (Tomasello et al., 2005). Likewise, Sloboda (1985) posits “Society requires organization for its survival…The organization of a society must be expressed to a greater extent through transient actions and the way people interact with each other. Music, perhaps, provides a unique mnemonic framework within which humans can express, by the temporal organization of sound and gesture, the structure of their knowledge and of social relations” (p. 267). In the case of the current global situation, the act of music making enables us to create some sort of order out of chaos—”For rhythm imposes unanimity upon the divergent; melody imposes continuity upon the disjointed, and harmony imposes compatibility upon the incongruous” (Menuhin, 1972, p. 14). I have observed that the context of music making during the pandemic tends not to consist of a performer singing to an audience, but a polyphonic engagement that connects those in isolation together, whereby everyone internalizes the music and responds in some manner—dancing, tapping, singing, or playing an instrument. Thus, they not only feel the music, but can relate to it and develop a sense of togetherness.  

The making of music together can result in an uplifting feeling, whereby differences and subjectivities dissolve into wordless sounds and grooves. In such circumstances, music has the ability to create a communal feeling and offer a sense of oneness. I see this often in the elementary school classroom—preparing for concerts, performing in a choir, or during projects and music explorations. Alongside that, research on the role of music in relation to notions of collective identity and community among different diaspora populations has revealed much about the connective properties of music (Whiteley et al., 2004). The aforementioned music making experiences in this pandemic illuminate how music can bond people that are displaced, and bridge the geographic distance between them—providing a shared sense of collective identity articulated by a symbolic sense of community. Over the past few weeks, some of my elementary school students have parents in countries where they are in isolation, or in a state of lockdown, and distant from their loved ones. Thus, to me there is value in encouraging my students to engage in creative, digital ways of communicating music learning experiences with their families—doing so, not only illustrates the learning that unfolds, but also brings hope, joy, and regularity to their lives during these arduous days.   

Music empowers us, encourages us, puts us on a path to health and well-being (Campbell, 2018), and can be used as a tool for action that affords health possibilities (Stige, 2006). Music therapists have shown value in allowing young people to express themselves through their preferred ‘problem’ music, with one study showing that this freedom leads to improved moods and relationships (Wooten, 1992). Also, Research by Yanko and Yap (2020) illustrates the potentials of music making to develop the behavioural and emotional abilities of young learners. Thus, as music embraces and impacts a widespread set of moods, emotions, and feelings, it allows us to wallow our worries, invites reflection, and encourages us to work through difficult moments. That being said, McFerran and Saarikallio (2013) postulates that few researchers have asked young people to provide information about the ways that music impacted their mood and lives.  

The classroom should be an inviting space to construct and explore knowledge, and an environment that nurtures concentration, creativity, and motivation to independently learn and explore. However, in times like these it is challenging to support such ideals when our classrooms are closed and we have to revert to new learning contexts. Nonetheless, we should still strive to evoke those ideals by using our imaginative capacities to posit alternative realities. When we tap into imagination, we become able to break with what is supposedly fixed and finished, objectively and independently real. Thus, enabling us to see beyond the “common-sensible” and to carve out new orders in experience—to glimpse what might be, to form notions of what should be and what is not yet (Greene, 1995, p. 19). That mindset is essential in order to confront this turbulent period in education, as the development of creative music making experiences have the potential to provide powerful opportunities to challenge the blandness of life and help students imagine their world differently.  

From the preceding literate, I compile notes for my university sessions. I compose provocations for discourse that focus on music as a means to encourage young learners to express themselves in ways that are unthinkable. I also reflect on the connected power of music to develop a sense of community, which can be made possible through digital media. As I prepare for my course, I am excited, yet nervous, to explore this uncharted territory with the teacher candidates, as there is importance in continuing to support students, but also their teachers during these difficult days. 

Storying the study (rubato ma espressivo) 

Stories readily incorporate themselves into our felt experiences—in hearing or telling the story we vicariously live it, and the travails of its characters embed themselves into our own flesh (Abram, 1996, p. 77). Contemporary ethnographic methods that bring storytelling into the inquiry process illustrate new ways of writing that re-conceptualizes teaching and learning. In the current investigation, I employ an autoethnographic storying approach (Ellis, 2004) that empowers me to create stories written in a creative non-fictional style based on empirical data—observations, notes, and artefacts. In doing so, I pursue essences and meanings rather than portraying and representing precise facts. The story in this paper is written from the perspective of the teacher, from the self or auto, but it is also composed in dialogue with the teacher candidates from the online sessions.   

Ellis (1991) argues for passionate and evocative writing that examines emotions emotionally, tells concrete and embodied stories about self and other, includes the author’s emotions, and opens up emotional conversations with readers. Thus, to compose an autoethnography that takes place in a distressing time, I reflect on Lee and Gouzouasis’ (2016) painful story concerning the tragic death of a beginning music teacher. Their research blends music and story to transform understandings through creative engagement and push the boundaries to evoke visceral and emotional responses regarding suicide. With that in mind, I engage with autoethnography as a means of writing critical reflections based on concrete details, personal feelings, and emotions. Lesa Lockford (2002) describes this emotionality and sensitivity in alternative ethnographic texts as “stories that move [her] to stillness…call[ing] [her] to take pause, to reflect, to feel” (p. 76). Thus, this framework empowers me to evoke the teacher candidates and I to reflect on our creative capacities to confront the unknown and develop music making experiences for young learners from afar.   

Vignette: innovations in teaching music during a pandemic 

I log on to the video conferencing platform and await the teacher candidates to join me. My mind wanders to memories of my childhood, where my Italian grandparents would always sing songs aloud while baking, making wine and sausages, or doing yard work. As the class slowly settles in, I present them with a video of the music making that is occurring it Italy.  


“As you can see, their performances are very emotional. Music can affect the mind and the body, and the way we think and feel. Music has been found to regulate emotions, and it also has been recognized as effective in reducing anxiety, fighting depression, and boosting the immune system (Bicknell, 2009). However, there appears to be a lack in research regarding the way young people perceive music to impact their mood and lives. That being said, with my elementary school students, I have done many different things to explore mode, feelings, and expression. A few years ago, I used the pop-up book ‘Colour Monster,’ by Anna Llenas (2015) as a starting point to depict colours and feelings through music. Last year, my students and I examined the art of Pablo Picasso and they composed music based on feelings in relation to his painting ‘Guernica’ (Yanko & Gouzouasis, 2020). What are some other ideas to motive your students to explore and express their moods and feelings through music?” 

Shawn waves his hand in front of his webcam to gain everyone’s attention. “I like the composing route you took. I could do something like that with my class. Although they don’t have access to instruments, they can use found objects at home to create compositions about feelings—similar to how we explored Murray Schafer’s (1976) soundscape compositions.”  

Marcus adds, “I like the abstract nature of Shawn’s idea because music helps me find the words to express how I feel when I can’t find them myself. And during times like these we have to be creative in how we provide opportunities for our students to express themselves. However, we have to be careful. We don’t want students mulling over feelings that are negative, or focusing only on the troubling aspects of this pandemic. There needs to be elements in their compositions that are positive.” 

Jessica states, “When I’m down, a sad song is exactly what I need, so I don’t feel so alone. My students could map their feelings in a song journal. They could write down their emotions from day to day. Doing this would show how emotions develop and change. It would also show the songs that best represent their feelings on days that are challenging, calm, upliftin…”  

“I would like my grade three students to create a movement piece at home that illustrates their feelings through body movements to music. They could perhaps perform them to one another online…somehow,” interjects Sara. 

“You mean using those efforts of Rodolph Laban, like pathways, levels, directions, and qualities like strong and light?” Anita inquires, as she punches and twirls her hands in front of the webcam.   

After everyone has an opportunity to comment, I change the direction of our discussion. “There is value in the community aspect of music making because it bridges people together. It erases the line that defines all borders and allows a group of distinct people feel the same thing at the same time. What are some ideas that you can use to scaffold group learning from afar?”  

“Remember that App you showed us in a previous session where we layered our rhythm patters together? There must be similar ones out there where students can use their devices to record and layer,” Steve posits. 

“You mean ‘Acapella.’ That App could work for a group project from home. There is a collaboration feature where they can work on the same music project from two different locations.” 

Anita explains, “There are many songs going around right now about washing hands and social distancing. I could do a project with my students around changing the lyrics of a song, similar to what we did in this course a few weeks ago.”  

Ah,  ah, ah, ah washin’ hands, washin’ hands. Ah,  ah, ah, ah washin’ hands,” Sings Kylie to the tune ‘Stayin’ Alive’ by the Bee Geez.  

“Or what about…Standin’ 6 feet apart, what a way to keep the distance 
Barely gettin’ by, it’s all…” Sings Marcus to Dolly Parton’s tune ‘Working 9 to 5.’  

“Going with what was said earlier, I like the arrangement of a song as a project at home for my students because I believe that the lyrics of a song can tell exactly what you are feeling inside during your highest and lowest points in life,” adds Karen. 

After a few more suggestions, we end class and I take note of where to take the next session.  


In the following class, the teacher candidates watch a few videoclips on the global influence of music making from Italy. This is followed by a short discussion on how music making as a means of community building and healing has expanded into our community.   

“The songs in Italy all have a nationalistic undertone to them—Italian opera, folk songs, and their national anthem. What songs can we use in Canada to bind us together?” 

O Canada, our national anthem,” Sings Marcus.  

“There are tons of hockey songs that connect Canadians together,” states Steve.   

“What was that donkey song we learned?” Anita asks. 

Where you ever in Québec stowing timber on a deck…” sings Jessica, as she performs actions into her webcam.  

Sara adds, “I could teach a Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendez song. They are both Canadian and all of my students know them.” 

“There’s Tom Cochrane, but the kids may not know him. You also mentioned folk songs. What about those east coast songs that Great Big Sea sings?” Kylie asks.  

“There are tons of French Canadian pieces, like that one we learned, Un Canadien errant,” Karen singings. 

After everyone shares, I add, “As you can see the list of Canadian pieces go on and on. Every year in Canada there is  a special day to celebrate the importance of music in our communities and across Canada, called Music Monday. In past years we have had very memorable songs written for this event. A few years ago the Barenaked Ladies performed with Chris Hadfield the astronaut. Chris played his guitar from outer space. Let’s take a look.” 

“Wow, talk about music going beyond borders,” states Kylie.   

 “All of the mentioned songs are pieces that bind Canadians together. Kylie mentioned the Canadian singer Tom Cochrane. I would like to review some pedagogies that focus on vocal music, and we can use his piece ‘Life is a Highway’ to do so,” I explain and then begin using his song to demonstrate.    

As we work through the piece, everyone is singing and performing into their webcams. Even some of their children and spouses have joined in. Sadly, time has run out and class must end there.  

Ruminations (appassionato e ad libitum) 

Music plays a powerful role in the world today, as it extends beyond boundaries—sounds carry across fences, walls, and oceans, and across classes, races, and nations (Frith, 1996, p. 125). Now more than ever, it is important for educators to turn to their creative capabilities to cultivate music experiences for students, as elementary schools are closed and teachers have to seek new learning environments. Thus, I ponder the potentials of the digital world and how that can become a platform for music education. However, not all teachers are tech-savvy and it may be tempting for some to neglect their innovative potentials and turn to teacher-directed instruction during times like these, as it is much easier to present that means of instruction online. However, we know that students are not empty vessels to be filled with information, and we must avoid regressing back to that means of instruction. Although there may be challenges and failure along the way, reverting back to practice and pedagogy that is not student-centered does little to foster a love and joy of music.  

I reminisce over the imaginative, exploratory, and constructive experiences with music that I have guided over the years with young learners, and reflect on the intent of the teacher candidates in the vignette to innovatively facilitate music making experiences. Although our education system is in a challenging situation, our role of educators has not changed. The term pedagogy has etymological roots in the Italian word pedante—a schoolmaster, hence he who never stops being one (Partridge, 2006)—the same applies to us educators, we must remain true to ourselves as teachers and continue to strive being the best educators possible. Thus, it is important for us to continue to ask questions, offer creative suggestions, and provide technical assistance without taking over our students’ learning experiences. Be it through digital media or other means of communication, we must remain partners in learning with our students, and remember that there is an overarching educational principle of reciprocity that appears again and again as teacher and learner guide creative projects together (Rankin, 1997, p. 30). We also need to continue to foster their imaginations by working together and learning alongside them as active co-learners, making choices and decisions together about how to expand opportunities for expressing themselves effectively as performers, composers, and listeners. To do so, we need to become innovative leaders and seek to ascertain practices and pedagogies that foster creative music making experiences.   

Creativity emerges as children become actively engaged in exploring ideas, initiating their own learning, making choices, and controlling decisions about how to express themselves using different sounds and practices (Burnard, 2017, p. 5). With that in mind, Eisner (1965) identifies four types of creative behaviour: boundary pushing, inventing, boundary breaking, and aesthetic organising. Boundary pushing, extends the limits of something from what is expected (p. 127). It allows for a merger of seemingly opposing concepts and enables us to identify new ways of thinking, or find innovative solutions to a problem. For instance, with the closure of schools, a teacher develops a novel way of group music making that extends beyond the traditional confines of the classroom to a digital platform, a forum where these two would not normally coexist. Inventing is the second creative behaviour that involves bringing known elements together to create something new (p. 127-128). For example, providing a provocation to children of marbles and instruments to create a musical marble track—illustrating that as inventors they create a new object by restructuring the known. The third type of creative behaviour is Boundary Breaking. It is defined as the rejection or reversal of accepted assumptions, whereby gaps and limitations in current theories are brought to light and one proceeds to develop a new premise (p. 128). For instance, discovering the limits of traditional music making in the classroom setting and breaking away from that norm to explore and create music in the natural world using unconventional found instruments. Aesthetic Organizing is the last creative behaviour. It is characterized by the presence in objects of a high degree of coherence and harmony, and decisions about the placement of objects are made through what may be called qualitative creativity (p. 129). For example, arranging the lyrics of a song to become a new piece about washing hands and social distancing. In moments like these, we need to reflect on the abovementioned creative behaviours to not only develop educational experiences that innovative, but to also foster those behaviours in our students.   

Allowing students to construct music with friends is essential to the learning process because they experience a conscious and unconscious acquisition and exchange of skills and knowledge by listening, watching, imitating, and talking with members of their social groups (Green, 2008, p. 10). Thus, it is important for us to continue to provide group learning experiences, and communicate to students a notion that reality is made of multiple perspectives, never complete, and that there is always more—“When students choose to view themselves in the midst of things and have the imagination to envision new things emerging, more and more beginnings seem possible” (Greene, 1995, p. 22). But how do we maintain group learning and ensemble settings when our classrooms are closed? Many creative suggestions were put forward in the vignette, and the teaching of the song “Life is a Highway” reiterates how music bonds us together and its contagious effect, as children and spouses joined in to perform. That being said, we need to keep in mind that the digital world does not afford the same connection and experience as a live setting. Making music online lacks many of the benefits that performing with friends in an ensemble affords—especially the subtleties of metacommunication that are almost nonexistent in the digital world. Thus, as teachers compose their lessons and transition to new learning environments, they need to engage with the aforementioned creative behaviours in order to provide tangible and creative opportunities for group music making to continue.  

If music were merely a series of artificial constructs comparable with decorative visual patterns, it would induce a mild aesthetic pleasure, but nothing more (Storr, 1992). Yet music can penetrate the core of our physical being. It can make us weep, or give us intense pleasure. Maya Angelou (2009) writes, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” Whether music is made alone or with friends, young learners use music to help maintain emotional and social well-being, and celebrate culture and community in ways that involve entertaining or understanding themselves and making sense of the world around them. As explored with the teacher candidates, singing Canadian songs can provide a sense of hope and connectedness with one another during troubling and disconnected times. It is also important that teachers continue to provide opportunities for students to express and reflect their feelings. Music has the potential to become a positive means to develop students’ social and emotional well-being, and the vignette elucidates how innovative teachers seek to continue to support students to express themselves effectively through music.   

Music manifests itself in our lives in a variety of ways and significantly enhances and enriches our understanding of ourselves and the world. It has the power to lift us out of the ordinary, to elevate our experience beyond the everyday and the commonplace (Burnard, 2017). Accordingly, this study brought to light how music can play a role in fostering support for socioemotional well-being of young learners, and the importance of maintaining group learning experiences with music during difficult moments. Although I examined the theoretical potentials of how teacher candidates and I seek to provide creative music making opportunities from afar using digital technology, these creative opportunities still need to be put through an empirical lens to determine the successes and challenges involved. Furthermore, teaching in turbulent times does not mean short-changing the teaching of the essential knowledge, skills, and understanding of music. It however necessitates teachers to draw upon their creative capacities—by boundary pushing, inventing, boundary breaking, or aesthetically organising—to foster music making and understanding in contexts that explicitly invite learners to engage imaginatively and stretch their generative and evaluative capacities.


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Biography of Matthew Yanko

Matthew Yanko is an instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Pedagogy at the University of British Columbia. His research focuses on formative assessment practices and the socioemotional development of all learners through the arts. Inspired by the early childhood centers of Reggio Emilia, Matthew has adapted this approach to his elementary school music classroom, which has inspired the creation of a musical atelier for his students to participate in music making, learning, and inquiry.