How a public school music teacher figured it out…and how you can too!

Volume 120, No. 5May, 2020

Dr. Brian Doherty

Local 802 member Dr. Brian Doherty teaches in the Yonkers public schools. Like all teachers, he had to quickly re-tool to teach his classes remotely…but he realized that musicians have the skillset, knowledge and background to make this an easier transition!

By Dr. Brian Doherty

Many teachers use the old adage “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” regarding the degree of success in their instruction as it relates to lesson planning. While I agree that good teachers must have a solid plan, there are many more ingredients to be considered in the recipe of success. For a general music teacher in a K-6 public elementary school, planning is only a piece of the puzzle. Due to the current pandemic, my wife (who is a school administrator) and I find ourselves at home most days, ensconced in a patchwork of work and family routines including homeschooling our own three kids.

As a school music teacher, my normal day-to-day practice is more about adapting what I want my students to learn, to what best suits them. For example, a fourth grade class coming to me directly from lunch and recess on a sunny day is much different from an early morning fifth grade class. Throw in normal obstacles — like students suddenly needing the school nurse, or being picked up early for appointments, or pulled out of music for speech or occupational therapy, or a malfunctioning interactive whiteboard in the classroom, or fire drills, or school-wide announcements, or observations from my administrators — my school day squarely relies on incremental adjustments and the adaptation of my teaching. In my opinion, this construct of accommodation to a given situation is arguably one of the strongest assets of teachers and musicians alike.

The pandemic changed the way I plan and teach, and the way my students learn. Up until now, I had not experienced this model of 100 percent virtual teaching and learning. A seemingly short time ago (before the pandemic), you would see me arriving early to school, setting up and organizing my classroom for the day, laying out materials, powering up the technology, tuning the ukuleles, and selecting the bins of recorders needed for that day’s music classes. And that’s just the 30 minutes before the school day begins! But now, with every passing day I continue to learn about this virtual world of education. I readjust expectations to better accommodate student learning. I’d like to share some of my recent teaching experiences in this new, virtual world of education.

In my opinion the most significant change is that there is no human interaction within the physical building that we call school, during the hours of the normal school day. Of course, physical presence is crucial in teaching music. The ability to actually see the entire class as a whole, explain an activity, demonstrate musical technique, sing together, and experience music as a group, are all part of the tradition of music in the classroom. After all, it’s truly a team sport and one of the greatest joys we can experience as musicians. During class time, there’s also my penchant for corny jokes and watching students roll their eyes at my delivery. In addition, I miss the professional, collegial daily interactions, like staff meetings, hallway greetings and quick updates, professional development, or news about my fellow staff and their families. Although we continue to work together as a teaching staff serving a school community by way of webinars, online resources and professional teams, such practices will never replace the shared experiences of teachers and students in a school.

Earlier I mentioned teacher adaptation as an essential ingredient in our quest for student success. In my opinion, this is a domain where musicians are first-rate and well-skilled. We are constantly reforming and revising for every musical situation. The use of technology, arguably with the introduction of the record player in 1877, has forced musicians to evolve, grow, and adapt over the last century or more. In fact, technology has become an integral and essential part of our music and how we produce it. For instance, some of my music teacher colleagues employ technological software and apps like Sibelius, Finale, Logic, Pro Tools and SoundCloud, to name just a few. These are delivered by way of various hardware devices such as iPads, Chromebooks, interactive whiteboards, and Macbooks. In my own teaching practice over the last several years, I have taught musical concepts and recording skills via GarageBand to dozens of elementary school students. To boot, many of these tech tools are the very ones used by professionals in the music industry. My main point here is the fact that since as musicians we’ve been technologically savvy for years now, we are already prepared for this high-tech distance learning model with which we are saddled. It’s well within our wheelhouse, so to speak.

To that extent, I rely upon the software and apps provided by my school district. The main platform of communication between staff and students is Microsoft Teams. Teams enables virtual schoolwide meetings and whole class instruction. I can post assignments, communications, assessments, links and videos within the app. My music Teams, which are defined by their homeroom classes, and which total over 250 students, can easily access the materials I’ve posted and complete the assignments. Although I am available for student questions and concerns via e-mail, students can also speak with me directly via the chat feature of Teams. Recently, I’ve been attaching a quick assessment called an Exit Ticket to each assignment via Microsoft Forms. The student completes the online form and then submits it. Data from each completed Exit Ticket helps me monitor progress, check for understanding, and re-teach when necessary. My school district houses all educational apps in one suite and under one umbrella known as Clever. Most of the time, I can create assignments for all of my music classes directly within a given app once I’ve logged in to Clever.

Since my schedule of classes is weighted heavily with early elementary classes (third, fourth and fifth graders), I’ve been creating instructional screen casts using QuickTime Player. QuickTime records my voice (I prefer audio only) and my computer screen simultaneously, along with mouse clicks, so that I might demonstrate to the class how to navigate a particular app, complete an assignment, and submit a project. I upload these screen casts to SharePoint, where students access its link. I find this method of instructional delivery clear and concise, where students can see exactly what is expected of them.

For Local 802 members who are teaching private lessons via Facetime, Skype or Zoom, it may be easy to visualize how one-on-one, or small group lessons can be taught remotely. However, the big question, of course, is how can I hold music classes for 30 students with this remote setup? The basic answer is simply this: during the quarantine, I can’t teach students on their instruments. Instead, the focus of my recent classes has been a healthy mix of music theory, ear training, online games, analysis, history and genre study.

I am proudly and gratefully a member of both Local 802 and the Yonkers Federation of Teachers. It is my opinion that one of the greatest gifts our union can provide is the framework to allow us to do what we do best! When it comes to teaching and educating our students, my teachers’ union is providing us with every available tool needed during these uncertain times, while maintaining high standards of professionalism for teachers. I feel the same way about Local 802. I know that one day soon, Broadway will reopen, orchestras will reassemble, and all musical life will return once again. I feel fortunate that the musicians’ union is there to not only help us create music but to ensure that our profession is held in the highest regard.

Finally, I’ve noticed that most online educational providers and software developers are providing their content for free, in light of the recent crisis. I find this professionally uplifting and extremely practical for my students. Some examples come to mind like a free virtual tour of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or free streaming and archived concerts at, to name only two. These examples demonstrate a resilient and adaptable music community ensuring music education for all students in a time of crisis, exemplifying the reality that we are all truly in this together.

Dr. Brian Doherty, a member of Local 802 since 1984, is a music teacher in the Yonkers Public Schools as well as a professional drummer. He can be reached at