Sunday, February 7, 2021

The 10-minute Check-In

At NCSSM, we have just completed the first week of the second semester. We continue to operate on a low density hybrid model during the pandemic. Students were remote this week but half of the student body will be returning to school today and stay for 5 weeks. At that point, they will go home and the other half of the student body will come to campus. Our first semester was quite successful from a health and program standpoint. I believe there was only one reported student case of Covid-19 throughout the fall among our student body and our administration is hopeful that, with our strong protocols, we can continue that positive trend.

Our first Orchestra meeting of the term was last Tuesday night. Class was largely administrative and organizational. While the students were fully remote for the week, I decided it would be a great idea to have a 10-minute check-in with each individual member of the Orchestra this week. I have about 40 members of the group right now and attrition was quite low from first to second semester. I count myself as fortunate.  I know the trends across the country have not been so positive. So, I created an asynchronous assignment for our remaining two classes of the week and scheduled individual meetings with each member of the orchestra during those class times. (This is one of the positive aspects of remote and hybrid teaching. I have such an incredible amount of control over the way I use my class time. This autonomy has proven to be quite beneficial in a number of cases. This week was certainly one of them.)

I have found these meetings to be wonderfully connective in our remote world. They have provided me an opportunity to ask students how they felt about first semester, their goals for second semester, ways that I can accommodate them individually, and also ask a little bit about their current stress and anxiety levels. 

I was quite pleased to learn that nearly everyone felt we did about the best we could during first semester. While not the same as actual Orchestra rehearsals, our virtual-orchestra format seemed to work for my students. They provided positive feedback on my approach, the tenor of the class meetings, musical instruction, and alternate assignments.  I asked each of them about their musical goals for second semester. I was pleased most had very lofty goals. Many seniors told me that the fall was full of stress for them due to college applications and they are looking forward to a stronger personal investment in Orchestra for the second semester. How great to hear that from them personally! 

I asked every one of them what I could do for them personally. Could I provide them more technique instruction? More musical challenges? Could I provide a more individualized plan for them? I really want each of them to know that I care about them personally and not just as one of a large group. Again, responses were generous. Most students felt that they are noticed and are cared for both musically and personally as part of the Orchestra. I was also pleased to learn that the orchestra community is strong. Many students told anecdotes of conversations between students after class about best practices for recording their part, practicing their part, and participation in this new orchestra format. This made me so happy. 

Perhaps the most important result of these meetings is simply personal connection. It was so great to share a smile with students whom I have grown to care for so deeply. I had the opportunity to ask about their winter break and J-term courses. Several students told me about their research and mentorship programs and other academic interests. I had the chance to ask seniors how their college application and acceptance process is going. Many juniors offered stories about research programs they have recently been accepted to. We also had a number of interesting conversations about the repertoire I selected for the fall and for the upcoming spring semester. Students offered feedback regarding the difficulty, diversity, and style of the pieces. It always makes me happy when students are thinking deeply about choices I make for the ensemble. This is clearly happening, even in the current remote and hybrid format of the NCSSM Orchestra.

In the end, these individual meetings will pay huge dividends for the musical community and musical product of our Orchestra this spring. I feel like each student was able to give me the feedback I need to be the best possible instructor at this time. I also truly believe that the personal connections that have developed between me and my students will will last well beyond their high school years. These are wonderful human beings who are on their way to great successes in many different fields. I am so honored to be their instructor and to provide them insights not only to orchestral music, but into a fulfilled life and career. My charge and mission is clear as their Orchestra director. I believe this to my core. And these individual meetings will only enhance the way I can connect with these students throughout the rest of the spring.

So, I encourage you to consider meeting with each of your students for a few minutes. Ask them how you have done so far this year. Trust me, it won't hurt. They appreciate your work. Ask them how you can serve them throughout the rest of this year. Again, the responses they will give you will be thoughtful and much deeper than you expect. Ask them where they would like to improve. My guess is they have a strong concept of their areas of strength and weakness both personally and musically. Finally, ask them about something unrelated to your class. Ask about college applications, current successes, recent disappointments, and anything else that they may care about. That note of personal connection in this time of separation might just be what they need today. 

Let's all keep going. You've got this.




  1. Speaking from experience as a parent of a student more than 10 years ago, you have always connected personally with your students and showed them your interest in them as humans and musicians You are a great teacher, leader, mentor!!