Musically Speaking

When Sidwell Friends began gearing up for distance learning at the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year, the School made sure to send home supplies with students to ensure everyone would have what they needed. Laptops and iPads, headphones and art supplies—all were distributed to students along with more typical needs, like textbooks. The Middle School music department made their own contribution by ensuring every student who takes Mark Vialva’s music class had a miniature electronic keyboard. The keyboards wouldn’t just help students practice music; for one project it led to them creating it.

“I wanted the kids to realize that some of the best music that lasts the test of time is the music that reflects its time,” says Vialva. “So I took the approach to have the kids articulate how the pandemic affects them. What was their life before the pandemic? What was it like during the pandemic? How do we envision it afterward?” That’s when things really got interesting. “I had the kids write out a script,” he says, “and then record it to music that they created.”

For Vialva, the combination of writing and music was a perfect method for student expression. “I told them: ‘This isn’t an essay to make you sound like the best English student. This is the project for you to sound like yourself,’” he says. “One student created a scene that the world was ending, and he started it with: ‘Announcement! Read all about it! The world is ending! School is going to distance learning! Basketball practice is now canceled! You need to wear a mask!’”

The script was only part of the process. “I didn’t take it easy on them musically,” Vialva says. “If something is off beat, we need to fix it. If you can’t dance to it without tripping over yourself every two minutes, then we need to fix it. I wasn’t sure if they were quite ready for it, but they got through it—so they clearly were.”

The project, Vialva says, seemed to allow the students space to tap into the complicated emotions they’ve had to deal with over the past year. “The same way adults are dealing with the ups and downs, the kids are dealing with the ups and downs—and some of those downs are hitting these kids just as hard as they’re hitting the adults,” he says.  “Bob Marley said, ‘When the music hits, you feel no pain.’ It’s a cheesy quote, but it really has a lot of truth to it. The kids being able to let their emotions out and let their Light shine, being able to share their stories through music, it’s like having a superpower.”

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