Freedom Dreaming A New Music Education in times of #CoronaVirus and beyond.

Martin Urbach
10 min readApr 26, 2020

”Find something you love doing, and do it ’til it kills you.”

Nobody knows if it was Van Dyke Parks or Bukowski who said this, but that is beside the point. The point is, whether or not we love bands, orchestras, choirs, jazz bands, hiphop cyphers, or flute ensembles, we should not have to actually let it kills us, much less kill others. Pun intended.

In times of Corona Virus, we must rethink music education if we want it to not just survive the pandemic, but to grow and thrive. School based music ed as we know it, is in fact a petri dish for viruses. Most ensemble performance classes depend on groups of people engaging with one another in small spaces and in close proximity to others and in real time [internet, you suck!]. Instrumental ensembles, especially ones in which instruments require the blowing of air are like high speed drones for coronavirus droplets. Chorus class under a pandemic is no longer a breath of fresh air, it actually is quite the opposite. Piano class or Rock bands where students are sharing instruments period after period are disasters waiting to happen.

We must go beyond the ensemble format, the buzzword tech and that which a system not prepared to deal with a pandemic taught us about how to teach music during a pandemic, and instead we need a paradigm shift based on dreaming the kind of music ed that ain’t yet, but that could be. This paradigm shift cannot be about money. Most cities will be broke after this (thanks capitalism!) and the first thing to get cut will be education. This paradigm shift also cannot be technology. The Zooms and the Googles are here for disaster capitalism. This paradigm shift has to be about people, for the people, with the people and about the people. As such, we must lean on science, on the brilliance of the community, and in participatory research and action.

“Nothing about us without us”, (Charlton,2000) is a slogan used by South African disability activists in the 1990’s and is the idea that no policies should be set forth by people who don’t experience a certain set of issues, for people who do. Paulo Freire expresses this sentiment as well in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, writing that we should not do things for people, but with people [paraphrase]. If we are transforming our view of the (music ed) world, away from what it was and towards what it can be, we must make safety as our starting point. At this point, until we have enough testing and vaccines for everyone, most kinds of music teaching and learning we’ve been engaging are most likely not safe to do in the classroom. Thus, we have to pivot, or cough cough, maybe die and kill. (pun intended again).

Over the past year, I have been thinking lots about this idea of “freedom dreaming”. Organizing with the New York Collective of Radical Educators, NYCoRE and reading adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategies have invited me to dream, to plant seeds in my own mind first, and then try to bring those ideas forth to my world(s). As we wrote on our (COVID-19 cancelled FreedomDreams 2020 conference), to “Freedom Dreaming is to lean into the resilience of our ancestors and communities; to use our collective imaginations, inside, outside and through the classroom to break free, to dream and seed a world that does not yet exist but that we yearn for.”

Our Freedom Dreams must be accessible for all, not for most or even some. If they are not accessible to the poor, to the marginalized, to the immunosuppressed, to the disabled our dreams are not about freedom. Nobody is free until everyone is free. In the same hand, dreaming requires us to yearn and to leave this reality. If we keep trying to fit our rockbands into Apps, our choirs into video editing energy/money zaps and our orchestras into videochats, we are not dreaming, we are sleeping.

All these formats and techs are dope, and we should use them! but they are not freedom dreaming. They won’t help us seed a new kind of music ed. [this is not a lowpunch commentary about what we are doing now, as right now we are not teaching, we are barely surviving]. Freedom dreaming takes time, and freedom dreaming is about localized, responsive and expansive dreams that are unique to the communities of the dreamers. So, I invite us to start thinking about how we might freedom dream ourselves INTO this new way of music education, rather than running away from it toward the safety of what we know how to do.

This protest sign is from a protest to feminicides in Mexico and I think this really applies to us. “Que se rompa lo que se tenga que romper, que se caiga lo que se tenga que caer, que arda lo que tenga que arder…”- “Let what has to be broken be broken, what should be dropped should fall, what should be burned on fire …”

Ultimately, we have to reckon with the reality that if our pedagogy and our spirit is not up for the task, it will break, and that is OK, not in the “survival of the fittest” kinda OK, but in the “change is good for eveyone”, and those who signed up to teach band and can no longer band teach and they don’t want to change, shouldn’t change and instead look for something that fulfills their dreams and their wallets. One thing is for sure, the 2020–2021 school year will most definitely require such changes and students should not get subpar education just because their teacher is unwilling or unable to meet the demands; especially if it is for the tantrum of “poor me, I can’t teach band anymore”.

I have started “freedom dreaming” my next school year! Here are thee freedom dreams of mine I will share:

  1. I (still) love technology! I don’t love expensive, buzzwordy tech (unless it is free, in which case I really really love it!). Tech that affords people to make music, to learn music, to teach music, to profit from music and most importantly; to freedom dream through music, will be a big part of what my practice will offer. I have been making really short video tutorials (1 or 2 minute long videos) using my smartphone and the app TikTok. Why? a) it is free. b) it is a platform the youth understand and love. c) it is an incredibly powerful and dope video editor. YouTube has an amazing catalog of lessons to learn how to do anything. I typically check out how many views a lesson has, try my hardest to showcase content created by women, by BIPOP, LGBTQIA+, and disabled musicians. Why? Because representation matters.

2: Rejoice In Choice. I love songwriting. I love beatmaking. I love drumming, and singing and music journalism. I love musicians and I love music. Music education is not a surgical mask that “one size fits all” (pun intended again!) and it shouldn’t have to be. I aim to research, create and refine projects that can serve as “starting points” for students to engage in democratic education, exercise their agency and, you guessed it, freedom dream themsleves! Here is the assignment, “Music Making Activities for Actual Music Making In Times of Remote Learning” , where I give students choices of activities they can do on a weekly basis. Some are cycling through each assignment every week, others are repeating the same assignment. reality check: some are not doing any of the assignments, and that is OK!. If you like the assignment, donate a few bucks to my Venmo: @martinurbach , as I have been donating all the money raised through my curriculum writing and sharing with mutual aid funds in NYC: Brooklyn Shows Love Mutual Aid Fund and with the #FreeBlackMamas campaign because, (and I shouldn’t have to say it) jails are death sentences under a pandemic. Also, nobody belongs in jails.

3: I will advocate for safe and equitable return to the classrooms. This one is tricky, because as a city employee (if I want to keep my paycheck and health insurance, and I most definitely do), I have to go back to work whenever the lawmakers decide — regardless of whether or not it is safe to do so. The UFT (teachers’ union) has put forward this petition, I mostly agree with. What does social distancing in a NYC classroom look like?We are calling for classrooms of 11 students or less, staggered schedules, access to remote learning, and more. I will also work diligently to fundraise so that every student has access to their own musical instrument (so we have to share instruments as little as possible). I will have Clorox and Lysol wipes to clean instruments as much as possible (not to lick or ingest, much less inject, snort or Juul) [thanks #45]. If it is scientifically safe to do singing, maybe we do so with a mix of cloth masks and face shields, after all, drumhead companies are making them. This will also be couple with learning how the physics of singing and breath spread work, how aerosols travel and what face-masks actually do.

In conclusion, I do not yet know/what how next year will look like for my practice as a music educator. To be honest, I don’t know what two weeks from now will look like!( This week is planned tho!) Here is the plan, which is about “live Tweeting a record, a mixtape or a movie’s soundtrack”, which I adapted through something a friend shared with me! What I do know, is that before I am a music teacher, I am a teacher. Before I am a teacher, I am a human being. I cannot in good conscience teach without acknowledging and responding to this virus, even if it means the death of the orchestra, and I have to take out my tiny violin and play sad songs. [one final pun intended]

Edit 5/13/2020:

Here is 5 things for us music teachers to remember in times of #remotelearning during #covid19 in regards to why students might not be turning in work assigned.

1) Students don’t all the sudden have a personal vendetta against you.
2) Students don’t all the sudden have a personal vendetta against music.
3) Music is only “that” important” IF music is “that” important to the individual. Music for me was what saved me when my mom died, when i got bullied in school for being fat, when I moved to a new country, when my dad died, etc. We cannot drum music’s importance onto students, especially in an institutionalized format, ie: school music. For the vast majority, music is gonna be the first assignment to go, because Algebra II and Social Studies won’t. For me, it was gym and art. I never did those homeworks.
4)Learning music this way sucks more than teaching music this way. I don’t know the mathematical equation, but I assume is ten fold, at least.
5)) You, me and anyone that is now excited about teaching music production (beatmaking, HipHop, Soundtrap, Garageband, etc) and that is not part of HipHop culture; that does not listen to it, engage with it, or practice it, needs to remember and own that our “beatmaking lessons” might just not be that good (yet) and students know when we are pandering to them; EVEN if it is #PandemicPandering.
6) When we give “failing” grades (or NX/NS in NYC) for a music class, we are assessing access (to instruments, to internet, to machines, to Wifi, to a place at home where they can have privacy, to a place at home where they can have quiet, to a family life that makes it so that IF they are staying up all night playing video games because kids and teens are dis regulated because there’s is a pandemic out there, someone can do the labor of helping them co-regulate, or at least take their Nintendo switch away, and to family/community members not dying.
7) This is not online teaching/learning. IF you have taken an online class before at a university, or elsewhere, you know this. Online classes usually have been planned for a semester to a year. AND, one chooses to take it. This is not that. This is surviving, and tho we teachers are doing a great job at it most of the times, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suck.
8) The most important part of musicking is the community and social aspects of music making. Not saying it cannot be done, it can! but it is not inherent to remotelearning. We have to bake the pie WITH it, cannot sprinkle it like sugar afterwards.
9) We can help students develop the ability to meet deadlines, to persevere through hardship, to adjust to new normals, to succeed WITHOUT having their grades as an “incentive” to do so. This just creates violence for the folks who cannot get it done, for X reasons. We can do all that more effectively when we say “ yo, this is music class. You already got a passing grade. Now, let’s work together so we can make music.
10) Finally, this too shall pass. It is up to us to transform how we do this for the long run. What kinds of music making and music teaching and music learning make sense for your community? As for me, I think what makes most sense (based on asking students) is a combination of focusing on individual skill gathering (like private lessons) which there are tons of online platforms to help (fender play, Yousician, etc) and so now the kicker isd fundraising so that all students have access to an instrument of their own, which they can practice and learn at home, and in class, What works for me might not work for you, and viceversa. But what definitely will work, is to ask your/our students what feels most alive in them in regards to music teaching/learning/making.



Martin Urbach

Latinx Immigrant, percussionist, radical educator, & activist. Likes cookies & cookie monsters.