This teacher uses the didgeridoo to help kids get through online classes, one breath at a time

©The Seattle Times

Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — Beth Anderson, a mother of two, suddenly found herself back in middle school music class this fall.

When school started, her sixth grade daughter Catelyn sat by her side while they learned and worked at the kitchen table. For the most part, Beth, an administrator at Seattle Colleges, tuned middle school out.

But she couldn’t tune out Cuauhtemoc Escobedo, a 30-year Seattle Public Schools (SPS) veteran who teaches music and band at Eckstein Middle School. Through his virtual classroom, the tone of his voice, one that Beth said makes you sit down and listen, caught her ear. And “now I’m paying attention to middle school band class. I felt a little bit like I was his student.”

Since schools shut down, districts have struggled to get students basic services: Meals. Wi-Fi. Instruction. But teachers of the most interactive subjects — such as physical education, art and music — have to go an extra mile to figure things out. Some kids live for these subjects — it’s a time when they can be a little freer, move around their classrooms or homes, and be creative.

Music presents added barriers, with stories about how COVID-19 worked its way through choir practices adding an element of danger. And while technology allows for lectures and conversation, it’s almost impossible to make live music using a video call; even solos don’t always come through in real time. So teachers like Escobedo are turning into techies and DJs just to do their jobs.

Escobedo grew up in Mexico, where his parents were missionaries, and quickly took to music after learning the trombone. He’ll try anything to engage and entertain his students, from keeping his class a purely positive zone — kids have enough stress right now, he says — to using technology in creative ways.

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Live classes with Escobedo are for discussion, videos or demonstrations. In general, class online has gotten a lot quieter than the cacophonous din a colleague described the in-person version to be. For practice, he has 250 students submit files of their music, and he gives them feedback, one by one. Recently, he told his students he was considering offering to dump his face into a bowl of flour (a TikTok meme) or shave his head if they answer tough questions correctly.

Then there was the day Anderson heard the strains of a didgeridoo piping through her home. It was Escobedo, playing songs on the wind instrument developed by the aboriginal peoples of northern Australia. It sounded to Catelyn’s ears like “voooom voooooom, very wavery and really fun.”

Fifteen years ago, Escobedo began teaching a unit on the didgeridoo. He would build about 100 of them himself each year, using tubing and plumbing adapters. He taught students the special technique of circular breathing to play the didgeridoo, a method that’s transferable to other wind instruments. To do the same this year would be harder — he’d have to disinfect everything and spend hours driving them from house to house. But he’s contemplating asking parents for help with those tasks so he can bring back the didg.

Catelyn, 11, who plays the clarinet, loves the class so much that one day, she arrived so early that she became the host of the digital meeting, admitting students in one at a time.

The problem with music instruction over the internet: “You can go and show off your house and do a whole bunch of other things, like show off pets and such, but can’t really sing on it or make music on it,” she said.

And in many cases, schools and families are at the mercy of music teachers and their resources. Deborah Rambo Sinn, a music teacher at Gonzaga University who is also district vice president for the Washington State Music Teachers Association, said she’s helped teachers figure out their setups — but some who felt left behind by the tech, she said, are “taking a break.”

Beyond the software and tech know-how, disparities in access to instruments — let alone student connectivity — threaten to widen inequities.

Escobedo, who teaches a lauded music program at a largely white and wealthy school in Northeast Seattle, has deep ties to Eckstein — his father-in-law taught there, his wife and kids studied there. He’s keenly aware of the disparities, and he has popped into meetings of music educators to ask if his peers needed musical gear for their students.

He knows what it’s like to not have the right equipment: When he was growing up in Mexico, a music school wanted him to start on French horn, but his family couldn’t afford one. At church, someone offered up a trombone instead.

Teachers across SPS have made themselves available for instrument pickup or even driven them to students’ homes, said Pam Izevic, the district’s instructional services music coach.

Even once the equipment is available, students are now expected to learn the recorder or the trombone feet away from where their parents are now working. (Escobedo suggests investing in a practice mute.)

The beginning of the pandemic, Escobedo said, was horrifying. “There was no saying goodbyes. It’s almost very traumatic,” he said. “To cut it off like that got worse and worse.”

Before the pandemic, he said, most music and art teachers didn’t employ much tech for their teaching. “We had a huge learning curve,” he said. “We’re trying to catch up now, but it’s still difficult.”

There were so many problems to solve: converting sheet music to PDFs he could share. Getting the copyright to music he would have ordinarily just played out loud. Finding a way to send those files without crashing computers.

One software solution Escobedo has found: asking students to upload their pieces to digital audio workstations, electronic devices or software that enable the recording and mixing of different musical tracks. Escobedo then listens or pieces it together with the submissions of other students. “There’s quite a few that are free,” he said. “You have to make it so that not one school has an advantage.”

Escobedo said he can tell kids are engaged when they choose to show their faces, which they often don’t — until he did a lesson on the didgeridoo.

“He has that magical combination of being able to command respect and get his students excited about what he’s doing,” said Anderson. “I don’t know how you do that online.”

By this time during a nonpandemic school year, each band would now be preparing pieces for jazz concerts. Escobedo and his students usually travel from January onward, playing concerts around the country.

Escobedo and his students are lamenting the loss of those performances. He’s thinking of ways to re-create them, such as stitching together individual recordings and packaging them as a concert. Rambo Sinn, at Gonzaga, said a friend of hers in Spokane hit upon another solution, posting a “concert” of prepared performances that streamed on YouTube, where people could gather and congratulate the musicians simultaneously.

As a feeder school to Roosevelt High and its well-known jazz band, Eckstein’s music programs often feel competitive. Escobedo said one plus side of the pandemic is finding an opportunity to get beyond that feeling.

Even before COVID-19, Mark Fung, a Seattle second grade teacher whose two children have studied with Escobedo, said he noticed Escobedo made an effort to include as many of his students as he could in performances at jazz festivals. Other music teachers invited only a handful of performers.

Districtwide, Izevic said, teachers are using this period to focus more on the process of learning and creating music than on the product.

When Escobedo wants everyone to feel uplifted and unified the way they might on the road, he’s done things like suddenly telling all 80 students in a class to unmute themselves. “We all turned on our microphones and just talked at the same time,” he said. “That chaos felt like a safe space. I almost started crying.”

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©2020 The Seattle Times

Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times/TNS
Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times/TNS