In a Pandemic, Music Transcends School Walls

Accent Pontiac fosters change through music

Photos and videos courtesy of Accent Pontiac

When Pontiac Schools closed mid-March due to COVID-19, Dream Williams was among countless students affected. On top of being cut off from friends and teachers and wondering what would happen next, the fifth-grader missed her clarinet.

When Accent Pontiac volunteers were finally able to retrieve her musical instrument and deliver it to her home, Williams’ mother reached out.

“We got an immediate text,” says AP Executive Director Tina Rowan. “Basically, she said during such a time of uncertainty, it was really nice to have something in the house that made it feel more normal.”

Williams practiced clarinet two to three hours a day during quarantine and shared videos of herself playing songs like “A Reason to Dream.”

“It’s refreshing to hear the sounds of music in the house,” says her mom, Lakesha Matthews.

Sounds of Social Change

Williams is among many students involved in Access Pontiac, a nonprofit organization that brings music education to the School District of Pontiac.

Since it was founded about five years ago, AP has maintained that music has the power to effect local social change, and that’s been proven more than ever during the pandemic.

AP provides instrument and percussion lessons to about 270 students at Walt Whitman and Alcott elementary schools, focusing on regular lessons in flute, clarinet, euphonium and trumpet. Kids also get Bucket Band classes, learning foundational percussion skills by pounding out rhythms on 5-gallon plastic drums.

AP also hosts performances, workshops, field trips, guest artists, a summer program and assemblies that reach 750 kids. However, all of its momentum screeched to a halt when schools were closed earlier this year.

“It kind of flipped our whole model on its head for a while,” Rowan says. “If there’s no school, what does that look like for us?”

The group pivoted quickly to launch virtual lessons, but there were challenges along the way. First, they realized some of their kids had immediate concerns that were more crucial than music, so AP partnered with to deliver groceries, household items and toiletries.

“That’s what families were requesting, especially in March and April, so that really gave us a way to stay connected with our students, our families, and make sure we were responding to the current context and environment,” Rowan says.

Once basic needs were met, AP focused on distributing the musical instruments that had been locked inside the schools. Then they were confronted with the fact that not everyone had access to the technology needed for virtual instruction.

“Of course you see in many communities, Pontiac very much included, the digital and technological divide,” says Rowan, a professional violinist and educator. “We’ve been able to partner with some of our community organizations to get families internet access, and the schools got Chromebooks out to grades three and above.”

Meanwhile, AP instructors moved their curriculum online.

Through trial and error, teachers learned the Zoom platform wasn’t conducive to group lessons because of sound delays and distractions, so they switched to private lessons and more general calls where students could chat.

“One of the biggest things we’ve heard from our kids is that they miss the social interaction with their teachers and classmates — the people they were used to seeing every day,” Rowan says. “Going virtual isn’t the same as being together, but it did give our students a way to stay connected and see each other’s faces again — not necessarily to rehearse music, but maybe to listen to some music and talk about it and just be silly with one another because we know that’s what our students really miss.”

Healing Power of Music

Original composition has always been an important part of AP’s curriculum. During the school year, students are encouraged to infuse their voice and experience into music of their own. They write songs about their school and community, most recent science lesson, music and financial literacy, Rowan says.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, teachers have been helping students use music to process their feelings about the pandemic.

“When I am feeling sad or scared, I can turn to music,” assistant woodwind teacher Marisa Jacques said in a video she created for the kids. “I can write music, listen to music, play music, learning something new on my instruments. And all those activities help me purge my emotions — help me get the bad emotions out so I have room for the good emotions to come in. … Music is always a very safe and rewarding outlet for you guys. So if you guys are feeling a little uneasy or sad, pick up your instruments and try to learn something new. Try to write a little melody. I assure you that it will help you feel a little bit better.”

As AP continues to work with students over the summer, the group looks forward to offering a hybrid of online and in-person classes when it’s appropriate to be together safely.

“We are aware we need to be flexible,” Rowan says. “We are committed to support Pontiac children in the school district in whatever way that looks next year.”

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