Raychl Smith

Connecting with Music While Socially Distancing

Raychl Smith: Connecting with Music While Socially Distancing

As if flats and sharps weren’t treble enough, Raychl Smith (“Raychl-the-misspelled,” as one of her Jammer friends likes to call her) has been making music during mayhem. She has had the singular pleasure of teaching future music teachers against a cacophony of social distancing and physical isolation.

As an associate professor in music education at ECU, she describes her purpose as using music to bring people together in community. Ironically, all while the community is told to stay at least six feet apart.

Her classes center around creating musical experiences for people of all ages, from cradle to grave, whether they have formal training in music or not. “Our student teachers have been thinking creatively about how to engage students at home,” she explains. They create online content in apps like TikTok and Acapella that students would use under normal circumstances to create music in their daily social lives. And it’s that kind of student-centered connection that’s meaningful. “Our music education students have also been collaborating with music majors at institutions across the United States on collaborative songwriting projects.” Students are using Bandlab, an open access digital audio workstation, which allows recording an individual track or chord progression. Other students can then record and add a bass line, melody, song lyrics or any kind of accompaniment to the project. 

But collaborating remotely with no physical interaction does have its challenges: “This pandemic is allowing me to see that my primary purpose for making music is to connect with others. I miss my students’ laughter, their faces, and the closeness that we had in the School of Music when we were all together in person.” 

What has been most surprising? “I have found myself craving wide open spaces and natural environments.” Sitting outside and playing through a ukulele songbook has eased the cabin fever some. “ I’m looking forward to teaching my classes outdoors when weather permits this fall. Instead of a required textbook my students will bring a ukulele, sunscreen, and a lawn chair to class on nice days.”  

Personally, Raychl has remained busy with her music. “I love learning new instruments and experimenting with new styles and genres. The pandemic has given me some free time to tinker around with a banjo.” Classically trained as a saxophonist, she has found it fun to learn to read notation using tablature and play around with more string instruments.

Her favorite songs to perform these days illustrate perfectly her wide range, from silly to sacred. “If I’m singing lead, I enjoy performing “Five Pounds of Opposum” and “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” with the St. James Jammers.”

“I love music that tells a story,” she explains. “ For the past several years I have been learning murder ballads that I sing at Old Time festivals across the Piedmont.”  Traditional murder ballads typically have themes of violence against women and are told from the perspective of a man. “ I’ve learned a lot of ballads from listening to recordings of Sheila K Adams.”  Ballads like “The Wind and Rain,” “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight,” “Young Hunting,” and “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme” depict strong women who are capable of telling their own stories.

Her earliest music memory is hiding under the choir robes in the hallway outside of the choir room at church while her parents were in rehearsal. “I must have been about preschool aged, and remember lying on my back with the robes hanging above me, humming along with the singers, and wanting to be a part of that musical community.”

She always wanted to be a teacher, she says, as her music teachers were the ones who connected with her in meaningful ways. “The relationships I have shared with people through music have always kept me coming back for more.”

Musically, Raychl is a bridge-builder. “I live in two musical worlds. One where people read notes on a page and play music with few mistakes, and another where amateurism is welcomed and celebrated.” And she’s on a mission: to take the best of both worlds into public schools and create community through meaningful musical experiences.

• • •

originally published by the Daily Reflector May 24, 2020