Feature Story: The Incredible Mrs. Alger

A suburban teacher’s efforts to maintain community through COVID-19

Audrey Alger, 29, puts her long brown hair into a ponytail, tilts her head to the right, and secures a violin between her chin and shoulder. She holds a bow vertically on top of her head — a non-verbal visual cue for her sixth-grade students to follow. As the five girls mirror “Mrs. Alger,” the cacophonous mix of random note playing stops.

“Alright folks, can we do a little bit of Burst,” Alger says, as she weaves her way through a sea of red music stands and black chairs. “It sounds like we’re ready to work on Burst.”

“No not yet,” one student shouts.

“Okay, Shayla. Why don’t you write in a couple notes while we get started,” Alger says calmly? “Just join us when you’re ready!”

Alger instructs the girls to sit up tall with their feet on the ground. A few of them even squirm with excitement. They are ready to play the piece they practiced in their homes.

“One, two, ready, go,” Alger says, in a sing-songy voice.

As students start playing Brian Balmages’s 2011 piece, Burst, pages of Shayla’s sheet music flutter to the ground. Attempting to pick them up, Shayla noisily scoots back her chair and knocks over a metal water bottle.

“Measure nine,” Alger says loudly through her white KN-95 mask. She carries on without stopping.

Despite the distractions, the sixth graders play along with Alger in perfect harmony and with ease. After finishing the piece, Alger’s eyes squint and her mask rises with her cheeks. She smiles under the plastic polymer face covering.

“Folks, nice job,” Alger says enthusiastically. “Now, let’s review measure 13 really quick!”

Who is one person that Washington Elementary, Dewey Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, and Nichols Middle School all have in common? The answer is Audrey Alger. Alger was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to hailing from the home state of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Alger comes from a musical household. Her mother is a saxophonist, and her stepfather is a band director. It was fate that Alger fell in love with music and eventually made a career out of it.

The goofy, kind, multi-instrumentalist, orchestra teacher’s grandfather, who was self-taught, introduced her to music at an early age. Alger would listen to him play bluegrass and popular 1940s standards on an old family violin. She picked up her first instrument at six years old — she chose the violin. “Also, I was a very small kid,” the five-foot three-inch teacher said. “Violins come in tiny sizes!” Alger also plays the cello, viola, bass, piano, guitar, and flute.

“I didn’t actually get the opportunity to play in an orchestra setting, in school, until sixth grade,” Alger said. “It really heightened my interests when I got to play with others in an instrumental setting.”

Many revere music as the language of the soul. It allows us to express ourselves — especially when words do not capture all aspects of our feelings. Alger finds this to be true. For her, orchestra — and music in general — provided a sense of community and stability, during a rough time in Alger’s life.

Middle school brings about lots of changes in school and at home for many kids. When Alger was in middle school, her parents divorced. At this time, Alger lived with her single mother, whose work kept her busy. “I would get home from school and my mom would be working,” Alger said. “There just wasn’t a lot for me to engage with, but I had violin and orchestra.”

The violin provided Alger with an escape from the stressors of her parents’ divorce. It also afforded her a moment of self-discovery. As time went on, she began practicing with the living room windows open in her house. One day, while Alger was practicing, she heard an unexpected knock come from the front door.

Alger opened the door by saying, “Hello!”

“Oh, hi there, Audrey,” Alger’s next-door neighbor says. “I just want to let you know; I really love hearing you play the violin.”

“You know, it really brings me a lot of joy,” Alger’s neighbor says, with a smile.

To this day, Alger finds that moment transformative. She realized how powerful music is. “It made me feel so much better at a time in my life where things didn’t feel very good, where I didn’t feel comfortable,” Alger said. She became more confident the more she played violin. Alger said, “I found comfort in music because it became something that I could focus my energy on — that meant a lot to me!”

Unlike most, Alger continued playing violin past middle school and into high school. It was there that she realized her passion for teaching. Before the start of her senior year of high school, Alger’s orchestra director retired. It left many students, including Alger, upset. As a section leader, Alger decided to run small group sectionals, to strengthen the camaraderie between orchestra members. At the end of the sectional, an underclassman approached Alger.

“This is fun,” the underclassman said. “I really like learning violin from you, you make it easy.”

Although Alger was already teaching a small studio of private students, after school and on the weekends, the compliment solidified her career path. Alger wanted kids to have the same opportunities to pursue music that she did. For many children, their first interaction with music, particularly orchestral instruments, occurs in their school’s Fine Arts programming.

With the goal to teach, Alger went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in Music Education, at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, in 2014. After graduating, she taught orchestra in the Atlanta area. Later, Alger returned to the University of Cincinnati, in 2018, to complete a master’s degree in Music Pedagogy.

While completing her master’s degree, Alger accepted an offer to teach orchestra in Illinois, where she currently teaches. Alger onboarded to Evanston/Skokie School District 65, in July of 2019. As only one of ten instrument teachers in the whole district, Alger is required to travel between three different schools each week. Nonetheless, Alger welcomed the opportunity to share the gift of music with more students. “Being a traveling teacher requires me to adapt a lot,” Alger said. “One of the parts of my job is making sure that I am not a nameless face in the many buildings and schools that I teach in.” Within District 65, she is anything but a “nameless face.” Between getting to know teachers and communicating with them often, Alger successfully created positive relationships with her coworkers — easing her transition into a new job and environment. She also brought many non-music teachers into the district’s music world, by inviting and reminding them to attend the end-of-the-year concert.

Alger was warmly accepted by her students as well. Students became fond of Alger because of her unique teaching methods. She plays alongside them, advocates for their recitals and concerts, and uses goofy word association rhythms. “Pep-pe-ro-ni here we go, means four sixteenth notes,” Alger said, with a giggle. “But sometimes, I let them pick their own!” Her light-hearted personality even attracted students to morning rehearsals, which occur almost an hour before the start of school.

Immediately upon her arrival to District 65, Alger’s passion for music radiated throughout the schools; in turn, more students became involved with orchestra and found community within. As 2019 ended, Alger found herself thriving and bonding with students and faculty. But little did Alger know that in a few months, the isolating effects of a global pandemic would test her ability to maintain community and a sense of belonging, for both her and her students.

The before-school rehearsals, that brought so much joy to students’ mornings, were indefinitely canceled on March 12, 2020. Alger received a flood of emails from concerned students and parents. Days later, while trying to find an alternative rehearsal time, Alger was notified that District 65 schools were going completely remote. “The loss of that time together making music was so sad for everyone involved,” Alger said. “Nothing makes someone realize how fulfilling orchestral music is more than the absence of it.”

District 65 had the necessary infrastructure to make the transition to virtual learning smoother. Students in the Evanston/Skokie district received devices and, if needed, hotspots. Despite the school district’s efforts to keep students engaged, Alger immediately recognized the isolating nature of virtual learning and the difficulties that accompanied it.

While the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on everyone, it was an extremely emotional strain on children. The decrease in social and physical interaction — outside of family members — coupled with six or more hours of sedentary screen time, five days a week, contributed to the loss of attention and withdrawal from many students. Alger researched online resources and quickly became innovative with her teaching.

To engage with students, Alger kept her camera on — allowing them to see her in real time. She also found a computer program that fostered a sense of togetherness. Flat, an online collaborative music notation software, made virtual music instruction possible for her. As Alger shared her screen with the music and counted off, Flat would track the notes for students. “Obviously, it’s not the same as playing all together, but it gave the opportunity to feel like they had,” Alger said. “It was a way to connect them to the music they were playing.” Alger also appreciated Flat because it allowed her to continue playing and practicing alongside students.

However, as the pandemic heightened and social distancing became permanent, Alger noticed more withdrawal from students. Keeping her “kids,” as she refers to them, interested was tough, but music continued to save the day. Every week, Alger would identify pop songs to arrange — especially for her middle schoolers. She did this for every string instrument that she taught. At one point, Alger even figured out how to create orchestral string arrangements of songs from the world-renowned, battle-royale video game Fortnite. Despite the draining nature of virtual learning, Alger was successful. “I was trying to keep kids feeling excited so they would engage with orchestra,” Alger said with a laugh. “Most of them stuck around and still do orchestra with me. I guess that says something!”

Throughout the pandemic, Alger returned to the drawing board to brainstorm new ways of solving challenges. Two of the biggest issues she faced, aside from maintaining interest, were instrument tuning and sharing accomplishments. Before the cancellation of in-person learning, students could always count on Alger tuning their instruments at school. With virtual learning in effect, many kids were both frustrated and scared that their instruments would go out of tune. Easing their worries, Alger took the term “traveling teacher” to a new level. Every week, she went to all her students’ houses tuning their instruments. “I remember one of my tuning days being so cold,” Alger said. “It was right after a big snowstorm.”

Two people wearing masks run out of an apartment building. Alger knows one is her student and the other is her student’s parent because of a violin pegbox sticking out from under the kid’s parka.

“Hi there,” Alger says.

“Hi, Mrs. Alger” the student says, with steam coming up from their blue surgical mask. She hands Alger the violin.

“Oh my gosh, thank you so much,” the parent says. “We really didn’t know what we were going to do when it fell out of tune.”

“It’s all good,” Alger says, as she begins pressing and turning a tuning peg. “Okay, I’m going to show you what to do!”

Alger appreciated the tuning experiences she shared with students. It afforded her fourth and fifth grade students the opportunity to see and learn how to tune instruments. Many eventually learned how to do it on their own. Weeks later, the student from the apartment building tuned her violin for Alger on Zoom.

Alger watches as the online tuner turns green.

“I’m so proud of you,” Alger says. “This is like a third-year skill you know!”

The student smiled with amazement.

Despite the circumstances, Alger watched her students learn and grow throughout the pandemic. They also gained more skills — many of which deserved recognition. With in-person gathering suspended, Alger learned to edit in iMovie so students could showcase their progress. She even dabbled with graphic design, to create recital programs and flyers. “We celebrate through performance; it’s just what we do,” Alger said. “I found fun and weird ways to celebrate everything that they’ve learned.” Every few months, Alger’s students, across all four schools, sent her videos of themselves playing their recital pieces. Alger created recital videos, from the clips she put together, and sent them to parents and the schools’ faculty and staff members. She even took the time to record, edit, and share Zoom concerts. “The pandemic taught me how resilient kids are,” Alger said. “They really deserve a lot of praise for what they’ve been through and for how much they’ve overcome the past two years.” By ensuring opportunities for her students to confidently practice and perform, Alger deepened their love of music, developed their confidence, and strengthened their sense of belonging.

Today, you can find Alger traveling between Dewey Elementary, Lincoln Elementary, Washington Elementary, and Nichols Middle School. While the pandemic still impacts everyday life, Alger continues to adapt to changing pandemic restrictions and foster community in District 65’s orchestra program. During the 2021–2022 school year, COVID mandates prevented concert performances.

In adherence with school and public health guidelines, Alger arranged and conducted a series of hallway concerts. After talking with the teachers and administrators of Nichols Middle School, Alger received clearance for her students to perform their pieces in the hallways of the school. Alger’s orchestra performed on all three floors. The teachers opened their doors so the students listening could both hear and clap for their classmates in Alger’s orchestra. “Even though we were all masked up, it was so much fun for the kids,” Alger said. “Some of the students who listened to them had no idea the orchestra existed or that we had a music program like this — because we’ve been in the pandemic for so long.”

Alger’s current goal is to introduce her students to different genres and a more diverse group of composers. Recently, Alger’s orchestra students performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to celebrate Black History Month. She recorded and shared their performance with parents, teachers, and all in the community who will listen and watch. Alger plans to continue providing hybrid education and performance opportunities for her student in District 65.

“I’m hoping that for students there’s some windows and mirrors there,” Alger said optimistically. “They are not only celebrating the culture of our school, but they’re celebrating their own cultures through the music we play.”

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  • Geoff Daniels

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