How can an elementary school music teacher make an impact on thousands of others during the COVID-19 stay-at-home crisis? After all, teaching music at school is about active participation. Now, there is no dedicated music room, few if any musical instruments available, and physical separation and technology limitations make teaching music by Zoom a challenge. What is a music teacher to do?
Mary Bolton’s purpose is, “I know how powerful music can be in someone’s life and how much joy and positive energy it can add. My purpose is to bring that joy to young and old by sharing songs that inspire.” She lives her purpose each day as an elementary school music teacher and a musical performer. Mary’s challenge during the COVID-19 period, like so many others, is how to stay true to her purpose while we are sheltered-in-place?
Every year, Mary’s approach on day one of school has always been to make her learning environment welcoming, exciting and fun. She says, “I greet my students, show them love, encouragement and support in class. I’m interested in and kind to them. I’ve found that approach works well. If they feel safe and my love for them, they’ll generally return that love, and it makes it more likely they will learn and love music, which is my goal. If they love music as children, they’ll love music the rest of their lives.”
When Minnesota Governor Tim Walz shut down schools and ordered stay-at-home in mid-March, schools began distant learning shortly afterwards. Mary and her colleagues, using a new technology platform called Quaver, are now able to reach children at home so they can continue to learn music. Quaver provides songs, allows students to play a range of virtual instruments and learning games on their devices. She supplements Quaver with her own videos, music challenges and messages to stay connected with her students and keep them inspired with music. She looks forward to the day when all can be reunited at school.
In addition to her daily teaching, Mary felt there was more impact that could be made to help others through music. As a lover of live music, and with live music venues now closed indefinitely, Mary took matters in her own hands. She decided to lift the hearts and spirits of those who are missing live music. She decided to give them hope and inspiration. And for an hour or so, she decided to help them forget their worries.
Starting Friday, March 20 at 8 pm, Mary began to broadcast live performances from her Orono home using the Facebook Live function from her page @MaryBoltonMusic. Mary said, “People miss going out and hearing live music. We’re all stuck at home for the foreseeable future. But people can still enjoy live music. We just have to be a little more creative.”
Performing on keyboard, Mary described her style of music. “My inspiration is to create my own version of songs that I’ve loved for years and songs that I’ve just discovered. I love all musical genres including, rock, country, folk and jazz. Some of the artists and groups who have inspired me are: Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Norah Jones, John Prine, Sade, Pat Benetar, Lady Gaga and Journey.”
Since her first livecast – which Mary calls her #VirtualMusicParty – Mary has sung and performed seven consecutive Fridays at 8 pm, typically performing 12 to 15 songs. Her 23-year old son, Nick, who has returned home from southern California for the stay-at-home duration, solos two songs and joins Mary for one or two duets.
Singing and performing songs from over fifty artists, Mary’s fan, Alex Divizio of Virginia, comments, “I love your style, Mary. You can sing everything from Andy Williams to Amy Winehouse.”
Each hour-long #VirtualMusicParty is full of audience participation and engagement. Mary’s husband, Chuck, serves as the behind-the-scenes emcee. He describes his role as, “Roadie, soundman, videographer, photographer, social media specialist, carnival barker, chef, bartender and dishwasher.” Chuck asks people to post where they are watching from, what they are drinking and gives folks shout outs throughout the show. He interjects humor, banters back-and-forth with Mary and teases the audience to click “hearts for Mary” in order to hear more songs. Each week he shares some fun facts about Mary, a segment he calls Something About Mary. Mary’s biggest fans “share” her broadcast to their Facebook pages, so family and friends can view, resulting in each week’s #VirtualMusicParty being seen by over 5000 people.
Mary’s fans hail from across the US, with international viewers from Canada, Japan and Taiwan, also joining the fun. Here’s what her fans say about Mary’s weekly performances:
Ellen Townsend of Hayward, WI says, “I really enjoy Mary’s Facebook Live music performances every Friday night. It’s something fun and enjoyable to look forward to after a long week working outside the home during the current situation. Mary is so talented and a joy to listen to. Her events are very well scripted and done so professionally with the help of her husband Chuck. The songs she performs are familiar and easy listening, with a different theme every week which adds to the fun.” Ellen’s husband Roy chimes in, “Every Friday morning my wife reminds me, ‘We’ve got a concert tonight!’ We look forward to them every week. Mary is a great singer and musician.”
Barb Piper of Northfield, MN says, “I like the whole family affair. Her husband and son supporting her. I enjoy the connecting of people from all over the country. I like that she is on the ‘big stage’ along with all the greats like Gaga, whomever is doing FB Live.”
A young couple in Frankfort, KY, Will Bolton and Haley Hardin, describe their views of the #VirtualMusicParty, “I have really missed family and friends during the COVID outbreak. On Friday nights, when Mary and Nick sing, I feel like I’m with them. Thank you,” writes Will. Haley adds, “I love watching Mary’s Friday night performances. She sings beautifully and needs to keep doing them. Also, I enjoy watching Nick perform.”
From Taipei, Taiwan, Apo Hsu writes, “Bravo, bravo, bravi tutti! Thank you! What a joy this is. Encore and more, Mary!”
Orono, MN residents George and Jacki and Jones tune in weekly, too. Jacki says, “We look forward to the #VirtualMusicParty every week. Your voice brings us much happiness, Mary. Beautiful!” George comments, “Mary brings great joy to all her listeners. In these times, music is the best medicine.”
Mary’s passionate about music and she is creating quite the impact, for both her students and her loyal fans of @MaryBoltonMusic. She says, “My passion for music began as a child listening to music on our big stereo with my dad, listening to my mom play the piano and playing the French horn with my sister. Since then, I was part of the school band, choir and musical theatre. In college, I decided to pursue music education and I turned my passion into my profession. I’ve been living my passion of sharing my love of music through teaching and performing for over 25 years.”
During the COVID-19 crisis, with many suffering from fear, loneliness and grief, Mary Bolton is lifting hearts. She’s living with purpose, passion and having a great impact on others during a time of need. At a time when we could all use a little more inspiration, she’s bringing joy to young and old by sharing songs that inspire.