A Pandemic Fugue

Alternative Title: Music to Inspire a Pandemic Pedagogy

“By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life.”

—Jean Baptiste Girard

It’s funny how random words can catch your attention. Today, it’s the word “fugue” that caught my interest and began rattling around in my brain. This random word has me searching for meanings. I start with the dictionary definition, then wander over to Wikipedia for clarification.

Meaning #1: psychological in nature

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, this fugue is “a disturbed state of consciousness in which the one affected seems to perform acts in full awareness but upon recovery cannot recollect the acts performed”. This may describe our current time where teachers and students sometimes may be prone to semi-consciously going through the motions of teaching and learning, within these rapid deployments of remote and digitally enabled online learning or socially distanced classroom environments. For many of us, both teacher and students, reach the end of these learning events or courses, and may not remember or be aware of the acts we’ve performed.

Meaning #2: musical in nature

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines this as “a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices in a continuous interweaving of the voice parts”. This is done in a “contrapuntal” or polyphonic way. The etymology of the term comes from the Latin, French, and Italian derivations of the words “fugere (“to flee”) and fugare (“to chase”)”. The Wikipedia information outlines the necessary conditions for a musical composition to be defined as a fugue, and provides a few examples.

I’m connecting these conceptions of fugue to the words of Bakhtin (1981) whereby:

“concepts of heteroglossia (the diverse voices that combine into any creative act), polyphony (the multiple elements drawn in to unison) and dialogism (the process of dialogue that is crucial to invention and change) provide a perspective on the fundamentally social nature of innovation which is central to the “hive mind” of contemporary media”.

(Hoeschmann, 2019, p. 95)

This reminds me that it takes many voices to create innovations in learning. That diversity, multiple perspectives, and dialogue are requisite ingredients in the composition of learning interludes. Connecting this to my pandemic-induced ‘fugue’ thinking, I see the importance of sharing my learning, and that of my students, into larger efforts to share our ‘songs’ of learning.

During these times of physical distancing, social isolation, managed contacts, and conducting conversations through digital means, it is ever more pressing that teaching and learning events and activities merge, combine, and shape voices into an interwoven melody that makes a difference. Our individual and collective fugue states of mind can be disrupted by meaningfully and purposefully weaving voices (students, teachers, parents, leaders, external others) into the learning interludes we create as educators and mentors.

This does not mean I should merely follow or chase after the voices of others that are similar to my own, as musical fugues suggest. This only creates echoes of consonant sounds and leads to stronger silos where only like minded voices are heard. In our educational efforts to teach in these pandemic times, it’s good to listen to a symphony of voices. Those voices that are unlike my own, from disparate parts of the world, can add undertones and nuances to my own voice. I need to listen carefully to those voices. But, once listened to, and heard, I then need to critically create just the right notes for my own students. It is through this process of listening, mimicking, recreating new melodies of learning for my students. This shakes me out of my pandemic induced fugue state as an educator.

Then, serendipitously, this musical interlude, a model of a musical fugue emerged from my search for examples of music representative of fugue compositions. This production by Sansar Sandadorj caught my attention as an example, not just of how a fugue composition sounds, but how this interweaving of voices can be accomplished with music from around the world. We’ve seen many such compositions emerging as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since this was posted in 2016, well before any hint of a global pandemic, it reaffirms that we are creative human beings that have been connecting from around the world well before this forced confinement in singular spaces.

This music alternatively had me smiling or brought me to tears as I contemplate the joy and the power of playing and learning together. We can offer such moments to our students!

We too can step out of our fugue and leave a legacy of our teaching and learning, just as this video models. This is a record of a moment where musicians came together purposefully, to create something meaningful and beautiful.

At this moment, as we cross the threshold of one year into this global pandemic, it is time to break out of this fugue and create beautiful music in whatever way we can (as modelled by the Canadian physicians in the video below)!

This is our call as educators, teachers, learning designers, digital media creators, and learners. Let’s reflect on the symphonies of learning, the music in the sound of mathematics conversations, the compositions in the arts and crafts students create, the many and multiple ways we engage students in video enabled conversations, or the varied tasks left as a legacy of learning. Just as we did before this pandemic happened, we can take this curated collection of media creations and use this to reflect and connect, taking time to re-listen, re-think, and re-member.

As I come to the end of a course of instruction in my work as a teacher educator, it’s important I do just that. In the coming weeks, I’ll re-listen and re-learn from the student’s many learning artifacts in a symphony of learning moments. Definitely something to nudge me out of this fugue!


Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). Discourse in the novel. In M. Holquist (Ed.), & C. Emerson & M. Holquist (Trans.), The dialogic imagination: Four essays by  M. M. Bahktin (pp. 259–422). University of Texas Press. https://hdl-handle-net.ledproxy2.uwindsor.ca/2027/heb.09354

Hoechsmann, M. (2019). Pedagogy, Precarity, and Persuasion: The Case for Re/mix Literacies. The International Journal of Critical Media Literacy, 93–101.

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