How high school bands have coped with COVID-19

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Elizabeth Bousfield

The Mason High School band practices during the school day. Students are socially distanced and use bell covers to minimize the spread of germs.

High school band directors in Ingham County still have vivid memories of March 13, 2020. Many programs used the day to unwind and unpack, as students had just finished performing at a festival hosted by the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association.

Okemos Public Schools band director Mark Stice was preparing his students for upcoming performances. Holt Public Schools band director Michael Emerson had his students fitted for new uniforms.

Then, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer prohibited large gatherings and assemblies due to COVID-19, closing schools and marking the beginning of a pandemic that is in its 11th month and counting.

Leslie Public Schools band director Nathan Schulte said he heard about the shutdowns and worked to get as much music for the upcoming spring concert passed out as possible.

“When we came back, I was going to try to narrow down what would work for that concert given our limited time for rehearsal,” said Schulte. “Obviously, we never had to worry about that.”

“Everything’s been thrown up in the air and we’re still waiting to see how it lands on the ground.”

Elizabeth Bousfield, Mason band director

Band and other performing arts are often lumped together with traditional classes in school curricula and guidelines. But part of the challenge of working online, directors say, comes from the fact that the class structure for band is very different from a normal class.

“If your buddy in your algebra class isn’t doing their work, well, that affects them and them only,” said Mason Public Schools band director Elizabeth Bousfield. “If your buddy in band isn’t doing their work, that affects the entire ensemble … that interplay between individuals and reliance on individuals is huge in a performing arts setting.”

The inability to play as an ensemble has proved a challenge for shaping lessons and goals for bands.

“Everything’s been thrown up in the air and we’re still waiting to see how it lands on the ground,” said Bousfield. “Band programs very specifically have the goal of performance, and so we function normally very focused on performing for community events and public performances of all sorts. Now that there’s absolutely no public performing in person, that’s really upended what we do … The only thing that has been constant and reliable is the game changes all the time.”

Emerson said, “We’ve been doing music for our band students, but it is not really band. Band means playing together. It’s an ensemble, it’s a group. And we have not been able to do that very often at all.”

“Right now we’re just trying to focus on the community and each other and just keeping our chins up for the day when we can play together … It’s going to be even better, even sweeter when we can finally get back to it.”

Michael Emerson, Holt band director

Where band class remains online, much of the work consists of solo practices and assignments, with an occasional small group practice mixed in. Students are usually asked to practice and play along with either their director or a tape. For assignments, students upload recordings of them playing into special programs that can check on things like pitch, tempo and rhythm– though it’s not always a smooth process.

“If the microphone glitches, if the internet glitches, if the computer thinks they’re not playing at the correct time, even if they are so, it can be really frustrating for the kids …” said Emerson.

Changes have been made for the programs that are operating in-person, too. Students wear masks while they aren’t playing, and bell covers are used like a mask for the instruments. Band rooms, typically meant to hold a hundred students or more in the same space, can’t accommodate social distancing guidelines. Bands are now having to practice in their school’s auditoriums. Even then, space can be an issue.

“[Our stage] is still not quite big enough if you include the percussion instruments and the chairs and everything, plus the physical distancing,” said Schulte. “We’re using where the audience usually sits as our band chairs; we’ve got kids spread out throughout the house playing toward the stage, and it’s working, but it definitely doesn’t feel like a band room, it doesn’t sound like it should. At least we’re able to play.”

Unlike some other programs, the Leslie band has been able to hold some makeshift performances. Though they were not permitted to play at football games, the band still was able to put on halftime shows. However, normal performances are still not on the table.

Aside from making sure band students keep developing their musical skills, directors say their biggest goal for the past few months has been to have fun and keep kids engaged and interested in the process, which proved difficult during the early months of the pandemic.

“The spring was just weird, you know, because … some students never responded to anything ’cause they didn’t have to,” said Stice. “But when we got into the fall, then it was like, ‘OK, it’s school, we’re back to school,’ but just in this virtual format.”

“Right now we’re just trying to focus on the community and each other and just keeping our chins up for the day when we can play together,” said Emerson. “It’s going to be even better, even sweeter when we can finally get back to it.”

As students who have been online begin returning to hybrid instruction throughout March, Stice said there is optimism and excitement about being able to perform together again.

Questions remain about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on band programs. Schulte said that keeping a band program healthy is challenging when it’s difficult to recruit and sell prospective students on events that are no longer happening.

“I think we’ll survive a year of this,” said Schulte. “I don’t necessarily think we could survive more than that.”

The Mason band was supposed to go to Disney World and perform last spring, prior to the shutdowns. Now, Bousfield worries about the ability of students to attend even the simpler things.

“There was a very strong expectation of commitment and attendance … you don’t miss. And it’s gonna be a long time before I can have that kind of commitment present,” said Bousfield. 

Still, others are simply excited for the chance to be back — the opportunity to both start and restart.

“I’m not afraid … It’s not a fear or a concern as much as a, ‘OK … once we get through, it’s gonna be six, seven years till we’re back to normal,’” said Emerson. “And that’s OK — we’ll be back.”

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