Moving it forward in a COVID world
It should be obvious by now that these are challenging times for music programs at every level and in every corner of our country. In fact, that may be the biggest possible understatement of the situation.
It is fairly obvious the standard for public education in general has shifted to put safety into a position of primary emphasis. I’m not going to argue that safety isn’t important for students and teachers alike. I do think all involved in the business of educating our population have to stay focused on building structures within the current climate of constantly shifting and often contradictory restrictions—structures that have a chance of actually producing long-term, positive outcomes for our programs.
I won’t claim to have figured out any of this to my satisfaction after eight months of NTI, the most unusual summer and band camp I’ve ever experienced (resulting in a marching band that performed but didn’t march), and a late NTI school opening that was followed by several weeks of a hybrid A/B schedule and then back to NTI until mid-January. Of course, we have now returned to the A/B hybrid and will be there for a while. This constant shifting has never allowed a rehearsal situation involving an entire ensemble, an appropriately balanced instrumentation, or consistent daily contact with students—other than on a computer screen, and we all know what that has been like.
My wife tells me “you’ll just have to lower your expectations.”
I say “no” to that statement. For me, high standards are what make music programs special in our schools and provide the reason for their very existence. Reconciling my attitude about this, the situation at hand, and the needs of my program are the reasons I continue to show up for work.
I have not found teaching virtually or on a hybrid schedule to be an adequate replacement for a traditional, in-person rehearsal format based on a full ensemble model. I have also not found virtual individual instruction to be somehow ‘better’ than private instruction in-person. There are aspects of virtual instruction that I think will be of benefit as an extension of in-person teaching and learning once we are back to a regular routine. We can’t afford to have virtual instruction replace what we all know has to happen for our programs and students to thrive!
As we work through all of this, administrators may look to ‘technology’ as a way to redefine how music performance opportunities are presented to students. A snazzy virtual “ensemble” performance on YouTube is interesting to watch, but I doubt producing it was nearly as engaging for the performers as an actual live performance for an audience.
And that is the point.
I have been blessed to have a long career working in several different school systems and feel especially fortunate to have worked in my current band room for well over thirty years. Each of my teaching opportunities has been a situation in which a band program could be directed toward a high level of excellence—another blessing. All of these experiences have put me in a position to deal with a wide range of challenges over the years.
So, I’ve seen a few things—good and bad—that have helped me form an opinion about how to approach digging out of the current mess we’re in. We can’t afford to look backward but must focus on the way forward.
Most importantly, music educators at the school level must come together and take the long view of things. It is a fact: a truly viable, successful music program is not built in a year. It takes consistent effort on the part of all involved to develop the culture, support structure, school and community buy-in, instrumentation, and musical proficiency that are present in programs that project excellence as their core value. In my experience, seven to ten years consistently directed toward this end product is necessary to build a program in which the expectation is to be excellent year after year. Once that is achieved, I think it is even more challenging to maintain what has been developed over time.
Unfortunately, many have discovered that you can significantly lose a traditionally excellent band program in just a couple of months. Even those fortunate enough to have weathered the COVID storm relatively intact will likely find that proficiency levels, ensemble cohesiveness, and even student interest in band have fallen away over the last calendar year. Consider the band student who has never marched and played at the same time, has not performed a live concert since Christmas 2019, or hasn’t attended a concert assessment for the last two years—not to mention those who did not have an opportunity to even start on an instrument in beginning band! Students who have a choice to make about band membership between middle and high school are especially vulnerable. The choice they make will have an immediate impact on the viability of high school programs.
We all feel it: NTI or virtual lessons completely remove the most important aspect of performance ensembles—in-person, real time collaboration. Beginning and intermediate bands at the elementary and middle school level are where this all starts. It is this area I believe all of us will need to focus on and invest in if we are to achieve long-term success with our programs.
High school directors may need to rethink program priorities as they put things back together. Middle school directors may need to step up into assistant roles on a daily basis if they aren’t already doing so, and high school directors should invest themselves fully in the middle school feeder(s) that provide their prospective band students. Superintendents, principals, counseling staff, and faculty colleagues at the building level must also be part of the overall recovery plan.
Restructuring staff allocations for band classes between feeder and high schools through enabling daily team-teaching scenarios could accelerate the recovery process. Creating itinerant teaching or “board-level” director assignments, rather than assigning teachers to a specific school faculty, may provide some flexibility in scheduling and staffing level concerns. Any of these will require a commitment by all involved to make such a commitment work as a long-term strategy (remember, 7-10 years…). One or two years will not achieve the end result—only a long-term vision consistently implemented will result in a lasting and sustainable result.
At the university level, teachers of methods courses, student teaching advisors, and ensemble conductors should include at the very least a discussion of strategies for program building in their instructional model. After all, if that kid doesn’t start on an instrument in beginning band, there probably won’t be clarinetists on the stage in the university wind ensemble or trumpets and trombones on the field at halftime.
We really are all in this together. Let’s help each other move forward.
Brad Rogers has been the director of bands at Oldham County High School in Buckner, Kentucky since 1989. Prior to his appointment at OCHS in 1987 as assistant director, he held positions at Oakland High School (Murfreesboro, TN), Central High School (Columbia, TN), and Christian County High School (KY). His opinions are his own, and he is getting too old to change his mind about most of them.
He can be contacted at email@example.com
For the time being, anyway.
Wash your hands.