'What's the Point of Going to School if We Can't Have Band?'

COVID-19 has left high school band programs in crisis, and some teachers worry their students might drop out altogether.
July 28, 2020, 11:00am
High school band covid-19

As he finished up his junior year in March, the thing Frank Pastore looked forward to the most about his final year of high school was band. He'd always loved the music program at Ramona High, a public school in Southern California, and by the fall, he was going to help run it. He'd already worked his way up to flute section leader in concert band, and he was on track to become the drum major for the marching band in the spring. Then COVID-19 forced Ramona to take classes online.

After the school transitioned to virtual learning, the band program became a shell of its former self. Instead of playing concerts with dozens of his friends, Pastore practiced assignments from his band teacher in his bedroom. After earning first place in a competition days earlier, his drum line was forced to disband. Pastore kept up with his exercises, diligently recording videos of himself playing and sending them in on time—but his heart wasn't in it.

"Pretty quickly, my interest in terms of concert music wasn't there," Pastore said. "I feel some sense of resignation. There might be little sprinkles of hope or excitement, but that overriding shadow that says 'you can't do anything' is just making me feel like there's nothing to think about when it comes to band."

Pastore is staying in the program and hoping for the best. But like thousands of students across the country, he's devastated that he won't be able to play in-person with his classmates, and he's worried that—without that ability—"band" won't really be band anymore.

Like many schools, Ramona is beginning the fall semester online, and evaluating if and when it might bring students back to campus. You can't have concert band, marching band, jazz band, or any other performing group without playing in person—but doing so during the pandemic could be an epidemiological nightmare, according to researchers at the University of Iowa. When you blow into a trumpet or a saxophone, you're spraying respiratory aerosols out of your instrument and into the air. To have dozens of students doing that at the same time, especially in an enclosed space, would be unthinkably risky. As a result, high school music ensembles are currently off the table, and the band programs students like Pastore cherish have effectively ceased to exist—at least when it comes to actual playing.

For many teenage musicians, band is a lifestyle, one that goes far beyond just class itself. It's the center of their friend groups; it's what they do after school and on the weekends; it's a community, a place where they find a sense of belonging at a time in their lives when that's difficult to come by. For some, it's the ticket to a college scholarship, and the beginning of a lifelong career in music. (Artists from Trent Reznor to Lizzo have spoken about how crucial their band programs were to their success.) But as high schools across the country prepare to start the fall semester virtually, that integral part of their education won't be there.

Chris Herrero, the band director at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans, said he worries that without being able to play as a group, some students might abandon his program, if not drop out of school altogether. After Edna Karr went online-only last spring, he received several notes from teachers about student musicians failing to show up for class and refusing to turn in their assignments. He called them himself, he said, and did his best to make sure that they were on top of their schoolwork.

"I had one student tell me recently, ‘What's the point of going to school if we can't have band?'" Herrero said. "Music helps save lives in New Orleans. It helps keep kids off the street. It helps kids express themselves in a way that they can't in normal school subjects."

Like most band directors, Herrero is going to have to teach virtually once the fall semester begins. For him, group practices on Zoom are a non-option—teachers he knows who have tried found that, between time-lags and spotty connections, it's just not possible. Instead, he plans on having his students practice at home, work on assignments through a platform called SmartMusic, and learn the basics of music theory.

Anthony Moore, the band director at Dekalb School of the Arts in Atlanta, has been following a similar plan since the spring. Like Herrero, though, he said that until it's safe for students to gather together in one place again, there's only so much he can do.

"There is nothing like live interaction," Moore said. "The SmartMusic assignments that I gave in the spring, they were okay. But it is not a substitute for playing with somebody else, being able to feel the mood of the other player, being able to blend together with someone else. You can't do that virtually. The students lose out."

Many school districts are planning to gradually phase students into the classroom this fall, and some are requiring in-person instruction from the get-go. But that doesn't mean students will be bringing their instruments with them. Social distancing doesn't necessarily address the kind of spread that playing might cause—and while researchers have found that placing covers on instruments might reduce the risk of transmitting COVID-19, the results of that study are preliminary. Herrero is hoping that, at some point in the fall, he'll be able to hold practices outside, which would at least be safer than playing in the band room. But it might not be safe enough.

"I couldn't live with myself knowing that a student had gotten sick, or was asymptomatic and passed the virus to a family member, and the family member got sick and passed away," Herrero said. "I couldn't live with that guilt. So I would not have practice until the numbers and the data show that it is safe enough."

Abbie Weaver, the band director at Ramona, said that until she's confident it's safe to play, she'll have her students listen to music, research composers and conductors, and invite guest musicians to speak with them through platforms like Zoom—all in the hopes of helping them pinpoint the things they love about playing music, so that they'll stick with it through the pandemic.

"That feeling of being in a large group—maybe we can get that feeling somewhere else," she said. "Is it really physically feeling it? Or is it the key that it was played in? Or is it that you could play a great piano, or a tremendous forte, and you hear the difference in these dynamics—and if that's the case, then let's listen to the Berlin Phil[harmonic] and watch their live stream and get that same experience. There are ways that we can help them to learn more about what it is that makes them excited to be in a large ensemble."

Herrero, Weaver, and Moore all invoked the word "family" when they described their bands; they said that in their programs, students find a group of people who care about them, who understand them, and who lift them up in a way no one else does. While band directors might be able to help foster that environment, it's the kids themselves who sustain it. What band looks like at high schools across the country this year hinges, in part, on whether kids can play their instruments; but ultimately, it comes down to how student leaders like Pastore treat it.

"There's not a lot of hope for what is coming in the future," Pastore said. "I'm willing to overcome that. I feel like I've come to a place where I've got an obligation to do what I can for the program."

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