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Despite COVID, band students keep on playing

As the two local school districts figured out how to teach classes virtually and how student athletes could practice and compete during a pandemic, band directors and student musicians struggled to keep their programs alive too.

The spring concert band season came to a screeching halt last year when the pandemic closed schools and all of their activities.

When summer rolled around, Boyle County Band Director Zach Shelton said he held the annual band camp where students would learn and practice their fall season’s competitive show.

But it wasn’t a normal band camp where student musicians spent hours playing the songs and practicing the marching routine. He said each student was allowed attend band camp for four hours a week. He broke that down so that each student could practice two hours a day, two days a week. “We were able to have some sectional rehearsals keeping the kids in small numbers while inside. We were able to gather with the whole group on our parking lot rehearsal space.

“It sucked,” Shelton said regretfully.

When the new school year began in late August, it was still all virtually learning.

And virtual learning is difficult when a young student is trying to learn how to play an instrument and the band teacher is on a computer screen. Shelton said he’s “not a fan” of having band practice via the internet. “Technology is still limited with microphones, and internet access in Boyle County is not the best,” he added.

Occasionally he even took instruments, like a trombone or a tuba, to a student’s home so they could practice, he said.

But to help teach students in the band class for the 2020-2021, Shelton said the school purchased a Smart Music Program.

He explained that when he gives a student an assignment for a piece of music to learn, the program displays the notes on a staff with the music signature and plays the tune so that the student can see and hear how it’s supposed to sound.

Once the student musician is ready, they play the piece and record it with the program, which then grades the performance.

“It works, but it’s not perfect,” Shelton said. “It’s not ideal. You don’t get the same connection.”

But he can listen to the assignment and change the grade accordingly.

“I don’t care about the grade right now. I’d rather just get them playing.” And, he added, “We just try to have a little bit of fun.”

“I try my best to keep the personal connection with kids and try to keep them interested with the musical things that I read about and see. Like this week at the middle school we discussed “Hail to the Chief” being the presidential anthem that will be played for incoming and outgoing presidents,” Shelton said.

He added, “I personally believe that allowing the kids to have a connection, even just allowing discussions about life in general and musical things, will help them keep connected to life.”

The BCHS Marching Band was able to have a modified fall season, he said. Instead of performing a full marching band show at competitions, the musicians learned songs from the rock band “Queen” and competed in the Pep Band Class with four other schools at Barren County High School. “We earned first place in our class and third place out of nine bands overall.”

He said they were working toward performing a virtual Christmas concert, “But gathering to record was an idea our school safety team thought would be better to wait for a wider vaccine roll out.”

Looking to the future for possibly performing a live spring concert, “I just don’t see that happening,” Shelton said.

Instead of having a concert band this winter, he’s directing jazz band and percussion classes with about 30 students. Just last week they were allowed to meet in the band room — jazz on Tuesdays and percussion on Thursdays — to learn and practice their craft.

Adin Hagans, a junior who plays French horn in the concert and jazz bands said he was very glad to be back to in-person practice.

He said it’s been “hard to keep my mind on music,” while he was home during the pandemic. He said he enjoys being able to “express himself in such a way people can understand how I’m feeling.”

Hagans said music sets the mood for movies, shows and even video games.

“That’s the feeling I hope to show.”

Riley Norris is also a junior and plays percussion instruments. He has his own drum set at home and being forced to stay home for weeks at a time, “I improved a lot. It’s pretty much what I did during the summer.”

Danville High School

DHS band director Jeff Towns said his band didn’t practice at all during the summer since there wasn’t going to be a competitive band marching season.

But they were able to practice outdoors during the fall for pep band performances at football games and concerts “following guidelines set forth by the CDC state and district,” Towns said.

They were also able to perform a live Christmas concert just last weekend.

“Most of those practices were done virtually in small groups. We started doing in person rehearsals last week.”

He said the small groups consisted of five or six players. “A virtual large group is difficult due to latency and internet issues.

“We had a live audience of 42, in a theater that seats over 600.” Towns said. “Families sat together spread out through the auditorium and several recorded or live streamed the concert.”

Now, the band is preparing for a virtual spring festival and a spring concert, he added.

Towns has been teaching all band students virtually. “They are graded on weekly assignments of their performance pieces and musical exercises which they record and submit digitally.”

Towns said, “Teaching virtually does require you to think outside the box and make adjustments to your teaching style. The most challenging aspect is teaching first and second year students at the middle school who are just starting their musical journey.”

Towns said the band has 25 members and nine weren’t able to participate this year for various reasons.

For those who did continue playing band instruments, Towns said it has been helpful for them to cope with the pandemic’s restrictions. “They get to see their friends during practices and at sporting events and socialize in person (socially distanced). Most students miss the day to day interaction with their friends. So any opportunity they have to see them is a benefit, even while following social distancing and other guidelines.”

In spite of all of the challenges the pandemic has brought to the band so far, Towns said, “In my opinion the band members did an outstanding job!”

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