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Keeping music alive: School music programs face new challenges amid remote learning

Marching bands hope to play in the spring

Emily Lytle
Dover Post
Dover High School’s marching band plays during the 2019 homecoming parade.

After learning that students would be starting the school year remotely, Jeff Leager, band director at Central Middle School in Dover, sent a letter to help encourage his students. They are going to make it through, he told them. They are now a part of history.

“The people are not going to read about how the music was silenced. The people are going to read about how we kept music alive during this adversity,” he said. “And that’s what we’re going to do: We’re going to do everything we can to keep the music alive.”

Since schools closed abruptly last spring, music teachers and directors across the state have been working to support music programs for their students. 

Marching bands hold out hope

For many of these students, the place they find their closest friends and community is the marching band.

“For the mass majority of marching band kids, [they] are marching band kids. That’s their outlet,” said Joy MacDonald, a music department parent at Appoquinimink High School. She has had two kids complete four years in marching band and a daughter who is a rising senior in the color guard. She said she remembers watching her oldest son find his people and gain confidence as a freshman.

“He needed something to connect with, and marching band gave him that,” MacDonald said. 

Marching band uniforms lie in a field at Appoquinimink High. Most marching bands have postponed the season with hopes that it can continue in the spring.

Most schools start band camp in August, and a few like Dover High School had to make a quick decision since their camps would start before the Delaware Interscholastic Athletics Association voted on the fate of fall sports.

Garrett George, band director at Dover High, said each marching band had to make a decision for itself. “We have no governing body that made a blanket decision for everyone,” he said. 

Largely based on an aerosol study by the National Federation of State High School Associations, Dover decided to cancel band camp and postpone the marching band season with hope that it can continue alongside fall sports in the spring. 

Thinking about his 140-person marching band, George said, “It’s clear that we couldn’t be inside and play based on the aerosol study.” He said he felt affirmed in the decision after talking to several other band directors who decided to do the same thing.

Dover High’s halftime show, titled “LOVE,” has been written, and students can practice the music uploaded online. “I do understand our community’s stake in this marching band,” George said. “I was a Dover High graduate. It’s a huge part of my life and a huge disappointment not to have it in the fall. Our intention is to provide a worthwhile experience ... [hopefully] in the spring when it’s safe.”

In the Red Clay Consolidated School District, the marching band season is paused. Band directors are holding virtual tryouts and organizing the marching bands, so the students are ready to perform whenever they can do so safely, said Shawn Snyder, supervisor of the unified arts for Red Clay.

Snyder said the district is considering continuing the marching band season in the spring, but he hesitates to commit to one plan. “Nothing is off the table,” he said. “We want to do whatever is going to give, especially our seniors, as much as a safe and traditional experience as possible.”

Michele Herpich is a marching band parent through and through. “We eat, breathe and sleep marching band,” she said. Her daughter Samantha is starting her senior year at Caesar Rodney High School, and Herpich worries she may not have an opportunity to perform with the marching band one more time.

“It’s kind of a sour ending to a very wonderful time in my kid’s life,” she said. She hopes the season can continue in the spring. “I’m just hoping that something can be done, that something is allowed for the kids."

The Milford High School marching band performs during homecoming 2019.

Nathan Jones, a sophomore at Appoquinimink High School and percussionist, agreed. “I’m hoping that we can go back, as safe as we can at least. That’s my biggest hope really,” he said.

Ryan Moseley, instrumental director at Appo High, is looking toward the future with a similar hopeful eye. While marching band students will not be learning a field show and competing this fall, he said they will look into how to support the sports teams if athletics continue in the spring. In the meantime, the focus will be on the typical winter and spring seasons.

“My hope is that if school resumes in a hybrid fashion, we can start rehearsals for our Jazz Band and indoor music groups in preparation for their indoor competition season in the winter/spring,” he said. 

Many parents said the marching band and music programs in general give their kids a sense of community and belonging. MacDonald recognized the family-like closeness often means germs spread easily, too. 

“We watch the flu or every sniffle go through the band,” she said. While it was disappointing to hear the season was postponed, she said her daughter understood the risks. “It would be very irresponsible of us to try and do anything,” she said.

Still, Appo parent Nikki Jones said she has seen that community stay strong even when the students aren’t together.

“We have a good group. Our band kids really tend to look out for each other. They really do,” she said.

Nikki and Oliver Jones with their sons Nicholas and Nathan, who are members of the Appoquinimink High School marching band.

While most Delaware students will start learning online this September, Cape Henlopen School District has opted for a hybrid model, in which families can choose remote or in-person learning. Middle and high school students who choose in-person will come in two days a week.

This decision leaves Cape’s marching band season in a sort of limbo, said band director Chris Burkhart. “We don’t have any definitive answers yet from the district about what we can do and what we can’t,” he said in an interview Aug. 25.

Burkhart said Cape will have some kind of marching band experience, whether that’s virtual or in-person. He said they plan to lean on studies like the NFHS aerosol study to make informed decisions.

Indian River High School’s marching band performs in 2018.

Schools closed, music survived

Like many teachers and families, music teachers said the sudden school closures in March plunged them into uncharted waters. To top off the challenge, many schools were ramping up for spring performances, festivals and competitions. 

Jones said her kids were in the middle of their indoor season when schools closed.

“That was a little bit of a shock for us,” she said.

Teachers were quickly scanning sheets of music and trying to create plans for remote learning.

“It made our pivots to virtual learning very, very difficult,” George said. “We basically scrambled and said, ‘What can we do for the remainder of the year to provide our kids with a valuable experience.”

That’s when George reached out to a few other music teachers in Kent and Sussex counties. About 100 students from different schools in Capital, Polytech and Cape Henlopen school districts signed up for optional one-on-one lessons via Zoom.

This allowed teachers to instruct students in their expertise. For example, since Burkhart has studied the trumpet extensively, he would teach all the trumpet students from the three districts in personal half-hour sessions. In return, George would take the percussion students.

“It was cool to be able to work with his students and have his expertise benefit my students,” Burkhart said.

The lessons were free and open to students from beginners to higher level high school students. Leager said several of his Central Middle students signed up, and the idea was to make sure their skills weren’t lagging behind. “It was very successful,” he said. “That took up a lot of the time and kept us all busy just like a normal school day would.”

Burkhart said the one-on-one lessons seemed to work well to keep students engaged. “The relationship accountability almost is how we kept teenagers motivated,” he said. In the bigger classes, he said the teachers sometimes found themselves calling students to make sure they logged on.

Dover High School’s marching band plays during the 2019 homecoming parade.

One middle school student in Lake Forest School District said one-on-one attention and feedback from a teacher is what she was missing when she went remote in the spring. Sarina Forston, a rising seventh grader at W.T. Chipman Middle School and a saxophone player, said all her music classes were prerecorded in the spring.

“Not having a teacher was hard for me because the teacher helps the student and makes the student better,” Forston said. 

So, she took it into her own hands. She invited two friends to play music together over Zoom and has been practicing with friends since. “We got to at least hear someone. It still helped us,” she said. “We could still play with each other.”

Larry Friend, assistant principal at Caesar Rodney High School and former music teacher, reminded students to not give up.

“This is not the time to put the instruments aside. This is not the time to stop singing. This is not the time to run away from your passion,” he said. “This is an opportunity to run toward your passion and to find what it is that motivates you to reconnect.”

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Teaching music from a distance this fall

While the students and teachers at Capital, Polytech and Cape Henlopen seemed to get a lot out of the one-on-one lesson consortium, George said it likely won't continue into the fall. 

“I really liked what we were doing, but I don’t think it’s sustainable,” he said. “None of the schools really had concrete requirements on our time as teachers.” With more meetings and structured schedules, he said, the collaboration would be difficult.

Each school is looking at how they can continue to grow students’ musical skills through individualized and group instruction. Some districts, like Red Clay, are introducing new software that will make it easier for students to record themselves and even combine individual performances into a concert-like video. 

Snyder said these programs add value to the music classes and will likely stick around even after students go back to in-person learning. “We wanted to really leverage technology to try and enhance our instruction from the spring,” he said. 

Leager said plans for the fall are constantly evolving. He plans to break up his middle school band into small ensembles of five to eight students. Keith McCarthy, director of choirs at Caesar Rodney High School, said his school will likely do something similar, so hopefully those small ensembles can meet in-person eventually. 

The fifth grade bands from Clayton Intermediate School and John Bassett Moore Intermediate School combined for this concert on the Smyrna High School stage during “I Love the Smyrna School District Day” in February.

Donna Healy’s son plays the baritone and will start at Central Middle this year. She said she was impressed by the individual and group band lessons at William Henry in the spring and hopes her son will have some kind of band experience this fall. “I’m hoping they can live up to what last year was,” she said. “That’s the one thing that my son does look forward to is band.”

At the high school, George said the classes may focus more on theory, and he hopes to take a fresh look at the cultural significance of what they’re learning. Speaking about all teachers, he said, “We’re kind of reinventing the instruction aspect of education.”

Several parents said they truly appreciated what their schools’ music programs do for their children. “Our kids are very fortunate, and I guess that’s why it hits us harder because we know how fortunate they are,” MacDonald said. 

Leager agreed that the music programs are important to sustain, even in a pandemic. “Music is something that we all need in our lives, whether we realize it or not,” he said. “It’s not something that can or ever will or ever should go away.”

While seeking ways to make music in a virtual classroom, teachers and students alike await the day they can play together again. “Being together to make music is what we all crave,” McCarthy said. “The melodies are great but making harmony is greater.”