Usually at this time, Thunder Basin High School’s band would be preparing for a couple of its most important performances of the school year.
It was supposed to attend the Greeley Jazz Festival in Colorado at the end of this week and then the Northeast District Festival in Sheridan the following week. The concert band planned to its season finale and students were going to perform solos they’d been preparing.
But COVID-19 has caused the band to hit the pause button.
“I haven’t heard them play together as a group since the middle of March,” TBHS band director Steve Schofield said. “This would’ve been a real busy time and it’s not. That’s a little unusual.”
The TBHS band students, and especially the seniors, have gone from preparing for a couple of the biggest performances of their high school careers to merely trying to find ways to improve at home by themselves.
Ethan Bishop, a senior trumpet player, said he has “mixed feelings” about the process. He misses being with the whole band and maybe more than that, he misses practicing music that he would be able to perform.
Another major element that’s lacking with remote learning is the instant feedback that’s expected in the classroom. Schofield said usually he’d be able to stop the band immediately, correct something and then resume.
Now lessons look completely different and much of that has to do with the weekly work requirements for students. Instead of practicing for 45 minutes every day, Schofield and other music teachers have to pare down their lesson plans to two assignments per week.
Schofield’s goal, and that of many of his colleagues, has been that they “just want instruments being played,” he said.
A program called Smartmusic, which has thousands of song choices now available free, has helped with remote learning. Schofield asks his students to pick a song or project to work on from the long list and then they submit a video or a recording of them playing their instrument.
Hayley Miller, another senior band member at TBHS, said remote learning overall has been “kind of confusing, to be honest.” She has found herself working with several applications and Googling information to teach herself, but music lessons have been better than most, she said.
Students find the posted assignments on Google Classroom and then they have the choice of working on things like rhythms, playing style or different types of music, said Miller, who mainly plays the saxophone and tuba. She has been recording her assignments on her phone, a process that has been a little time-consuming.
As far as access to band equipment, Schofield said most of his students have their own instruments at home. Some came to school to pick them up, while instruments were delivered to homes at the junior high and elementary levels.
Schofield has seen about 75% participation so far in terms of students turning in work twice a week, but said the overall number of students who have participated has been about 90%.
The TBHS choir is going through many of the same challenges, underlined by missing some of its biggest concerts of the year. A trip to Denver and the festival in Sheridan have already been canceled and choir director Kim Garcia made the “difficult decision” this week to call off the final awards concert May 12.
“Even if we were to go back to school and could put something together, I didn’t want to end the year with a concert that wasn’t their best work,” Garcia said.
While it’s been “definitely different,” Garcia said she’s happy about how remote learning has gone so far. However, her students are missing the group aspect that plays such a big role in choir.
“They miss the classroom where they can work together and ask questions,” Garcia said. “I know I’m missing it terribly, too.”
The first week of remote learning was filled with uncertainty for students, but it lessened once they saw some familiarity with the lessons, Garcia said.
She can still give students a weekly routine similar to a classroom. The first of her two weekly assignments will be something like a listening example or an ear training, where students listen to a song and try to write it on a staff and submit.
The second will be more of a practical lesson or vocal technique, where students have to show Garcia something. Most of the time that will be done through videos or recordings, similar to band.
Garcia has been creative with a couple of assignments and asked students to demonstrate their breath control. Some showed off how long they could blow bubbles, others how long they could hold a piece of paper suspended midair using just their breath.
As the process continues, Garcia said she and her students will continue to think of creative ideas. They’ve already created a few videos encouraging healthy practices and Garcia has started researching how to make a virtual choir if graduation goes on as planned.