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Impact of Coronavirus on Music Programs and Events: Cancellations Cause Confusion and Disappointment

Mike Lawson • Commentary • March 27, 2020

The role of the music director and staff at times is a combination of parent, mentor, counselor, priest, and best friend. Many of your tools didn’t come with your college degree(s). It is a combination of active listening, leadership, and compassion. This current health situation is a “pop quiz” on your capabilities.

The environment for even reporting on the impact of event cancellations reflects the interruption of even simple communications by this pandemic. Generally, one can locate and contact a band director or music department chair through their school or organization, but these resources are all closed, and in many cases, there doesn’t seem to be anyone monitoring incoming emails or voicemail messages.

Much of the first news about the Covid-19 invasion came from the Seattle, Washington area. Enter John Keane of the Seattle Irish Club, organizers of that city’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade; Joey Roberts, the band director of both Seattle area Denny International Middle School and Chief Sealth International High School bands; and Vince Caruso, director of the Shorecrest High School Highlander Marching Band. The events and actions taken in the Seattle area may serve as an example of the impact and mitigating response. The most extreme example may be the Shorecrest Band experience.

The school is located just a few blocks north of the Seattle School District. The band has been invited to march in the Dublin, Ireland Saint Patrick’s Day parade seven times, usually every fourth year. Invitations are extended two years in advance with hotel arrangements made even earlier in anticipation of being invited, The trip also includes a nine to ten day performing tour of Ireland including a second parade in Limerick. This means that every band member will usually have this opportunity at least one time, and usually only one time. This year’s trip would have included 170 students and 30 teachers, staff and chaperone parents. Preparations take place over many months and rapidly escalate just before the trip. This year’s departure was scheduled for March 12th. Many instruments and all uniforms had already been shipped to Ireland. A final parade practice had taken place on March 2nd and the last pre-trip meeting for students and their parents was scheduled for March 8. It should be noted that this trip causes students to miss nearly two weeks of school, yet the parents, school district and community strongly support the effort.

Events escalated rapidly after announcements of the COVID-19 presence in the Seattle area. Within a week of departure, the school district requested health specific waivers from parents. Dublin then cancelled their parade. Trip coordinators in Ireland scrambled to fill the void and even more obstacles appeared with further cancellations and restrictions.

The Shorecrest school principal, who was part of the travel team and has a daughter in the band, made the difficult decision to cancel the trip. Although that decision was made and announced to the community in a variety of fashions, the “pre-trip” band meeting was still held, and streamed live, to be sure that all affected would have the same accurate and timely information. Shorecrest band director, Vince Caruso described the scene, “the obvious disappointment was immense. We had seniors and a few juniors that had looked forward to this trip for years!”

“While they fully understood, they still were sad!” he added. On a wider but more local scale, many of the Seattle area school bands and auxiliary units march in the annual Seattle St. Patrick’s Day parade. Among these units were both middle school and high school bands, as well as an elementary school unicycle team! Joey Roberts is the band director at both Denny International Middle School and also in his first year as director at Chief Sealth International High School. Both bands were scheduled in the canceled Seattle parade. His reflection on how the Seattle School District has responded to cancellations and ongoing school closures was, “the bigger story, I feel, is the community of band directors and how we support each other virtually…email within district, the Washington (state) Band Directors page, and even the NAfME page.”

Important to the bands and directors directly impacted by the Seattle parade cancellation as well, as the entire music and fine arts education programs are school district fine arts coordinators. Roberts referred to their role, saying, “We also have a district Fine Arts Coordinator/Facilitator to help us share developments, concerns and just generally support each other.”

In addition to these music and fine arts focused tools, the Seattle School District has implemented their “Schoolology” system. Band directors are helping occupy their students with practice assignments, music listening opportunities as well as a direct communication with their students through this system. Although billed as an online learning management system, it provides a social media like means of two-way communication between school personnel, students and parents. (SBO will explore these methods in future features.)

What we have learned or have had confirmed so far through this COVID-19 experience is that communication is critical and vital. This includes accurate information and availability of the band director and staff. This capability is not just for emergencies, but as the norm. As important, is having a plan for all eventualities, regardless as to how remote the possibility of needing that plan. There also needs to be a “Plan B” in case the original plan is compromised or made inoperable. With today’s heavy reliance on electronic means of communication, a power outage and/or internet failure would cripple many plans.

So, communicate, cooperate and go to Plan B!

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