On Returning to Band Class

Mike Lawson • ChoralCommentary • July 31, 2020

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We’ve had a failure of leadership on multiple levels. This crisis should be precedented, and it’s not. I should have known more about the pandemic in 1917-1920. We know we recovered in the roaring ‘20s, but we didn’t spend much time in American History class understanding that life changed drastically. We study history to learn from it, not repeat mistakes of the past, and help us plan for the future. We had public schools a hundred years ago. How and what did they do? Unfortunately, our public schools have become politicized.

Public schools are there for the good of all, no matter what your political beliefs are. This is for our collective future. These are our kids. We should have had a national plan at the federal government level, a framework that put everything into place. And then, at the state level, working within that framework, let the states have autonomy to work for their unique constituents. State guidelines should have been there working its way down to the individual school systems, working within those federal and state guidelines. We do need local control over this, but it has to be within a larger system.

The opening of schools argument is different. If, that’s a different discussion than the how. How are we going to deliver our instruction? One of my biggest concerns is that we’re looking at it from different perspectives, but not looking at it from the whole. I believe our state superintendents, national organizations, like the NFHS, NAfME, CBDNA, the American Bandmasters, the High School Band Directors National Association, and National Band Association have stepped up. While they’re trying to work for the best interests of their state, and their students, we still have a push and pull across political aisles, coming from the federal government. That is not helping.

We’re asking our teachers to teach in three environments. Over three months ago, we knew we had to prepare to teach in person, but we also knew that we had to be ready to do this virtually. We also had to plan on a hybrid scenario. I go back and look at my correspondence and documents I helped prepare in COVID-19 committees, and we thought about it, we talked about it, we planned for it, and yet, we are in late July, school is about to open, and we’re no further down the line. That’s quite disturbing.

Two things have to be in place to open schools. First, society has to come to terms with the fact that we are going to accept collateral damage in the cost of student and teacher lives, in order to reopen our schools. Personally, I’m not willing to accept that. That’s a line that I will not cross. I don’t believe I should be making decisions knowing that kind of collateral damage is there.

As a teacher and parent, I don’t want to make the decision on what activities I’m doing based upon collateral damage of students’ lives. That is unconscionable. I don’t believe schools should be involved in that. I am also disturbed with school systems that are asking parents and teachers to sign waivers now. It is unthinkable that we’re asking public school teachers and parents to do that.

Secondly, we’ve got to recognize resources must be in place for schools to open. Success will be defined on many different levels and ways. It’s not just monetary, but also resources of time, planning, and strategizing, so teachers can teach. The general public does not seem to understand we’re asking them to re-tool in three different ways, ready to jump from one system to another at a moment’s notice.

Let’s go to World War II. Factories repurposed on behalf of the war effort, maybe they made cars. Suddenly, the manufacturer is making military vehicles. They had to re-tool. Think of the time it took to redesign the mass production system — retrain their employees. They went through the process, did it success- fully. Our world is asking us to do this with no time to re-tool or training. They’re not thinking about that and wanting us to jump back and forth. There’s a better chance than not that we are going to have to go all virtual very quickly. We’re still going through the exercise of tooling up one way, and having to tool up a second way, and a third way. We’re asking our teachers to triple their workload.

We’re putting a lot of faith here in America in two significant studies. We are seeing things that are difficult. What we did learn out of those preliminary results, on July 13, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, is that things like coverings are effective. And so, it is not “should masks be implemented in every classroom?” Yes, they should be implemented. No, the students should not be talking. We have to try to minimize the interaction. Leave that to the teacher.

One thing we learned is that the CDC recommended six-foot distancing. Take that six feet and turn it into a square, it’s going to require 36 square feet. We did find from those preliminary results, supported the CDC, saying that that six feet will be a safe distance for ensemble playing with one exception, and that has to do with trombone players. With their bell in front of them, they need an additional three feet due to the slide, so each trombone needs a six-by-nine-foot space.

Look at the impact of that – just the spacing with masks. If every hundred square feet I have in my band room can fit just under three students, and I’ve got a thousand square feet of available teaching space, literally, I’m going to have probably 28 or 29 students in it safely. I go back to the discussions on some of the COVID committees I served on, and I realize that this now requires a totally different scheduling scenario for our music education programs. If the large band is going to be our priority, and if I’ve got a 180-piece band, I can still do this. I will take all six of my teaching periods and divide the band up into six groups of some type. It could be by section, it could be by small ensemble, it could be by any number of ways throughout the school day, as long as I could work in concert with the rest of the school system for academic scheduling.

Then, by using outdoor facilities, I would be able maybe to get my full group together once a week, or some period of time, to be able to keep that full ensemble together. But in order to do this, and give the child the experience they need, I also have to re-think my curriculum. If I’m teaching these ensembles, and if I’ve got flute players in a class and that’s how I chose to break this up, a flute part does not a music ensemble make.

I’m going to have to deal in small chamber groups, I’m going to have to deal in flute choirs, I’m going to have to deal in other types of literature; that is going to give that student the full ensemble experience. If we don’t do that, it’s simply a group lesson. I want to emphasize that. It’s simply a group lesson, as opposed to an ensemble.

As educators, we have to think about the “how.” Barry Houser, associate director of bands at the University of Illinois, director of the Marching Illini, and chair of the CBDNA college band marching committee, said, “Okay, guys, now’s the time. Don’t be influenced by all the negative stuff you’re seeing. We have to reaffirm our personal ‘why.’ Why we’re doing this, and now we’ve gotta go in and examine our ‘how.’”

The “what” is there. We already know that. We’ve got to make sure we know why we’re doing this, and we have to reconfigure the “how” of this. If I’m going to teach ensemble music to my flute players, I’m going to have to now re-think my curriculum and my curriculum materials. I’m going to have to get flute choir material. I’m going to have to get small chamber groups – duets, trios, quartets, in order to get them to have the ensemble experience. If not, we’re just treading water in an ensemble sea of anonymity.

I am most concerned about a lost generation of musicians. These are going to be at the middle school, beginning band, choir, and orchestra levels – kids who are never going to enter music programs because they’re isolated. If I don’t pick up my instrument somewhere between maybe fourth grade and sixth grade, my opportunities are very slim to join the band.

If my child joined the band in sixth grade in beginning band, great. But what happens if I move to another state, and all of a sudden, their window of time was four and five? Does that mean my child can’t get into that band program? There are going to be students that don’t have a beginning band experience this fall because we don’t know how to do it, particularly in a virtual, online setting.

I see music ed programs around the country begin to configure, and many of them have said if they’re going virtual, but they just can’t take music. Well, what does that mean? That means that now, that child’s not going to be in the beginning band. On top of that, many beginning bands are set up based upon school instrument inventories, with shared instruments. I was talking to my dear friend Alfred Watkins in Atlanta. He run a large Facebook group called the Minority Band Directors Association.

He said, “Robert, here in the Atlanta area, there’s a school where there is one school flute, and in the first period, it’s a sixth-grade band.” So, sixth grade, period one, a child uses the flute. The next period, sixth grade, period two, another child uses it. Then the next period, seventh grade, another child uses it. The next period, seventh grade period two, another child uses it. Then it goes back to the director, to check it out, make sure it works, and then a child gets to take the instrument home one day a week, to practice.”

In non-pandemic situation, that’s a challenge to begin with — in a pandemic situation, it’s impossible. We’re going to have a lost generation. I hope everybody reading hears this. Right now, the budgets we’re dealing with this fall were budgets that were determined last fall. The larger impact is going to be next academic year, because those budgets are going to be determined this fall. I think we may have a two-year lost generation, and that means that in three years, our middle school bands are going to be one-third the size. And that means that two years after that, our high school bands are going to be one half the size, assuming four grades in a high school.

And that means in two years after that, all these mighty college bands are going to be at least one half the size, but I contend that those big college marching bands that are so on display, that there’s a larger than 50 percent membership that are freshman and sophomore. As they become juniors and seniors, less of them may participate in that college marching band. We’re going to see and feel directly the impact of this for a decade.

The impact is going to be wide, and it is going to be long. It’s going to have depth and breadth, in a way that we have never, ever felt before. I’ve been teaching a very long time, at my current age of 61, and I started teaching very early in my life. I’ve been teaching over 40 years. I’ve been very blessed, I’ve been very fortunate, with some incredible humans that have shared their time and their talent with me. We’ve established the Robert W. Smith Foundation for Music Education. Our first endeavor with this is going to be that lost generation, and we’re going to be working to try and get instruments in the hands of every student that wants to learn to play an instrument.

We’ve got to address that, because it is for the greater good of all that music stay in our schools. I could talk about that for years, in terms of the importance in music and arts education, and teaching our students to think, analyze, and be creative with resources. We’re teaching creativity, but it’s in the arts classes that should be the keystone of the curriculum, not on the periphery. I’ve been talking to instrument manufacturers. We’re finding ways where people will be able to donate, where manufacturers hopefully will be offering some instruments at very, very favorable prices that people will be able to donate to the cause. How many people have an instrument that’s sitting in their closet now, not being used?

What is also happening right now is that our experienced teachers – our best teachers, our master teachers – are put in positions to where they are literally putting their lives on the line. Or, if not theirs, at the very least, the lives of the aging parents that they may be taking care of, or other people that they do come in contact with. Many of those teachers during the secondary wave here are retiring, and they’re getting out now. In the Alabama retirement system, my retirement income is tied to my last three years, or my highest three years of income. What we’re seeing right now are teachers going, “Wait a minute. If I retire now, this is what it’s going to be. I may not have that next year.” For example, let’s look at band directors, choral directors, arts teachers, who maybe have supplements. No, those supplements are not a lot. We pay a band director an extra $4,000 to $8,000 dollars a year. What we pay them for the extra hours is pennies per hour. All of a sudden, that’s part of your income. If I wait and teach three more years, my retirement income is going to be less. What’s happening is, our master teachers, our captains of our ship, and even worse, our rudders, are leaving the profession.

We’ve got some – albeit wonderful and talented, but not experienced – 20-something teachers, and they’re going to be on that ship with no captain, and worst case, no rudder. The ship is not even capable of sailing straight, in a steady direction. The ship is simply going to be blown from side to side, whichever way the proverbial god Poseidon wants to blow the ship, with wind and waves. That’s where the ship’s going to go. There’s no rudder. That is a huge problem, and that’s happening to us now. I had a former student of mine that just announced his retirement. This is a student of mine.

We have got to look at a very large picture. If schools are going to reopen, we have to know what the impact is going to be on students’ and teachers’ lives, and we have to be willing to accept that. For me, I’m not willing to accept one life for this. But that’s me.

We’ve got to look at schools and give them the financial resources and resources of time and planning in order for them to be able to do it correctly. Schools were never designed to be day care. What’s happened right now is our business world is now clearly recognizing that literally about a third of all the employees in America have school-age children. The fact that day care is a secondary benefit of schools does not take away from our primary mission: to prepare these students for not just their future, but for our future. Anybody who has done anything with success, throughout history, has made themselves dispensable. If you’re going to build a company, you build a company in a way that you can step away, and that company will continue to grow well into the future, long past your days on this earth.

We’re doing that in education, too. We’re building for the future. We’re building students that will become our future leaders, that will make the decisions, become our presidents, our congressmen, our senators, our business leaders, our future educators, our doctors, our lawyers. We’re building those students for all of our collective future, so that my generation can step away. If we mess this up, we’re not just going to have a lost generation of musicians, we’re about to have a lost generation of learned, experienced, creative-thinking Americans. That’s a scary thought to me.

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