She’s Got The Power! Courtney Powers and her mission to keep music-making alive in quarantine

Mike Lawson • Features • June 15, 2020

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Around mid-March, South Philadelphia High School music director Courtney Powers had a vehicle so stuffed with instruments, you would have thought that she was going on tour.

And she was, in a sense – but instead of heading to venues across the country to perform, she went on a tour through the Philly area to deliver instruments and gear to students in quarantine. Much like essentially every other music educator in America, Powers found herself disheartened when she realized that mandatory school closures from the COVID-19 pandemic meant that many of her students would be without any ways to practice their instruments.

With their music-making tools locked up at school, there was little promise for students to keep up with lessons at home, or even play for fun while in isolation. Immediately, Powers grabbed some gloves, Clorox wipes, and went straight to the principal to seek a course of action that would bring music back into her students’ homes.

And so her “tour” began, safely delivering two drum sets, seven pianos, three guitars, two P-Bones (plastic trombones), a Roland 202, and a MIDI controller to her students who remained in the safety of isolation in their homes. In April, she and other school admins and teachers handed out 250 Chromebooks to students through the school windows, giving kids without a computer a home a fighting chance of keeping up with their studies.

Willpower, determination, and extra elbow grease: Powers’ story shows precisely what music educators are made of. Read on for SBO’s full chat with the esteemed South Philadelphia High School music director.

Can you give us a brief history of your music and education background? (that’s a hard question, I know!)

I hail from Leon, Kansas, a rural town of about 300 people. In middle school I was introduced to the French Horn and fell in love. I graduated from Wichita Heights High School in 2002, winning the John Philip Sousa Award. I spent two years at Cowley County Community College and received my Associate of Arts under the direction of Gary Gackstatter. I sent Berklee a CD of the Strauss Horn Concerto No. 1 and got the acceptance letter. I drove across the country to follow my music education goals. I graduated from Berklee College of Music [in] Boston, Massachusetts in 2007 and Villanova University for my Master of Arts in Education in 2015. I have been teaching 12 years with urban students ranging K-12 in Massachusetts, Texas, and Philadelphia. I enjoy spreading my love and passion for music education at conferences, professional developments and to future educators. I am a 2020 Grammy Music Educator semi-finalist, Give-A-Note Grant semi finalist, 2021 Give a Note grant recipient, Vans Give a Band grant recipient and VH1- Save the Music grant facilitator. The key to being a good music educator is to convey to students that music is of and belongs to a community, #musiccitizenship. I have built programs in marching band, concert band, jazz band, chorus, modern band, ukulele and drama and general music. I am also a classically-trained French horn player in two orchestras and can play over 10 other instruments. I am an active music citizen with NAfME, PMEA, Little Kids Rock, Notsolatin, Turtle Records, Roland and Project 440.

When did the idea occur to you to deliver instruments and laptops to students? Did you have an a-ha moment?

I was worried for them on that Monday the we closed for two weeks. I wanted to get them instruments [on] day one, and our principal sent an email that if we needed something during these next two weeks to contact her. I did ASAP because I wanted to make sure my students were taken care of. Our building engineer was fantastic in helping me safely get everything out in one trip.

How long was it before students received these items from you?

The weekend for 16 kids and five others got them two weeks later during the Chomebook distribution.

How many items have you delivered total, to date?

The laptops were given to my seven students working with the VH1 Save the Music J Dilla grant. I was able to get them the Roland 202 they were using at school, and a MIDI controller to finish their projects. [I delivered] 14 instruments (two drum sets, seven pianos, three guitars and two P-Bones).

What was it like to get permission from the school to do this? That can be tricky.

At the beginning before we knew how long we were going to close and what to do, there was this tiny window of three days that “if we needed to get in the building to arrange that with the principal and building engineer and to use all the safety precautions.” Then a few weeks later we could volunteer to give out Chromebooks for three days at school. I was happy that I could reach some more students and make sure they could get their schoolwork and an instrument if they needed.

How were you able to deliver everything in a health-conscious, safe way? Were you ever nervous about sanitizing?

No, I wasn’t too nervous. This was before the formal lockdown. . . I called students, waved to them from my car, dropped off the equipment in front of their house and gave them directions about the equipment, yelling from my car window and then took their picture. It was so hard not to just jump out and hug them, but we are all in this together.

What was your delivery process like to keep things as safe as possible?

I kept a stream of Lysol and Clorox wipes, changed gloves, wore a mask, [made] no unnecessary stops in my car, and kept away from everyone. Yelling the directions was weird, but all the students I was able to connect with them using Google Hangouts to call them while I was out front, so I could walk them though any set-up issues.

Aside from the obvious reasons of continuing lessons smoothly, why was it so important to you to get these instruments and laptops to students?

For some of my students, they are taking care of multiple siblings and need an escape, and this instrument and the computers allow them the space to create beats. My students have been teaching other siblings fun songs they send me, and some are learning how to tune at home. That is a challenge, but they get better every-time- I even talked [to] a kid’s dad and her via video chat and helped him change a guitar sting that I dropped off in their mailbox. That was fun!

How would you recommend that SBO readers can best serve their own students during this trying time?

They are overwhelmed. Some are being super active, some not at all. You never know what it is like for a student to study at home – they may have step-siblings that go to a different school, they are working full time during the quarantine and scared to say that they may need help. Students in Kansas are in sometimes such rural areas that they do not have a service provider for internet or viable cell service. It is 2020 and heartbreaking that this disease here and now, was the breaking point that has begun to tip the pendulum of education as a whole.

Now that it is here, let’s just think. Think what is was like when you were in 6th grade- what would you have done during this time? Who were you then? What were your obstacles? Students need our help to socialize healthily online. Sometimes we may think, “these kids are always on their phone, zoned out and always chatting with friends.” Yes, that can totally be true, but they are communicating in a different way. They don’t like to show their face, they put something up online and delete it, and they do have some amazing TikToks. Students are online, but they are in a different world of memes, cyberbulling, and screenshots. Just be mindful, authentic, and patient. Have lunch meets or play games as a class online together, do a TikTok band/orchestra challenge- show them you! Learning is learning- find value. #musiccitizenship

Photo Credit: A New View Photography

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