116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Welcome to the world of high school bands in the pandemic: Masks with flaps. Bell covers for brass instruments. Puppy pads for spit rags. Marching bands that don’t march. Concert bands with canceled concerts.
Pivoting is a hallmark of marching routines, but since March 2020, bands and band directors in the Corridor have been pivoting in ways that are anything but routine. Every day brings improvisation.
Washington High, Iowa City High, Mount Vernon High and Prairie High schools all have 100 or more students in band. Keeping them engaged, connected and practicing became crucial during the first six to nine months of the pandemic, before they could tiptoe back into physically distanced outdoor and indoor rehearsals and performances. Some band students and teachers still aren’t meeting in-person, since online learning remains an option at many schools. Contest entries, including All-State, moved to recorded submissions sent to online portals.
But all four schools have spring performances in the works, and last fall mounted abbreviated football shows on their home turf after trying to hold modified, socially distanced outdoor rehearsals. The first day of Prairie’s camp ended shortly before the derecho hit last summer. Storm damage also shut down Washington’s rehearsals.
City High organized a volunteer football pep band on the blacktop outside the end zone. In Cedar Rapids, Washington, Kennedy and Jefferson highs each played for one of their own games at Kingston Stadium. Prairie performed at two home games, with an intended third show rained out. Mount Vernon High played at three home games and at an open rehearsal beforehand, which turned emotional when the parents and guests in the stands gave them a standing ovation.
In between fall and spring, the band directors had to figure out a rehearsal model, lessons and expanded instruction, including in-depth studies of musical styles, composers and listening exercises — which they said has enriched the student experience.
All of the local band directors were able to keep their full-time assignments. Aaron Ottmar, director of bands at Iowa City High, saw social media posts about directors in other parts of the country being reassigned to teach in different academic areas or having their programs cut, but he hasn’t heard of that happening in Iowa.
This disruption has been “exhausting” for teachers and students, said Scott Weber, 48, of Mount Vernon, the district’s eighth-grade and high-school band director.
“Anybody in the arts has had to reinvent how you teach. It’s such an expressive form of education — a lot different than math or English,” said Weber, who is in his sixth year at Mount Vernon and his 20th year as a band director. “It’s definitely opened our eyes to what the potential is for how you can really reach students, because you had to do some different things to make things happen.
“But I think our kids are stronger, I think our teachers are stronger because of what we’ve had to endure. At least for myself, I won’t take a lot of things for granted as we move out of this.
“And I know we’re not done,” he said, “but those moments when you’re in the stands and watching other bands perform, or you’re working with a student and you’re working with other colleagues, it causes us to pause for a moment and realize how lucky we really are to be able to do what we do every day.”
Even when every day has been so different and so unsure.
When the pandemic hit, “everything stopped,” said Jim Miller, 62, of Hiawatha, one of two band directors at Cedar Rapids Washington, where he has taught for 20 years. “My wife likes to kid me that `You came home for spring break and never went back.’ ”
He did go back, for one final turn in a year like no other, before he retires this June after a 41-year career.
“It’s certainly not what I had anticipated,” he said of moving to online instruction. “We had to learn the technology to do it. I'm not used to teaching this way, but all the teachers, at least in my building, have become very adept at the Google Classroom Suite. And we all know how to sign in to group chats and all kinds of things to teach in that format, because that's where the kids are.”
When schools last year went into lockdown, it would have been easy to put band on pause, too, but the directors stress the value of music in student development, and began reaching out to their students on virtual platforms to keep them connected to the program and to each other.
“During a time like this, the arts have really helped our students to really feel in a better state emotionally than if they didn’t have the arts in their lives,” said Ottmar, 28, of Iowa City, a six-year teacher in his fourth year as director of bands at his alma mater, Iowa City High.
“There’s just so much about what we do that’s collaborative, where every person has a part in what the whole product is,” he said. “Also, it’s a natural soothing, healing, emotional aspect to their lives, as it provides something other curricular areas may not. It appeals to a different side of your brain — the less analytical side of your brain — and it also appeals to the emotions within your heart more so than some other curricular interests.
“Obviously, it would have been easy to say, hey, we’re not going to do as much this year, but at City High, we really wanted to take the mindset of doing whatever we can to make meaningful experiences for our students.”
Miller echoed that.
“There have been tons of studies that have been done over the duration of my career, and they all point to how it helps them to become well rounded and helps them have a varied interest in learning,” Miller said.
“And then there are exacting studies that show that (music) absolutely helps learning, specifically math. There's a correlation between math and music, as you might expect, and in our school, our philosophy … is that we want the kids to be involved in as much stuff as they can be involved in. We find that they're better tied to their school if they're in any activity, and of course at my end, we’re pushing the band.”
Finding their footing was tough last spring and summer — and even into the fall — as they faced so many uncertainties about when they would be returning to school, rehearsals and performances.
All of these band directors encouraged their students to keep practicing their instruments during lockdown, but they couldn’t rehearse as ensembles online because of the sound delay. Turning on their computer cameras and even attending virtual sessions were optional, too.
“The same kids that would normally practice at home continued to practice,” said Deron Jimmerson, 45, of Cedar Rapids, co-director of bands at Prairie High.
“But it’s hard. For many kids, the biggest reason they’re in band or choir is because of the interaction with other students — the feeling of performing in an ensemble or even rehearsing in an ensemble,” he said.
“When you’re home alone, that’s a hard thing to recreate, and it was harder to stay motivated to practice maybe, because you didn’t have new music to learn or a performance coming up. For the most part, our kids did a good job of persevering through that, and trying to practice new things.”
Some also branched out while staying at home.
“We talked to kids that learned new instruments or spent more time learning guitar, (which) they might not normally do,” said Jimmerson, who is in his 11th year at Prairie and 24th year as a band director. “We’ve heard from some students that have tried writing music, and learned more about recording.
“We just tried to really encourage them to do whatever they can to stay connected that way — especially last year, when all this first happened. There were a lot of virtual concerts and recording things happening,” he said. “We tried to share as much of that as we could with them, so they could keep seeing music and being inspired to coming back at some point.”
Most schools reopened last fall with hybrid learning, alternating in-person and at-home attendance. That meant band practice on any given day could have a wildly disproportionate number of bodies and instruments in socially distanced chairs.
As more students came back to in-person learning, Prairie, Mount Vernon and City high schools have been able to rehearse in their large performance spaces, making it easier to keep students distanced and to plan for upcoming concerts in May and June.
Only The Revolutionists jazz band is meeting in person regularly at Cedar Rapids Washington, since the ensemble is small and the band room is large, said Miller, whose colleague, Joel Nagel, directs that group. But several fine arts organizations will offer up short performances during Washington’s popular Frankfurter Festival, slated for May 13 in the school’s courtyard.
Now the directors are looking ahead to next year, when they anticipate being back in the schools. They’re expecting to plan football halftime shows, compete and host contests — and rebuild skills at all levels, especially with the band students in the lower grades, who have missed so much as they’re just getting started.
“It will take a little time to feel like we’re back to where were a few years ago,” Jimmerson said. “We’re really trying to focus on what we can do with the kids in front of us each day. You always have that long-term vision — you’re always looking forward. But we’re going to do the best we can today with the time we have today for these kids. That’s all we can do.”
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