Bands make the most of time away from ensembles

Photos by Kayla Renie/The Herald
Forest Park High School freshman Eli Berg, 15, left, and his sister, senior Josie Berg, practice playing their marching band instruments at their home in Ferdinand on Saturday. Josie continues to practice because she is pursuing a music degree at Murray State University in Kentucky in the fall and wants to hone her skills. "Everyone [in band] has gained so much confidence," Josie said. "I'm excited to see how far they'll go, and I hope they can still compete."


Lannie Butler explained that it’s in the name. Trumpets and flutes aside, the word “band” means to come together for a shared purpose. “The whole concept of band,” said Butler, who is the band director at Southridge middle and high schools, “that’s what it is.”

But as spring concerts and contests were canceled and classrooms across the area sit empty during the COVID-19 pandemic, young performers practicing in isolation are also missing out on a crucial aspect of their musical development, further complicating the question marks leading up to the 2020 marching band season.

Eric Obermeyer, band director at Forest Park Junior-Senior High School, explained that his job is rooted in rehearsing face-to-face with ensembles. Now, he is primarily giving lessons to his students via Skype and FaceTime. And it just isn’t the same.

“The biggest impact of all, is part of the ensemble setting is that you have to listen to the students around you when you play,” he said. “You have to listen back. You have to listen forward. You have to fit your sound inside other students’ sounds, and that’s just not possible [right now].”

He continued: “Even with recordings and stuff like that, there’s no way to simulate the experience of sitting inside a band room and playing with other band students. So, that’s a huge negative impact for us.”

Obermeyer said he and other band directors are trying to find ways to replicate the group environment online, but noted that the longer members stay away from each other, the greater the negative impact it will have on students’ ability to maintain an ensemble.

Still, local directors do find some value in their e-learning exercises.

Forest Park High School senior Josie Berg plays the French horn at her home in Ferdinand on Saturday.

Through them, the kids sometimes record themselves playing a piece of music and submit it for a grade. Other times, they’ll complete assignments unlike any they would have done in school. Obermeyer recently tasked his kids with creating a song using anything in their home that is not an instrument, allowing them to tap into their creativity.

Keith Dossett, the band director at Heritage Hills middle and high schools, is leaning on exercises that challenge his kids to play music by ear, analyze the performances of professional musicians and hone in on music theory. This all leads to a development of their own individual musicianship.

“Even though we’re not in the classroom making music, we can still use this time to be proactive and improve our musicianship and musical knowledge,” Dossett said. “And that’s really what I’m trying to focus on.”
Butler also believes positives can come from remote learning.

“I think you could look at that both ways,” he replied when asked if the time away would negatively impact the kids’ development as musicians. “Certainly, it’s having an impact on everybody. But I think you can also look at it as, ‘Here’s an opportunity to grow, too.’”

There will be a noticeable detriment in the sense of experience, he said. But maybe kids are now doing things more independently than they thought they could, and they’re learning that about themselves. Or maybe the older students are dedicating more time to harnessing their individual skills, and can find a way to share that gift with others.

He believes students and staff who participate in the performing arts are already accustomed to adapting. Their competitions are often disrupted by weather or other unforeseen circumstances, and now everyone involved is “just trying to make the best of it,” Butler explained.

At this point, directors said they are approaching the upcoming marching band season just like they would every other year. The meticulously-detailed shows are being fleshed out. Practices are slated to begin in the summer. Leadership is paying close attention to what could happen, though, as other events around the world continue to be postponed and rescheduled.

“I hope if there’s going to be any changes, adjustments or cancellations or anything, I really hope they act sooner than later,” Chad Gayso, band director at Jasper High School, said of the Indiana State School Music Association’s decision-making. “Just because these marching band shows, they take months and months to put together. And I really hope that nothing happens or gets canceled or anything.”

He continued: “But the season — worst-case scenario — if it would happen to get canceled, that’s going to really kind of change our fall semester and our curriculum, and how we’ll have to think about things. And I hope they give us enough time to think about that, rather than waiting to make some sort of announcement until July. That’s too late at that point.”

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