Getting the band back together: A look at pandemic restrictions for ASD band classes

Published: Mar. 31, 2021 at 7:53 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In all 16 years that Jason Edwards has been the director of the Dimond High School Band, he said last year was the worst. Now, back in class for only a couple of weeks so far, the end of this school year is much better in comparison.

“We can actually hear each other play and we can do stuff together and we can kind of start getting that ensemble sound,” he said. “Still, the only hard part about it right now is the fact that my bands have been broken up into two smaller bands, and I don’t always have the complete instrumentation that I need.”

Back in class now, he said the students are getting back in tune but not without a lot of hurdles. He said band class has extra restrictions on top of those of the other classrooms.

Most notably, it’s not just the kids who have to wear a mask but their instruments too. For the sections that require the player to blow through the instrument, students are required to put a cloth covering on the end where the sound comes out called a bell cover.

A saxophone with a bell cover, PPE for instruments.
A saxophone with a bell cover, PPE for instruments.(Taylor Clark)

A long-time musician, Edwards demonstrated the way they work on his trumpet, a brass instrument, without sacrificing the tune. However, throughout the class, several of the high school students made some complaints that they couldn’t hit certain notes just right.

Laura Simpson, a junior who plays flute, pointed out that they don’t work well for woodwind instruments that have holes that blow air out through all the keys.

And she hasn’t been given a bell cover for her flute yet. She pulled a plastic bag that she was trying to use for the purpose of the bell, but said it got in the way of her playing.

Right next to her, senior Jessica Gimarc playing the clarinet has the same problem. She was using a sock attached to the end using a rubber band.

One student demonstrated that he could hit a hard note more prominently on his saxophone without the cover. Edwards empathized with him but had to tell the student that the class had to keep them on.

The students said they felt that the restriction was somewhat unnecessary and annoying but understood. Simpson even admitted how “nasty” band instruments get during class.

Other notable restrictions for band classes are that these students have to sit eight feet apart instead of six because of the aerosol created by all of them blowing air through their instruments. They also have to stop playing for about 20 minutes halfway through class to let the room vent.

Of course, most students can’t play their instruments while masked. Every time they play, they take them off and immediately have to put them back on when they’re done.

Also, Edwards said he has to conduct his class while still teaching some students who are still at home virtually.

Make no mistake, all the students who talked about the restrictions said they’d rather follow them and be in band class than take it online or not be in band. However, Edwards said they saw some drop out after last year, and now they have to focus on recruiting next year to build up their numbers.

What really upsets the students is how all the changes started. Edwards said they were supposed to take a trip to New York City to play at Carnegie Hall. It was canceled just days before they were supposed to get on the plane.

Edwards said it was about a $2,000 trip per student. Some of them said they were raising money for it since before high school.

“It was like everything was gone in an instant. And there’s just no getting that back,” said senior Jessica Gimarc.

Edwards said they have worked with the tour company before and still have a good relationship with them. He said they got most but not all their money back after a complicated process that took months to complete.

He explained that some of the activities planned - like attending a concert - were non-refundable. Additionally, any money raised through fundraising never belonged to the students so they couldn’t get that back.

They still played the music, just in Anchorage.

“I was still upset during that, because it’s like, ‘oh yeah here’s your consolation prize. You don’t get Carnegie Hall, you get Dimond Gymnasium,’” Simpson said.

“It was really sad and a lot of us were crying afterward because we’re like ‘we could have played this at Carnegie Hall,’” junior Anne Marie Van Couwenberghe said.

The students ended up getting some t-shirts and a plaque to commemorate the in-town performance.

“It was like years of work just for a t-shirt and a plaque,” junior Shelby Wholecheese said, “And it’s not even a good color t-shirt!”

The canceled trip hangs on the students’ heads, especially the seniors now who were juniors at the time, and now have no chance of going on a high school trip with the band.

Still, there are a lot of juniors in the symphonic band now. They are hoping to keep practicing and get better so that next year they can set their eyes on a faraway concert once again.

“A lot of the restrictions we have are too much, but in order to play and see people I’ll do as much as I have to,” Gimarc said.

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