East band, choir students pivot with new expectations in remote learning

Junior Zoe McKillip practices the trumpet during a Google Meet rehearsal for the wind ensemble. “Everything that Mr. Rexroat and the other band director is asking from me is obtainable … I have to work a little harder and do a little more to stay on top of everything… and still get better at my instrument while we’re not in-person,” McKillip said. Photo by Rebecca Anderson.

Due to COVID-19 and the restrictions put in place, many schools have shifted to remote learning, which has had a big impact on the state of music classes. With the challenges e-learning has put in front of them, the music department has been forced to adapt to a new style of instruction, rehearsal, and performance of what has always been a very unique curriculum.

In a normal music class, the goal is for a group of students to work together to create a cohesive sound. The directors in both band and choir would choose songs towards the beginning of the year and the students would begin to work on each piece as a group. 

Each class would begin with a warm-up, segueing into a typical practice. This would include playing through certain measures of a song, workshopping a specific section, or fine-tuning for the final performance. 

In a normal time frame, the classes would get through two to three pieces each quarter. These pieces would then be performed at various school concerts and festivals.

However, with the normal class structure turned upside down, students have been getting to know their new, digital learning environment over the past two months. 

Sophomore Mason Heckman currently plays clarinet for the school’s wind ensemble band, with a history of marching band, pep band, and concert band.

“Band is hard to do online because being in the band room and playing is a different experience than playing on your own to your computer screen,” Heckman said. “It took some getting used to, but it’s just a normal part of my life now.”

Despite the challenges online band has presented him with, Heckman has increased his practice time and has taken a much more active role in his musical education. This has allowed him to adapt to the new class format and become comfortable with it.

Senior Andrew Benbow has taken multiple choir classes in the past and is currently in the a capella choir. 

“[In] choir classes in the past, you can hear everyone around you and listen to other parts [which is] very important,” Benbow said. “It’s different when nobody is around you and there is no directing going on to keep everyone together.”

Although learning the music without the accompaniment and the teacher’s instruction has been difficult, Benbow has appreciated the challenge.

The biggest change that the students have had to tackle is turning a group-based activity into a largely solitary one, as technical issues like lag make it nearly impossible for band and choir to play together.

The students are now focusing on their individual skills. In band, students are still working on different parts, but the number of parts has been reduced. Similarly, students in choir are still working on their specific voice parts, but they’re completing less pieces and focusing more on individual practice.

Senior Rhiannon Rannochio has been in choir since freshman year. Her freshman and sophomore year, she was in the ambiance choir. Junior year she joined the a capella choir. 

“I feel that one of the major losses for not having choir in person is just the feeling of unity the ensemble has while performing a piece we’ve all worked so hard on together,” Rannochio said.

Both band and choir students have felt this loss of connection, with the music they typically share with a whole class reduced to theirs alone.

Senior Jayden Chan has played the baritone at East for the past three years, participating in the concert band, the symphonic band, and now the wind ensemble band. 

“Band is normally more of a social class. You spend your time with almost 50 other people, and you are constantly working with other people to create a good sound,” Chan said. “But with online band you are isolated and it’s become a very individualistic thing.”

Chan added that he has been forced to become much more self-sufficient than in past years to overcome the challenge of playing alone.

Another essential ingredient to making music as part of an ensemble is teamwork, making band and choir a group effort. Since students in remote learning are unable to see each other, the loss of connection in their music classes could potentially lead to their struggles. 

“Band is normally more of a social class. You spend your time with almost 50 other people, and you are constantly working with other people to create a good sound. But with online band you are isolated and it’s become a very individualistic thing.”

— senior Jayden Chan

Junior Zoe McKillip is currently in the wind ensemble band for her second year, after a year in the concert band as a freshman. She said that she has struggled with losing the presence of her peers during e-learning.

“It’s really odd because when we play we only hear the teacher playing and so we don’t really know how other parts sound or how it sounds together,” McKillip said. “It’s just really hard to make yourself better.”

To account for a lack of peer input, McKillip and her peers have been trying to listen to more outside recordings, whether they be concert recordings from YouTube or examples sent out by the directors.

Focusing on individual growth has changed the learning process quite a bit, its biggest impact being a much slower pace than what most of the students are used to. While some view this as a drawback, others have taken advantage of the extra time and personalized focus. 

“We’re focusing a little bit more on their individual musicianship rather than our group collective,” Choir director Chelsea King said.

The biggest advantage of slowing down is that the teachers are able to provide their students with more feedback, allowing them to improve more as an individual than they likely would in-person. Both the choir and band directors have utilized this to its full potential, assigning students more individual assessments than in the past.

The students have noticed the impact e-learning has had on their musical skills. They

felt that it gave them more time to thoroughly understand specific aspects of music theory, expanding their knowledge overall. 

Junior Carter Mathison is currently in a capella choir, having participated in the bass ensemble choir, the intro class for tenor to bass range singers, in the past. 

“We have implemented sight-reading and many solfege assignments which are super helpful towards learning how to sharpen our musical theory skills and overall making us better musicians,” Mathison said. 

While he hasn’t been able to work with his peers, learning valuable music theory skills that he usually would’ve disregarded has expanded his knowledge of music overall. 

In choir, King is focusing on audiation, where students can look at a piece of music and hear how it sounds in their head. If a student can audiate her or his part, the performer can read the music easily.

Rexroat, meanwhile, has decided to focus on other skills, mainly trying to improve the students’ rhythm.

“[The students] have to count their rhythms and rhythm is always a really big struggle for a lot of students,” Rexroat said. “I’ve been having them individually do it and that’s opened my eyes a lot.”

The directors are hopeful of the impact individual improvement will have on the school bands and choirs, as a chain can only be as strong as its weakest link. While they are saddened by the loss of community, they hope they will be an even stronger group once they can get back together. 

“It’s taking a lot longer to get through music but I think it’s overall making them stronger musicians, individually. So that way, when we go back together, hopefully, everything will just click into place a lot faster,” King said.

Despite all of the changes, the music department is trying to maintain as much normality as possible during the pandemic. For example, choir still does their weekly Friday warm-ups and band still has their usual scales tests.

With all these changes, perhaps one of the biggest of all is the inability to have concerts. Students have concerts throughout the year to showcase all that they’ve worked on. 

King plans to provide students with a click track for the tempo and a recording of the accompaniment. Once everything is set into place and they’re ready to record the full length of the piece, they’ll record it, and she’ll mash everything together.

Band is taking a similar approach when it comes to substitution live performances, as they are having every student record their part on their own and the layering them together to make a cohesive, full piece.

Neither choir nor band plans on having a live performance until it is safe to do so.

“It makes me sad that we aren’t going to be able to perform any concerts together, [performing] is the premise of this class to be able to perform as an ensemble,” Rannochio said. “Plus that feeling of accomplishment that is felt when we perform a hard song that we have worked so hard on is so unique and special to our ensemble.”

With all of these changes and restrictions affecting the music department, both King and Rexroat have made sure to check in on the students to see how they could improve things to help them. They asked the students about how the class was going for them, what they could be doing better, and how the pacing of the class was. 

While acknowledging that they wouldn’t be able to facilitate a normal choir or band environment, most students agreed that the teachers are doing a great job given the circumstances. 

According to junior Gloria Bajlozi, who is now in the wind ensemble band for her second year, the instructors have been instrumental in ensuring that students can discover their potential even while in remote learning.

“I think that Mr. Rexroat and Ms. Cooper have done a really good job in adapting the format of the class to make it fit with remote learning,” Bajlozi said. “I feel that even though not as much is getting accomplished as we normally would if we were in school, we are still improving and becoming better musicians and people.”

Bajlozi added that both teachers are trying to do their best to incorporate various music lessons through fun activities. However, there has still been a very present learning curve for the students, with online band and choir posing new challenges with their procedural changes.

“Sometimes the repetitiveness of sitting at my computer and playing the same thing on my own can become boring,” Heckman said. “I find it challenging to complete certain assignments sometimes because going over them on a Google meets call does not really help my understanding of the assignment.”

Heckman’s peers would share in his sentiment, as they have a hard time dealing with the repetitive nature of online music classes. For many students, increased boredom would come with decreased work drive.

But when the music department is faced with challenges, they tend not to back down. Choir and band students alike are willing to put forth the extra effort required to succeed at this foreign form of education.

“It’s a little difficult for me because I’m not amazing and I like to have the extra help of feedback,” Bajlozi added. “I feel like classes are more difficult, the content is the same, it just takes more work to do well.”

And music students are willing to put in that extra work. 

Despite the hardships of the past few weeks, the students and teachers have done the best they can. However, everyone still eagerly awaits a safe return to in-person learning.

“I eventually hope that we will be able to return to in-person learning,” Mathison said. “As long as it is completely safe to do so.”

Deshna Chitrarasu & Rebecca Anderson are staff writers for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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