John Johnson

Boyd County band director John Johnson plays a masked trumpet.

Band class will be different in public high schools this year.

Marching at football games, or anywhere else, is unlikely.

Virtual instruction, at least for the first part of the year, will cause difficulties for student-musicians in learning to play together.

When they do play together, they will have to wear masks — both on their faces and, for some, on their instruments.

Band directors in Ashland, Boyd County and Greenup are working on ways to teach music adequately while keeping their students safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. It isn’t easy.

At Boyd County High School, where the board of education has elected all-virtual classes through the first nine-week grading period, band director John Johnson is following the same pattern he did when schools were closed during the first onslaught of the pandemic in the spring.

As in other classes, students convene virtually via Google Meet. But they cannot play as an ensemble via internet because some machine may lag behind and throw off the timing.

Students learn their music and play for Johnson so he can assess them. His theory — for now and out of necessity — requires making an assumption. “If they can play by themselves, they probably can play well together,” he said.

Among other things, he uploads his version of a piece as a model and sets a metronome so students can play at the same tempo.

Directors are still wrestling on teaching a group activity effectively when the group can’t get together. “Different? That’s an understatement,” said Ashland Blazer High School band director Chris Whelan. “There’s no substitute for being with kids in person because of what we do (in a normal band class) — we go from bell to bell playing as an ensemble.”

Part of the group routine is newer members listening and learning from older, more experienced members, he said. “Some kids may have difficulty with a piece and they need to be able to listen to the older kids play,” he said.

Musicians at all three schools, including those who play trumpets, clarinets and other wind instruments, will wear masks while playing once in-person classes resume. Masks for wind musicians are made with a hole in the center for the mouthpiece.

Wind instruments also are equipped with cloth coverings to block the emission of potentially virus-carrying droplets. The coverings do not significantly affect sound quality, Johnson said.

If bands play at football games this fall — and whether that will happen is still up in the air — they will not march. Instead, they will perform from the stands, where they will sit at intervals appropriate for social distancing. Greenup County’s band is not planning to be at games, at least during the weeks of virtual instruction, director Chris Milby said. Preparation for a game performance takes time — three to four weeks, he said.

Though many think first of marching band when they think of high school musical programs, that component is not the most vital, at least according to Johnson. Rather, the concert band is the hub of the program and other components — marching band, pep band, jazz band and chamber music ensemble — are the spokes.

“While the experience won’t be the same without the traditional marching band, we will still be able to provide the students with a high-quality learning experience,” Johnson said.

Once in-person classes resume, students will be scheduled in on a rotating schedule in order to maintain adequate social distancing, Milby said.

Interest in band does not seem to have suffered. “Our kids are chomping at the bit to get back to it,” Whelan said.

There are other challenges beyond those of musicianship and academic asssessment. There is the culture of band, which is what attracts many students in the first place.

“For all the kids it’s hard. One reason kids like to be in band, they don’t necessarily want to be in band because they are going to be professional musicians but because they gain something socially and emotionally,” Johnson said.

“Band kids are a big family,” Whelan said. Their shared interest in music brings them together. That closeness can work for the program in some ways.

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