Band Directors, Can We Talk COVID-ly?

Perhaps some of you had this lecture during your undergraduate methods courses:

Professor: “What will you be doing after you graduate?”

Energetic Music Ed. Major #1: “I’m going to be a HIGH SCHOOL BAND DIRECTOR!”

Professor: “Well, that’s certainly possible. But that isn’t what you’ll be doing.”

(uncomfortable silence)

Energetic Music Ed. Major #2: “Teaching!”

Professor: “Is anyone else going to be in the room, or just you?”

(really uncomfortable silence)

Energetic Music Ed. Major #3: “We’re going to be... teaching..... students?”

Professor: “Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere.”


Do you remember that lecture? Did it start to turn your thinking around as you considered that being a band director was going to be less about you, and more about your students and their musical development?

We teach students

We teach students about music. 

We teach students about music through band.

Band is a vehicle. And it is one hell of a vehicle. But perhaps in this time of e-learning we would do well to remind ourselves that we don’t teach band, we teach students. And our students need music now more than ever. But lately many of us are spending an awful lot of time lamenting the one thing we simply cannot have...”our” band delivery vehicle.

Please understand, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be upset that we can’t provide our students with awesome rehearsals and performances as a means to learning music. It stings. I’m upset about it too. The interdependent learning that happens in those environments is life changing. But the fact is, it’s not an option right now, and it might not be an option in the fall. It’s time to face our reality, such as it is. Let’s focus our energies on things we can change, not things we can’t.

Still with me? Let’s keep drilling down.

The reality of this moment is that our delivery vehicle is different. In the near term we are not “teaching students about music through band.” We are “teaching students about music through the internet.”

Band Director: (groans) “Did you really just say that?”

I know, believe me, I know. But it’s true.

Band Director: “You can’t teach band through the internet.” 

No, we can’t. But, again:

We don’t teach band, we teach students. We teach students about music. So what we need to be thinking about is “what type of musical learnings can best be supported through the internet?”

Band Director: “That’s not what I signed up for.” 

I hear you. But....real talk? This isn’t what your students signed up for, either. And they have other choices they could make. Hearing me? The “band vehicle” is compelling by its very nature. Without it, we have to find other compelling ways to continue to reach these kids or they are going to look elsewhere. You have to believe you can do this.

If you don’t believe it can work, neither will your students. And neither will their parents. And neither will your boss. We can lament, or we can walk the walk. Are we in fact teachers of students? Or are we merely band directors? The way we see ourselves right now has never been more important. And while I made my criticism of the National Standards clear throughout the last revision, many of the new standards that don’t lend themselves to a band learning environment can be successfully addressed via e-learning. The ideas are there.

You need time to plan, yes. You need resources and training, yes. But most importantly you must be willing. Willing to see the situation for what it is. Willing to find a way to make this work for the benefit of your students. Willing to teach in entirely new ways that will likely not be comfortable but can still be meaningful. “Not having band” is not an excuse for substandard teaching, period. 


This brings me to a thought regarding “virtual ensemble” videos. Some are worried that videos (or frankly ANY form of online music production) should not be done because it will prove that we can “do band” without being together. Friends, let me tell you something: No one is satisfied with these videos as a replacement for band. No one thinks they are more meaningful than rehearsals and performances. They are “for this time” and most assuredly not like being in band. Do you think students would choose to continue making videos over being in class with each other? No. Do you think parents would rather see videos than go to their child’s concert? Definitely not. Eric Whitacre has been doing virtual choir videos for years...did school choir go away? No.

Two things are going to happen when we are allowed to have concerts again. One, Whitacre will once again be the only one doing virtual ensemble videos. And two, your students are going to have the best audiences they’ve had in years. Maybe ever. People want and appreciate the shared experience of live music, and the pent up demand is going to be an amazing moment. Trust me on this. In the meantime if you feel your students might be energized by such an experience and their families would appreciate it...please don’t hold back on that or *any other musical endeavor* because you are worried about the future of band. You have students who need meaningful musical experiences NOW. Whatever that looks like for you, your community, and the resources available, do it. 

Please don’t miss my point here. I am not saying you need to make videos (I have not). I am not saying teaching music from home is easy (it is not). I am saying you need to offer up the most meaningful musical experiences you can devise right now, whatever that looks like for you and your students. This is the time for the best teaching you can muster. This is the time to share ideas and experiences across our profession. Whatever you decide to do, dig deep. Don’t withhold your best teaching defensively...go on the offensive for the sake of your students. Band as we know it will return. In the meantime we need to teach meaningfully through the vehicle(s) we have. You’re the professional. You’re the content expert. Make it happen.


Band Director: “You have no idea what my situation is like”

You’re absolutely, 100% correct. I have no idea what roadblocks you face. But I have a very good idea of what your students need right now: They need the pre-COVID, inspirational YOU. They need everything you can muster in this moment. I also have a pretty good feeling that you are the reason a lot of your students show up for school every day. And let’s be clear: We are still in school. You could make all the difference right now.

And yes, you are going to have kids blow you off. You are going to have parents blow you off. You are going to have administrators who cannot fix your problems. Everyone is going to miss “just having band.” But you are going to keep at it. You are going to learn new ways of reaching kids and families. You are going to continue to teach with excellence because that is what you have always done. Chin up, kids are counting on you to keep teaching them to love music.

I don’t know what “school” is going to look like this fall. Maybe there will be rehearsals, maybe not. Maybe there will be live performances, maybe not. But regardless, I am not paid to be a band director. I am paid to teach students and my area of content expertise is instrumental music. I intend to earn my salary as I always have. If I am told that classes will be online in the fall and asked if I am ready, the answer will be “absolutely.” Because I can still teach students about music until our community is healthy again. Kids need music even if they can’t have band. 

Is delivering music instruction in an entirely new way reasonable? No, not really. But you know, we have a lot of doctors and nurses who are being asked to do unreasonable things these days. We have a lot of parents who are in unreasonable situations as they try to work from home and oversee their child’s learning. Some parents don’t even have a job right now, which is totally unreasonable. We do have jobs. Here comes the tough love: Stop lamenting your situation. You have a paycheck, figure out how you are going to earn it in a way that has meaning for your students.

No one ever expected band would look like this. It’s certainly not how I expected to spend the last year of my career (nor this summer as I, like you, may need to formulate an entirely new curriculum). But I’m going to do what it takes. What I don’t know how to do, I will learn to do. What’s that other quote from college.... “teachers are lifelong learners?” 

Yeah, that. I’ll be ready. You’ll be ready. We can do this.