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And the band played on: Conductors switch to teaching online during the coronavirus shutdown
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And the band played on: Conductors switch to teaching online during the coronavirus shutdown

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School band directors are used to standing in front of a large group of students, waving their arms and making music.

It's a lot more complicated than that, of course, but you get the general idea.

But with schools closed, there are no bands to conduct right now.

That doesn't mean local music has stopped, however.

Far from it.

Kenosha enjoys a well-deserved reputation as a city that nurtures live music, and local educators aren't letting the coronavirus snuff out that joy.

Instead, they've gotten creative, teaching private lessons through the video conferencing program Zoom, setting up Google Classroom for instruction and using SmartMusic, an interactive music learning software.

Here are some of the ways the music plays on even when the musicians can't meet in person:

Lucas Dickinson, band director at Washington Middle School

He's been working with students online using two avenues: SmartMusic and Google Classroom.

Fave Five: Reporter Elizabeth Snyder

As the year draws to a close, the Kenosha News is taking a look back on 2019 and sharing the favorite five stories that each of our reporters has written this year.

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SmartMusic, he explained, "is a free online practice tool that plays music along with the student. It’s no substitute for normal classroom ensemble rehearsal, but it works very, very well considering our current circumstances. Teachers have been able to assign music for students to play, submit and be critiqued on." SmartMusic has free content and premium content, but the company, he said, has made all content accessible for free through June 30.

Dickinson also does two assignments each week for his classes, through Google Classroom.

"Not all students have their instruments," he said, "so I ask a lot of critical thinking questions about music and its role in society. Honestly, it has been kind of refreshing to teach things from a musicological perspective; sometimes we directors get so caught up in polishing music for performance that we forget to discuss the history of music and its place in society."

Kathryn Ripley, band director at Tremper High School

"My band students just started online learning," she said. "I have them logging into SmartMusic and playing with the accompaniment of band tunes we would've been performing this spring."

She also recorded a video of her and her husband, James Ripley — a music professor at Carthage College — performing the Beatles tune "When I'm 64" in an effort "to inspire the students to be creative during this time. I am playing the melody, with Jim playing the bass line."

Ripley's AP Music Theory class has been having sessions through 45-minute virtual classes from the AP College Board. "As their teacher, I watch the sessions every day so that I can answer any questions that they have," Ripley said.

She added, "You can still make music during these crazy times and in a lot of ways we need these outlets more than ever now."

James Ripley, director of instrumental music at Carthage College

"Our bands at Carthage have joined together for weekly Zoom meetings," Ripley said. "We meet together twice a week, with one session devoted almost entirely to the students in their sections playing for each other and talking about these musical ideas."

At the end of the term, he said, "the students are going to use the Acapella app to play together the third commissioned work for our celebration of 150 years of Carthage Women. We hope to release this on May 15 when our spring concert would have been held."

He added that this is a great time for students to learn some pieces by ear. "Something like 'Happy Birthday' can be picked up pretty easily, and then they can try some pop tunes or even taking a tune they know but playing it in a different key can be a fun way to expand the way you play."

John Sorensen, band director at Wilmot High School

"The band students at Wilmot have a full load of coursework they will complete from home," he said. (Wilmot High School provides all students with a Chromebook.)

Each week, Sorensen "puts together a video modeling a style of music my students are to practice, perfect, record and submit for a grade. The students also receive a PDF of the sheet music and a background track to practice with."

A second assignment each week, he said, "deals with critical listening. Students are given a recording of a musical excerpt and asked several open-ended questions, which they turn in for a grade."

He adds that he "received an email from a parent who was very happy to hear her daughter practicing her trumpet, trying to perfect her recording before submitting it for a grade. It's very rewarding to hear about young people striving for perfection."

As for why arts education is vital during good — and bad — times, Sorensen said, "A key takeaway from studying the arts in school is the ability to bring joy to oneself and to others. Student musicians learn to enjoy making music, something that comes in handy during times like this."

Kristie Kruse, band director at Jeffery, Nash and Pleasant Prairie elementary schools

Kruse has also set up Google Classrooms for her students and is providing weekly supplemental activities/lessons such as a "Bando" Bingo-style activity card with tasks to complete, including cleaning your instrument case, playing "Jingle Bells" in your front yard and performing for your pet (or favorite stuffed animal).

She also uses SmartMusic, "an app that can hear the kids play and actually provide feedback. Picture the game 'Guitar Hero' for band. They can submit recordings to me via the app, and I can see an image of their performance on my screen. It forces the kids to play in time and with the pulse."

The app, she said, allows her to "give constructive feedback and praise as well. It’s really fun! Having so many kids on that program also allows me to see what they are practicing. It even generates a weekly chart showing how many minutes were spent playing in the app and whether it was on assigned material or their exploration of the thousands of resources in the program."

Despite all this virtual connecting, however, she still misses "seeing and hearing my students. Sitting in front of a computer screen all day is not my ideal gig. I find most of us musicians are really people persons."

Randy Rovik, band director at Lincoln Middle School

"With the chaos that's going on now, I am taking steps to work with students online," Rovik said.

He's set up Google Classrooms with activities for each of his bands "and thanks to the MakeMusic company, we've been able to offer free, full-access subscriptions to SmartMusic for all our students — band and orchestra. Now it's up to the parents and student to take advantage of that."

He has also offered to "meet with any of my Lincoln students virtually using Zoom," along with teaching private lessons via Zoom.

"After you get used to some of the unique circumstances of meeting virtually, it does work out pretty well," he said. "The kids enjoy playing their instruments and getting the coaching, and I enjoy seeing my students."

Laura Rexroth, director of bands at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

"Although there is no way to replicate online how a group of individual musicians interact as an ensemble — the minute, continuous, creative and spontaneous give and take — I decided to concentrate on listening skills for my Wind Ensemble students to help them grow and experience some wind band literature that they would not otherwise be exposed to this semester," she said.

"They'll have a chance to take the listening skills that are so important during rehearsals and performance and sharpen those skills as they become familiar with some of the masterworks in the wind band repertoire — works that also will give them some historical background in wind band music."

The UW-Parkside students are also "allowed to present their own suggestions of works that are worthy of study and performance. They'll post a recording of their selected piece and arguments for why they think the work should be known to their colleagues."

To help her students navigate this virtual world, Rexroth "put together an optional list of many, many fantastic resources for them to explore that are connected to what they do as performers but things we may not have time to cover during regular face-to-face rehearsals. These include free live concert streams from various organizations, demonstrations of period instruments and the opportunity to watch professional conductors rehearse and perform."

What's next

While the teachers and students are connecting in virtual ways, band director Lucas Dickinson looks forward to the day when things get back to normal at Washington Middle School and the world at large.

And music will be there to assist, he said.

"When this whole situation is done and over with, I can see band, orchestra and choir classes as being very effective tools to help students build social skills after all this isolation."

Until then, get busy logging on and tuning up.

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