Hope Lewis is the Instrumental Music teacher and Band Director at Charles O. Dickerson High School and has taught in the district since 1994. In pre-Covid years, she would teach numerous individual and small group lessons every day in addition to Concert (Ensemble) Band and Jazz Band multiple times a week and a guitar class every other day. She also developed a theory of music class which was offered every other year.
“In band, we could sit as close as we wanted to, even touching shoulders with 10 to 15 musicians in a row and the percussion in the back,” Lewis remembered.
The students performed concerts, played in the PEP Band at football games and Homecoming, marched in the Memorial Day parade, and attended All State, All County, NYSSMA competitions, and played for the school musicals. They corroborated with Juniper Manor for the Harmony Bridge program.
“This fall, the weather was beautiful every Friday and I missed having the PEP Band at the games,” Lewis said. “I really miss the rush of rehearsing and getting the kids ready to perform. This time of year, we would be preparing for the holiday concerts in every building. The last event where the Jazz Band played was at the 50th anniversary of the Gemm Shop last March. We played on the stage in the shop and the acoustics were great. Right after that, everything shut down.”
Starting this year, Lewis had to develop a plan to teach hybrid and virtual classes. In-person band musicians can only play together for about 38 minutes, must wear player masks (masks with mouth holes), and use bell covers on their instruments. She decided to develop a “Modern Band,” which has a rock and roll theme where students learn to play a variety of rock instruments like guitars, bass, drums, and piano.
Kids would choose one instrument, learn to play it, and move on to another instrument with the goal of playing all of the instruments. Modern Band met every other day for 80 minutes with two sections of musicians, some in-person and some virtual. On Friday, there would be a jam session where all students in both sessions could play as a band.
Individual and small group lessons are still given, but in-person students must have a scheduled study to participate. Concert Band has been divided into four smaller groups with in-person and virtual students in attendance on either Monday/Wednesday or Tuesday/Thursday. Lewis’s room is devoid of chairs, and the musicians are spaced 12 feet apart and stand. This was done to reduce the sanitizing time. Students play for half a block, leave the band room, and then Lewis has to sanitize before the next group comes in. The band does not really have 38 minutes to play because it takes time to get ready and make sure the online kids are engaged too.
“The online kids have to mute their computers. They can hear us, but we can’t hear them. We see them on Virtual Classroom in Bright Space, but I have to trust that they are playing. We can be playing for five minutes and then one of them will say, ‘Wait! What are we playing?’ and then we have to start over again,” Lewis commented.
Lewis was teaching four sections of Concert Band, one section of Jazz Band, two sections of Modern Band, and various lesson groups. “There was no routine at first because I had different sets of hybrid kid as well as the kids at home and some students in school four days a week. I [knew] the at-home kids could carry on for the rest of the week and just keep going. I was finally getting into a routine when in-person school was suspended due to the recent positive Covid cases. Now, I have to relearn how to organize my classes. If kids miss class, it might be two weeks before I see them again,” explained Lewis.
Students in Jazz Band are having the most success because they also are in Ensemble. They seem to be the most interested and committed. The students used a program called Flip Grid to learn Jazz solos and transcribe them by ear. Learning four measures at a time, they would play every week until they had memorized 12 to 16 bars for their final performance. All of the 15 finals will be recorded, placed in concert form, and then streamed to parents. Each student wrote program notes to introduce their piece including research about who the composer was.
Another program Lewis uses is called Note Flight where worksheets can be created for warm-ups and students can play along with the music and record themselves. Lewis has access to the entire score, but smaller groups can form and play along to the music too. Lewis is inspired by the kids with what they are doing and believes that the technology is great for the students who want to do more. Lewis feels that kids are disconnected and need band and chorus to pull them along.
TCSD is currently all virtual now until Nov. 30 due to the large number of students, staff, and teachers who have tested positive for Covid-19 or are in quarantine because of exposure.
In a way, this is easier for Lewis because the kids are all in one place – online. However, success relies on whether her students are actually logging on. Some kids are disconnecting and not going to class. Her schedule has not really changed, it is just a matter of whether the kids are showing up or not. Lewis feels that parents are on overload and it is hard to reach them when needed. “My classes keep the kids playing at some level, but I am being more flexible with what the kids want to do and the guidelines I want to keep. With grading, I am trying to connect music to other things. For example, we are doing campaign music research and talking about how music can set the agenda. With Modern Band, we are looking at the start of rock and roll and indigenous people,” Lewis mentioned.
“I have been wrapping my brain around all of the changes and find that some of the fun and excitement is gone and the social connection is lost. It is fun to do some of the new stuff though, but it can’t measure up to what we are missing. Some students have been really creative and have stepped up to learn independently. Kids are resilient,” Lewis mused. “The Music Boosters are still active and recently raised money through Gimme Coffee. We are hoping to work with a local sound recording studio in the future. Students can also apply for scholarships for lessons. We don’t have any concerts scheduled, but are hoping in June to do a Porch Fest and a Jazz Cabaret under a tent. Once they say we can have concerts, we’re going!”