Blog: The life of a school band director in the COVID-19 pandemic

This blog is the fifth in an occasional series written by local people and businesses as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, Route Bay City features Dustin Vanderveer, band director at T.L. Handy Middle School.

T.L. Handy Band Director Dustin VanderveerNever in my career would I have guessed that I’d be experiencing anything like what is happening right now. In a matter of months, I went from the director of a large program of middle school bands to a combination virtual music educator and technical support operator. It has been a devastating time for my kids who look forward to all of the traditions, rites of passage, and fun that they have come to expect in our family of musicians. I quickly came to realize that all of these things and the time I had with my them meant as much to me as it did to them.

Starting out the 2019-20 school year, I had great students, lessons and concerts were planned, and everything was going smoothly. In December, I started hearing about the increasing severity of the COVID-19 outbreak. I knew what I was hearing was alarming, but I didn’t realize the implications of what was to come. I was not personally affected by H1N1 or Ebola, so the thought never crossed my mind that COVID-19 would be any different. For the time being, it didn’t seem any different and we continued our rehearsals as usual.

My seventh- and eighth-grade bands had a successful showing at their late winter competition. We spent the week of March 9th celebrating with balloons, cupcakes, and awards. Just as our festivities were wrapping up and students were shifting gears toward upcoming events, things quickly began to change. Within a matter of days, colleges were closing early for spring break and I started receiving communications of band event cancellations. I broke the bad news to my jazz band at the end of the day on March 12. Little did I know that this was the last time I would address any of my bands in person for the rest of the year.

Early in the initial shutdown, it became clear that this would go on for longer than originally scheduled. Plans to return quickly became plans to adapt. Myself and all of my musician colleagues were connecting regularly to discuss our plans on how to proceed. We all agreed that anything we do should be flexible at first since we weren’t the only ones new to this; the students were on the same ride that we were. In the spring, we made online connections with as many students as possible and helped them stay active in music as we experimented with our new online classroom atmosphere.

Many professional musicians were starting to develop online performance presences and school band programs were starting to follow suit. I was able to scrape together a video performance by having volunteer students record their parts separately at home with a metronome and I would edit their recordings together. This was the best I could do to try to create some form of normalcy for the students and to keep a beacon lit for our band program in the community. The outpouring of support from parents, staff, and friends at this time was overwhelming. It was an excellent reminder of how important music education is to not only the students, but also everyone who is reached by their performances.

When entering my band room for the first time since the shutdown, I saw remnants of our rehearsals and post-festival celebrations suspended in time. A banner of “congrats” balloons hung over the entry hallway, empty cupcake containers remained on the front table, and messages about canceled events were still written out on the front marker board. I stood on the podium and remembered all the time I spent directing my kids there several months ago. I had been hearing from students during shutdown about how they missed our time in band and how they were doing their best to continue to play. I began to realize how much I took rehearsal time for granted. I began to imagine what the best message I could share with them would be and what the first notes would sound like when we returned. Little did I know that these moments would be further away than I anticipated.

We began this year online. I spent many hours adapting lessons and trying to make every possible element of my normal band class work in our virtual classroom. My students have been doing lessons on music reading, listening skills, learning more about their individual instruments, as well as recording performance videos for critique. We were fortunate enough to subscribe to a music software suite that provides much needed resources and sheet music for students. This software also provides a backing track that allows the student to play along with other instruments almost like they would in person. We do not connect in the same way or play our instruments the same amount as we normally would, but students are receiving new experiences that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. It has been both a frustrating and rewarding experience at times for students, parents, and myself. I know that many of my colleagues have had similar experiences.

Despite the hard times, there are many ways that I think we can grow from this experience. I know I will make an effort to appreciate those small moments that often get lost in the fray and I’m sure many of my students will follow suit. Adapting all of my lessons and procedures has made me a stronger teacher and has led me to tools that I will certainly use in the future. I also hope that there is a newfound appreciation for music and performing arts not only in our schools, but also in any venue after this staggering lack of it in the last six to seven months. Music moves us. Music allows us to express ourselves. Music creates and bolsters community. Music is so much more than many people give it credit for. We need it now more than ever before.

Hard times create challenges and ultimately help define us. I always tell my students to keep driving forward and to rise to any challenge that they face with confidence and persistence. I am working hard to follow my own advice. Smooth seas don’t make good sailors.



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