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Local directors keep parish music alive

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

When America went into a lockdown in mid-March, schools and businesses closed and put thousands of musicians out of work.

However, when schools reopened in August, bands and choirs in Lincoln Parish schools were able to start meeting again and have adapted to new COVID rules.

Walter Moss, Ruston High School’s Director of Bands and an educator for 28 years, has seen a lot of things during his career, but nothing like this.

“I had to completely rewrite the entire playbook on what we do in instrumental music,” Moss said. “Initially we received a set of guidelines that were impossible. Then we received a second set of guidelines that were workable. And those are the ones we’re working with currently.

“Those are the ones that allow us to continue instruction safely, but we’re at least able to continue a kind of normal, with a lot of restrictions, instruction curriculum.”

The set of guidelines that Moss received suggested class sizes of 30 or fewer. The RHS band consists of around 115 students. Moss said it has created a situation where his class load has doubled, but by lowering the number of students in each class, it has allowed Moss to focus on each individual student more than usual.

During a full band setting, directors are usually focused on listening to the ensemble as a whole or a specific section at a time.

“Focusing on each individual student more than usual is an opportunity I’m trying to take advantage of,” Moss said.

While Moss has been able to get in front of his students on a daily basis from the beginning of the school year, other directors have not been as lucky.

Nikole Roebuck became the director of bands and took over leadership of the World Famed Grambling State University Tiger Marching Band two years ago.

She became the first female director of bands in GSU’s history.

GSU is a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference and did not play football during the fall semester.

Roebuck had to instruct her students virtually for a large portion of the semester and still hasn’t had her full band together.

“Everything was a little uneasy,” Roebuck said. “I had to take a moment, step back and tell the kids everything is going to be alright.”

But as the semester progressed, Roebuck began gathering students in very small groups.

“I started with the freshmen,” Roebuck said. “I took them outside in groups of 10-15 and started working with them on marching fundamentals. Once they adjusted, some upperclassmen started joining in. But the full band still hasn’t met together yet. Hopefully we can over the next few months.”

Both directors and students have had to adjust with new instrument additions. Not only are special masks required for wind players and percussionists, bell coverings are being used to minimize saliva droplets coming from the end of the wind instruments. However, one group has had to cover its entire instrument — choir.

Wearing a mask presents a unique difficulty for vocalists. Louisiana Tech University’s director of choir, Aaron Knodle, said that things were challenging to start the quarter.

Knodle said he has made sure the choir is spaced out over six feet and vocalists are wearing masks at all times while they’re rehearsing in Howard Auditorium. However, he said that it’s hard for him to hear the choir sometimes. Then one day, they stumbled upon the best possible venue.

“We went into the University Hall lobby one day — it was like the heavens opened up,” Knodle said. “That lobby is super live with great acoustics and has mitigated some of those listening problems, but it took us five or six weeks to find that space.”

All three directors said performances this year are mostly live streamed and virtual. However, they all said virtual performances have helped because it will be a way to give community members access for future performances.

In the end though, they all believe it will take a while for the music world to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Knodle believes choir has taken the biggest hit.

“Choir will take years to fully recover,” Knodle said. “And we have to be realistic in our expectations. Changes will be slow in what we can do. Choir will be the slowest to recover because we breathe air in close spaces.”

Moss believes the band world is changed but is more optimistic about what will happen with his program.

“Everyone has risen to the occasion during this,” Moss said. “This has been an absolute community effort between the kids, the parents, the administration and the directors. But I believe the band world is forever changed. I’ve got a feeling we’ll be dealing with the ramifications of COVID for at least two years.”