Saturday, June 19

Local music programs have notes, ready to change tune fall semester

There are hundreds of cooped-up kids, anxious for shelter in place and distance learning to end so they can literally toot their horns, sounding their excitement over a return to normalcy.

But that day isn’t any time soon, leaving local band teachers and students struggling to duplicate the magnificent sound, camaraderie, and atmosphere they are able to generate only when they’re physically together.

Separated since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, local bands are bracing for a fall semester of online learning and isolation.

“The students have a fantastic attitude, far better than I do,” said Christy Latham, music instructor at both Santa Cruz High and Mission Hill Middle School.

The Cardinals held their annual Band Camp last week. They met twice online to create a sense of community and connection as well as to prepare for fall performances.

Cymbalist Thomas Martinez joins in the fun with the Soquel High band at a Knights football game. (Bill Lovejoy — Santa Cruz Sentinel file)

The Cardinals traditionally lead the football team onto the field ahead of each home game and perform at halftime. The Central Coast Section announced last month that a tentative start date for all fall sports has been pushed back until Dec. 14.

And their annual Santa Cruz Band Review, which draws more than 50 high school and junior high bands to the Beach Boardwalk each October, has been postponed, if not canceled. Discussions to move the event to the spring this year are ongoing.

It was set to be the 50th Santa Cruz Band Review. In its long, rich history it has been canceled only one other time: following the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

“We have hopes we can do it later on,” said Keegan McCoy, an incoming senior for the Cardinals who serves as drum major.

The Cardinals also perform in the Santa Cruz Pride Parade and Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco each year, at Disneyland every other year, and take a trip to Hawaii once every four years.

Santa Cruz band members remain optimistic, so much so that they’ve chosen “Tuned In, Grounded In Community” as their motto.

“It’s actually heartbreaking not to be together,” McCoy said. “We’re trying to find ways to stay together. Actually playing is like the afterthought of being in the band. It’s about community.”

McCoy said the band is incredibly close. They’re also incredibly talented. Last year, the Cardinals placed third out of 96 programs in the Northern California Band Association, which averages scores from five performances.

What they and other local bands sound like this upcoming academic school year remains to be seen, err, heard. Returning members, though practicing individually, didn’t have a spring together and now they won’t have a fall. Santa Cruz City Schools and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District recently announced that the year will begin with distance learning.

In addition to meetings on Zoom, an online communications app, band members have been using Soundtrap and YouTube to record music individually.

Santa Cruz High’s band performs at the Lincoln competition in Stockton. (Contributed)

“Music is such an experiential class,” Latham said. “In person, you can respond and read to what other people are doing. That’s impossible in any online platform. The jazz and marching bands are good, but it’s nowhere near making music in person. So we’re adapting, but nothing beats making music in person.”

Nick Bianchini, music instructor at both Harbor High and Branciforte Middle, and Jim Stewart, who holds the same role at Soquel High and New Brighton Middle, as well as other county music teachers hold weekly Zoom meetings to game plan for the upcoming school year. Their spring semester served as a litmus test for this fall.

Soquel’s jazz band typically performs in 30-plus events a year and the varsity band contributes in 20-plus events. Band members know there will be a new norm, meaning less performances, at least initially.

“Kids are kids and they’re pretty resilient, really they did and they are,” said Stewart, whose Knights’ varsity band has been likened to the zany Leland Stanford Junior University Marching Band. “But they want to do something that’s real. They didn’t get that part of being a musician (in the spring).”

Stewart said there were many learning points from the spring. He and other teachers noticed it’s quite easy for students to remain quiet and hidden on a computer screen full of faces and instruments.

“There has got to be more buy-in from kids,” Stewart said. “There has got to be more time and commitment. The kids know this is how it’s going to be — at least first semester.”

There were also a variety of excuses students used for not being able to perform at specific times, including a computer that was already in use or consideration for neighbors in congested living situations. Others may have believed, “Why practice if there aren’t any ‘games?’ ”

Stewart said instruction at the middle school level featured a smoother transition due to the fact that the students required more attention on individual skills.

He, like all teachers, are looking forward to the day when everyone will be back together again, performing in unity and harmoniously.

Santa Cruz High’s band performs at the Foothill Parade competition in Pleasanton. (Contributed)

“The energy level of that (a Zoom meeting) is way different than 80 to 90 kids in a classroom, screaming, laughing, having a good time,” Stewart said.

When bands reunite, the musicians and their instruments may have a different look. Trumpets, trombones, tubas, and other wind instruments may feature coverings, like bells or screens, and musicians may also be masked with special holes to perform.

An International Coalition Performing Arts Aerosol Study recently released early findings from Week 3 of its six-month study. Among things it learned? Wind instruments produce aerosol, which varies by instrument as well as intensity.

“If you mask instruments, it has the same effect as it does on humans,” Latham said.

While social distancing is a key preventative measure to contracting COVID-19, other creations are now available to help diminish the spread of the pandemic. And some items can be pretty pricey, meaning a tough decision awaits band directors robbed of ways to raise funds in the spring.

“We’re constantly getting bombarded with products via email,” Stewart said. “They make plastic screens for music stands. But how much is that going to be for 60 to 80 kids? That’s a big expense that we can’t figure out.”

Stewart does know one thing for sure, especially if his band returns for a spring semester.

“We’re probably going to be outside as much as we can,” he said.

And the hills will be alive, with the sound of music.

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