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Marching To A COVID Drum: New Orleans Music Education Struggles To Get Back In Step

Aubri Juhasz
Student musicians at Edna Karr High School rehearse together for the first time in nearly eight months on Oct. 27, 2020.

In the weeks after this year’s Mardi Gras celebrations, New Orleans experienced one of the most explosive COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. Since then, music has largely been missing from a city that depends on it.

Parades have been canceled for the upcoming Mardi Gras season and indoor performances are prohibited. Outdoor performances, no matter how small, require a permit.

The restrictions, meant to limit the spread of the coronavirus, have devastated professional musicians and have impacted other aspects of the city’s vibrant music scene, including education.

Sonya Robinson, co-director of the arts education nonprofit Artist Corps New Orleans, said one reason why music education has been slow to start back up in New Orleans is the disproportionate impact the virus has had on African Americans.

“We [probably] have the largest percentage of Black educators in the country … that are music educators, and we know that our community was one of those hardest hit,” Robinson said during an interview at the end of October.

Robinson’s organization is in the process of developing recommendations for New Orleans public schools on how to resume music education during the pandemic.

She said while some teachers are eager to get back in the classroom, others still fear for their safety. Singing and wind instruments have been linked to super spreader events and practicing them requires careful planning.

Credit Phoebe Jones
Students rehearse outdoors at The Roots of Music. The education nonprofit has kept its marching band going throughout the pandemic and resumed in-person rehearsal over the summer.

Public schools began to gradually reopen in late September and by mid-October, the district’s 45,000 students had the option to learn in-person at least several days a week.

While the district doesn’t offer detailed guidance on how to teach music during the pandemic, it is permitted. Bands and choirs can practice outdoors as long as they remain socially distanced and adhere to their school’s maximum group size.

Getting The Band Back Together

At Edna Karr High School, on the West Bank, marching band practice resumed in late October with a cap of 25 students per rehearsal. The trombones, normally the band’s largest section, were given Tuesdays all to themselves. 

The section finished practice with a band favorite: Say You’ll Be There by the Spice Girls. With each repetition, band director Chris Herrero worked out the kinks; clapping rhythms and identifying wrong notes.

Before Herrero was the director he was a student in the band. He’s in his early 30s and has already led Karr’s musicians for more than a decade.

“Before they let us rehearse, the kids were going crazy, just like I was,” Herrero said. “They were frustrated because a lot of these kids had looked forward to being in Edna Karr’s band since they were in middle school when they started playing an instrument.”

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
Band director Chris Herrero leads trombone practice at Edna Karr High School on Oct. 27, 2020.

Edna Karr High School is considered to have one of the best marching bands in the city. But when the pandemic closed schools back in March, its musicians couldn’t practice together. Many didn’t practice at all.

“Imma tell the truth. I ain’t touched a horn since the last time we were in practice,” said Ty’chelle Watts, a senior in the band.

Herrero’s band is back, but not all the way. The 100-plus member ensemble came together for full band rehearsal in late November, but still hasn’t performed.

Watts said it’s upsetting starting the season late and not knowing whether they’ll even get to perform.

“This is our senior year and we don’t get any football games, homecoming, senior night, none of that,” Watts said. “That’s really messed up. But I guess you gotta deal with it. Enjoy what we got.”

Herrero said he understands his students’ disappointment and is looking for other ways to let them perform, virtually or in-person. But for now there’s still a massive sense of relief in simply being allowed to practice together.

Herrero said many students have decided not to attend school in-person, which means they only come to the building for band practice. Transportation has been an issue and some students have missed rehearsal to care for younger siblings or work after-school jobs.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
Herrero helps students get their embouchure back in shape.

He jokes that in a typical year the kids used to spend more time with him than their own families. Herrero said the program helps kids get into college and provides them with a safe place to work through issues at home or school through music.

“That's one thing that has worried me during this time,” Herrero said, thinking back on the months without band practice. “Like, what are my kids doing right now?”

Herrero brings up Ivan Wheeler, a 16-year-old marching band drummer who was shot and killed in mid-October. Wheeler attended Landry-Walker High School, Edna Karr’s rival.

“You know, just think if his band had been going full force the whole time, he wouldn’t have been out there,” Herrero said.

Educators See A Chance To Fix A Broken System

In New Orleans, all public schools are charter schools. There’s no standard arts program and many schools don’t provide any art or music instruction at all.

Schools, for the most part, are focused on high-stakes testing, which is tied to charter renewals.

Jonathan Bloom works with Artist Corp and taught music in the city’s public schools for almost 40 years. He said even when there was a district-wide music department, it was underfunded.

“[The district] just said, ‘Look, everybody can just play music, anybody can do that.’ And the band directors always made wine out of water,” Bloom said. “So the better we did, the less the district felt that they had to do.”

Bloom said while music educators are facing their greatest challenge yet, now is not the time to give up.

“Nobody wants to drop the ball on their watch and say, ‘Well, look, we’re the generation that dropped it and music became insignificant. It no longer exists,’” Bloom said. “That's what's so scary about this virus.”

It’s the district’s youngest students that concern Allen Dejan, a music teacher at KIPP Morial Primary. He said the marching band isn’t made in high school. The work begins in his classroom.

“It takes a lot of skill to actually be able to walk with a wind instrument, play it in tune, produce a good tone, and produce a good sound,” Dejan said. “Those types of skills have to be developed before you get [to high school].”

Dejan normally teaches students across five grades. This year, he’s only teaching fourth-grade students, to limit potential spread of the virus. Other schools have become similarly risk-averse, limiting art and music instruction and in some cases pulling those educators to teach other courses.

Credit Phoebe Jones
Percussion students practice both indoors and out at The Roots of Music. Wood winds must practice outdoors because they are considered higher risk.

With so many children receiving no music education, Dejan says there will likely be fewer high school drum majors and trumpet players further down the road. And the impacts will likely stretch even further.

“The local music economy doesn't start when people graduate high school. The local music economy starts when these children begin their music education journeys,” Dejan said. “These children are going to be part of this New Orleans music tradition, like it or not.”

Credit Phoebe Jones
Students in The Roots of Music marching band are between the ages of 9 and 14. Many of the children attend public schools where music education is limited.

Robinson and Bloom hope that their forthcoming recommendations make clear to school leaders the importance of investing in music and art education across all grade levels and encourage them to steer resources toward the arts rather than away.

Despite the uncertainty and fear associated with the virus, Bloom and Robinson said they also see the current moment as an opportunity for positive change, like permanently staffing up music departments and incorporating new music technology.

“This is going to change us forever. I don’t know if we’re going to regain the same shape, the same texture and color,” Bloom said. “But we’ll survive.”

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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