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Hometown music heroes: Music educators get innovative during pandemic

By ThisIsReno
Published: Last Updated on
Jazz education with the Reno Jazz Orchestra. Image courtesy RJO.

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Submitted by Chuck Reider

This month the Reno Jazz Orchestra started our Mentor Program and Saturday Jazz Workshop.  The Mentor Program brings a professional jazz musician to the band room to work with school jazz bands. The workshop teaches jazz improvisation mostly by ear to develop that skill. 

We started later than usual because this fall they are both online.  I thought it timely to speak to local band directors who are working through all the challenges of teaching music during the pandemic and I was impressed by their dedication to both teaching and counseling students.

I will start with Nichole Heglund the choir director at Billinghurst Middle School who took this year off to stay home with her two young boys. 

Here are her thoughts.  “This school year is a challenge for music teachers and their students due to the inability to rehearse and perform in a traditional format.  Many districts are teaching 100% online.  In our area, singing and playing instruments must be done outside with the use of masks and distancing. For singers, masks alone can create sound production and breathing issues and the requirement of social distance can create listening challenges and drain confidence. 

“The reason students sign up for music is to create with others, but a true ensemble experience is not possible at this time. Music teachers must be creative and flexible to offer activities that will stimulate students and offer a rewarding music experience. We all look forward to the time when our students can get back to making music together and experience the true joy it can bring.” 

She suggested I speak with band directors Rachael Cowell of Reno High School and Kevin Thomas of Hug High School.

Cowell has been teaching at Reno High School for five years and in the earlier years also was half time teacher at DePaoli Middle School and then Traner Middle School. Her dedication was there day one as she was working towards her master’s degree while teaching!

She teaches concert band, jazz band, wind ensemble, digital music, and music appreciation.  Her band room was once a car repair garage which sounds odd, but it is big and you can open the garage door for ventilation on good days. Cowell sees half of her students each day, no more than twenty at a time. 

Believe it or not someone invented COVID instrument covers and face masks with an opening to play a wind instrument. For brass instruments the PPE covers the bell of the horn.  For saxophones and clarinets the entire instrument needs to be in a bag as aerosols not only escape from the bell but from each key as well.  To purchase these Cowell placed a story in the school newsletter and through the generosity of the readers she was able to purchase this equipment for each of her students at a cost of about $5,000. 

Because she sees only half of each band each day the student instrumentation is mixed and do not match concert band or jazz band standard instrumentation.  She arranges music for each of her performing groups to match the instrumentation.  Another added COVID task.

What is a typical day for the Reno High School band director? Cowell arrives before classes start so students can drop off their instruments about ten to fifteen students are there every morning.  Her first class is wind ensemble. 

The entering students must be wearing a mask and immediately sanitize their hands.  They may then get their instrument and attach the PPE for the instrument and exchange masks for the music mask. Then they can begin playing warmups and some music they can enjoy.  All the while she is wary of any sanitizing issues. 

Did I mention that during this time she is assigning online work for the students staying home that day? They have five minutes at the end of class to switch masks and pack up. This repeats for each of her performing classes. 

What about concerts?  She is not a fan of the virtual performances where each student records their part and sends it to be compiled because it is not a live experience.  Instead Cowell will invite the administration to come to the band room to hear a student concert.  

At this time music is not the most important part of her job. Student advocacy is number one. The student’s stress is apparent every day because of COVID. 

One telling statistic is the failing rate has increased 40%. Parents have come to her concerned for their student’s mental health. She believes it is more important now to give students a place to decompress and enjoy music rather than rigorous instruction. (She uses tools like identifying jingles and movie themes are just two examples.) Cowell is certain hybrid learning can be successful. We just need to give the students a break.

Hug High School band director Kevin Thomas shared similar experiences.  Thomas has been teaching at Hug for seven years and loves it. He learned to love music in his hometown of Quincy, California starting on clarinet in elementary school. In middle school he moved on to saxophone which is still his primary instrument. 

He has toured the world with several different bands and performed with local band Mojo Green for ten years. Along the way he earned a master’s degree in education at UNR.  

During COVID teaching is slow and time consuming but there are small accomplishments to appreciate. Acting in an abundance of caution it took a month to get students their instruments.  The Hug band room does not have a garage door to open for ventilation as at Reno and they do not have the PPE music equipment. So there are no wind instruments this semester. 

He teaches jazz band, concert band, wind ensemble, mariachi, guitar, and digital music.  He had to mix the bands together so his three levels of mariachi are now in one class. Imagine teaching three different levels of students socially distant in one room. 

He must move from one student to the next as quickly as possible to help them and after fifteen minutes they stop playing to allow the room to ventilate.  This one class sounds like a full day to me. 

Here is a small accomplishment: The mariachi class has only one violin trying to equal the sound of all the guitars.  Thomas encouraged the violinist, who prior to COVID played very meekly, to play out strong to match all those guitars. 

And yes, she was up to the challenge!  As with Cowell, Thomas feels that of all the “hats” a band director must wear each day from conducting, instructing, fundraising and arranging music this semester being a counselor is the most important of all.

I am so appreciative of all our hometown hero band directors and all the teachers who are working well above the expectations to give our students the best education possible during COVID and to be there for them when they need someone to talk to.


Chuck Reider

Chuck Reider is the Executive Director of the Reno Jazz Orchestra 

For more information about the RJO education programs visit: https://renojazzorchestra.org/education.html

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