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In New Orleans, Music Education Programs Cautiously Fall Back In Step

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.
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.

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 affected other aspects of the city's vibrant music scene, including education.

Sonya Robinson, co-director of the arts education nonprofit Artist Corps New Orleans, says 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 says.

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 says that 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 superspreader events, and practicing them requires careful planning.

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.

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.

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

Chris Herrero is the band's director. Before that, he was a student in the band himself. He's in his early 30s now, 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 says. "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."

Karr 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," Ty'chelle Watts, a senior in the band, says.

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. 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.

Watts says it's upsetting starting the season late and not knowing whether they'll even get to play for an audience. "This is our senior year and we don't get any football games, homecoming, senior night, none of that," he says. "That's really messed up. But I guess you gotta deal with it. Enjoy what we got."

Herrero says 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. He jokes that in a typical year, the kids used to spend more time with him than their own families. On a serious note, he adds that 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 says, thinking back on the months without band practice. "Like, what are my kids doing right now?" He mentions 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 says.

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.
/ 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.

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. For the most part, the institutions focus on high-stakes testing, which is tied to charter renewals.

Jonathan Bloom works with Artist Corps, and taught music in the city's public schools for almost 40 years. He says that 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 says. "So the better we did, the less the district felt that they had to do."

Bloom says 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,'" he says. "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 says 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 says. "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.

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 impact 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 says. "These children are going to be part of this New Orleans music tradition, like it or not."

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 say 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 says. "But we'll survive."

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