Not even a global pandemic can keep the Akili band down! The band, which currently has 15 members, worked to find new ways to continue to play and share their music with the community while abiding by COVID-19 protocols and procedures.
Akili Dean of Enrichment and Band Director Tryphena Hughes spearheaded the changes to ensure the scholars would still have a musical outlet even with remote learning. When Hughes began working at Akili in 2018, she was committed to enhancing the music program in a number of ways, from increasing students’ knowledge of music theory to diversifying the kinds of instruments available. Hughes wanted “…to create a great arts program at Akili and to make sure that our program was one of the more prominent ones for the arts in the city.
At the end of her first year, Hughes, along with CCS Director of Development Nicole Escarra, had a meeting with the Save the Music Foundation where Hughes shared her love of music in hopes of obtaining a grant. Akili was chosen to receive the grant, which provided the school’s music program with 36 new instruments, “which helped transform the program for us,” Hughes stated.
Over time, Hughes has shifted focus from teaching students how to hold instruments, to reading and playing music, to establishing a marching band. “It’s challenging for any student to grow as a musician, but students are becoming more confident about reading music, which is number one for me.”Hughes said.
In addition to creating a strong foundation for the students, Hughes strives to make sure the scholars play the instruments best suited to their needs and abilities. Before selecting an instrument, Hughes gives each student a theory test and asks them to rank their top instrument choices.
In 2020, Hughes was working on expanding the band to include 4th graders, but after the band performed in their first Mardi Gras parades in February 2020, COVID hit, and restrictions forced the band to shift its gears. Rather than begin preparing for their next showcase, Hughes had to figure out how the band could continue while remote.
Hughes advised her scholars to take their instruments home since she felt remote learning would not be short-term. For those scholars who did not bring them home, Hughes personally dropped them off to make sure they had whatever they needed before she even began planning how to conduct band practice.
Since then, Akili received additional supplies for its music program through a partnership between Save the Music Foundation and Give a Note Foundation. This partnership provided Akili with COVID-safe practicing equipment, including instrument face shields and two-ply instrument covers.
“I broke up my small groups by instruments and then by skill level,” Hughes said. “So if you were a scholar who was struggling with note identification, then I scheduled you for a private lesson so they’d feel comfortable talking about what they didn’t understand.”
Hughes also scheduled duets by instrument for scholars who had similar skill levels. There was also a clarinet trio where they all worked on reading, ensemble work, and playing together.
“COVID provided me the opportunity to have these private 30-minute lessons with them,” Hughes shared.
The pandemic also made the band department shift its focus for the winter showcase that it typically hosts every December, with all the arts programs from dance to theatre participating. This year, the band put on a virtual showcase so the students could show off what they had been working on.
Due to the difficulty in getting the band together, the showcase included one song rather than an entire program. The other arts programs also had to lessen their contribution to the showcase to abide by the current restrictions.
“Doing that one piece took so much work,” Hughes said. “I had to shoot it in pods with my Music Technology and Music Teacher, so he had to record my 8th-grade group, which is a saxophone player, a trombone, and two clarinets, and we recorded outside in 52-degree weather. My 7th-grade trumpet player recorded by himself because he has class at a different time. The light also had to be just right, and we had to make sure no trains were coming by.”
Hughes acknowledges that it was also challenging to keep morale up during this time.
“I spent a lot of time reminding students to update their practice record, talking with parents and saying ‘this, too, shall pass’, and that we all have to hang in there.” Hughes said. “I often share my story of getting a music scholarship to Florida A&M as a way to encourage students to stay focused.”
Amid the difficulties in planning the virtual showcase, there were also elements of the showcase that Hughes hopes to continue when the pandemic is over, including the music technology enrichment piloted by the PreK-4 music teacher who is also a professional musician.
“He taught kids how to make beats and about the production side of music,” Hughes added. “For their contribution, he gave each of them a commercial, and they gave each one a beat.”
The showcase also featured a student-created music video, which Hughes also hopes remains a part of the Spring 2021 showcase, which will also be virtual.
While Louisiana did not have a plan for bands when the pandemic hit, Hughes and the CCS team came up with one that allowed the band to continue and flourish.
As Hughes said, “Music isn’t going to die because of COVID; we just have to make sure that people understand music has to continue during these challenging times.”