Marching on

A local school music supplier figured out how to help band students near and far keep performing during the shutdown

Reno's Steve Martin developed a curriculum to help school bands keep performing as students grappled with remote schooling. The most ambitious use of the program to date has been the College Band Directors National Association Intercollegiate Marching Band halftime performance, with more than 1500 students from 200 schools. Screen shot - courtesy CBDNA

Teagan Serink will turn 17 this weekend, and her days revolve around music. As a junior at Damonte Ranch High School, she’s currently taking four music classes, and she’s participated in at least two extracurricular music programs—fewer than in past years, she said. She’s used to spending hours in a classroom, surrounded by peers, working to perfect her sound. That changed last March, when the county transitioned to distance learning in the face of COVID-19 lockdowns.

“The classes effectively shut down because they had the rule that you couldn’t lower someone’s grade because of the equal opportunity,” Serink said. “I was still practicing, but I didn’t do the work for the class because it didn’t feel like a class I was actually participating in.”

Teagan Serink, a junior at Damonte Ranch High School in Reno, submitted her recording for a virtual concert and is waiitng to see the final product. Here, she’s busking in downtown Reno in December 2020. Photo – courtesy Teagan Serink

Nevada schools’ robust music programs are a laurel in what is usually a bottom-of-the nation overall education ranking. Since 2016, Washoe and Clark Counties have ranked among the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation’s Best Communities for Music Education, a survey that assesses the nation’s school districts on the quality of their music programs and commitment to performance and competition. And while disciplines all over the country suffered, a local music educator and businessman knew that students like Teagan were being underserved.

“These performing artists, they have a little bit of a different aura about them,” said Steve Martin (no, not that Steve Martin). “They’re just innately passionate, and music is a primal thing—there’s an emotional connection. I was thinking about those kids, thinking, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be cool if they had anything to do?’ And if it could be musical, it actually might sort of feel like we’re still making music together.”

Martin is the owner and CEO of GPG Music, a local company that has, for the past 15 years, written and sold original music to competitive marching bands, orchestras and concert bands around the country. He received his Doctorate of Musical Arts from Arizona State University, and his Masters of Musical Arts in Conducting from the University of Nevada in Reno, where he lives now. He’s also the founder of the Reno Wind Symphony, a member of the National Association for Music Educators, and has a litany of other professional music associations. 

“If it’s a middle school or a high school band director, I generally know them,” Martin said. “So, I was kind of pinging them. Like, what’s your plan? You guys are supposed to go back to school on Monday, except you’re not. What are you guys doing?”

Most of them didn’t know. In-person rehearsal time was a nonstarter, and many year-end performances or recitals were cancelled. The weekly multi-person video calls that had taken the place of classroom learning were especially ill-equipped for music classes. 

“The reason that we can’t all just play together is the platforms and the technology and the bandwidth that’s out there don’t allow for that synchronous environment,” Martin said. “The actual word is ‘latency.’ … You can’t say to a group of people on Zoom with saxophones, ‘Let’s play a note together, one, two, ready go, boom. Because they’ll all play the note at the same time  … but the rate that it gets sent back, there’s a delay.”

After talking with a collaborator in Colorado Springs, Elisa Janson Jones, who was working on a virtual band setup, Martin created a new program called Our Virtual Ensemble, aimed at addressing the shortcomings of digital music education. Building on GPG’s catalog of original music, OVE works by providing the music and choreography for each instrument in an ensemble. Students then record themselves practicing their parts and turn in the videos for evaluation and grading by their teacher. At the end of the semester, every student records their final performance and sends the video to the OVE editing team to create a final, complete performance wherein each student is featured on screen and their sound is professionally mixed.

Over the summer, Martin said he spent dozens of hours learning how to edit video himself to serve his first few clients, “guinea pigs” from his list of educator contacts who approached their students about sending in music. Since then, OVE has been used by dozens of different schools around the country, and Martin has a team to do the editing for him.

“It helped [teachers] go to their administration and say, ‘This is something we can really do that isn’t just a placeholder for music education, it really is a version of music education, even though it isn’t Plan A,” Martin said.

Putting it into practice

Ron Eichstedt, director of bands at Reed High School, used OVE for the school’s competitive marching band this past semester. Reed’s band and orchestra programs have more than tripled in the seven years since Eichstedt started teaching there, and he was worried about what the loss of the programs would mean for some students. 

“That can disinterest students because, whether it’s sports or ROTC or band or any other program, those are the main reasons why they want to be in school because those are the things that they look forward to,” he said. “We have kiddos that work to help pay for rent. We have kiddos that have to watch their siblings so the parents can go to work, because we have a myriad of socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Ron Eichstedt is the director of bands at Reed High School in Sparks. Photo – courtesy Ron Eichstedt

Ensuring equal access to the material for all his students was a priority for Eichstedt, which can be difficult when the home lives of his students can look very different. After renting equipment to all of his students for free, he turned to OVE as a way to retain some normalcy and the goal of a year-end performance—an important motivating factor for student musicians. 

“They are able to create a product that has transition effects and features, and, you know, we had a nice little senior vignette in there,” Eichstedt said. “It’s not the same, but it creates an artifact that’s going to live for as long as the digital age is going to be around for the kids to share, to show that, ‘Here, we did do something.’”

Eichstedt said he found the program last fall, when he was toying around with the idea of teaching himself similar editing techniques to create his own curriculum, something he said neither he nor his colleagues were trained to do as educators. OVE essentially allowed him to focus on giving direction directly to his students over video calls, or, later, in-person when the county adopted the hybrid learning model. The administrator in him also appreciated the software’s price tag.

“It was very, very cost-effective,” he said. “I think, for the fall, to do our marching band video, it was only $500, which is a fraction of the cost of what we normally spend for our competitive marching band season.”

Tegan Serink used OVE for her extracurricular performance with the National Association for Music Education’s All-National Honor Ensembles Mixed Choir, and said it felt more like an in-person performance than other, similar virtual ensembles she’d been a part of. 

“It was a new experience, like, just sitting in front of the camera and singing,” Serink said. “It had the backing tracks that you’re supposed to sing along to, and this was something I never experienced before, but they had it with an actual recording of a choir doing it. So, it still felt like, in a way, I was with a choir doing something with other people, even if it was like a prerecorded thing that wouldn’t go into the final cut.”

She submitted her final recording for the NAfME Choir last week and has yet to see the final product. She can expect to share the screen with over 200 other student singers when it’s done. Hearing that backing track and working with so many other people, she said, was the closest to the real thing she’s felt in the better part of a year.

“If you can’t hear everyone else, you can’t blend—you can’t create one sound,” Serink said. “We’re chasing that one moment where we all have the same intention behind what we’re doing, the same energy behind every movement we make, every sound we make. We’re not a choir of 300 people. We’re just one choir.”

The OVE curriculum, she said, was far different than what she experienced last year during her digital learning days, which spanned 10 weeks from April through June. Because of the school district’s early mandate that grades could not be affected by a lack of access to digital curricula, she felt like her time would be better spent on other pursuits.

“Nothing mattered,” Serink said. “I remember just deciding that I’d only work on the things that had a grade score and then anything else I would do if I wanted to work. I was practicing for auditions, and I was studying for AP tests, but everything else I just didn’t do because it was generalized curriculum made by the district. It felt like a waste of time because it wasn’t actually the course material I signed up to learn.”

Now, she said, the school has returned to a hybrid model of learning, where the students split their time between learning in person and staying home, and at least some sense of normalcy has returned.

What a return to normalcy will mean for OVE, however, remains to be seen. Martin and OVE recently entered into an agreement with the Washoe County School District and others around the country to use their product, and they are taking on bigger and bigger projects. Their most ambitious to date was the halftime show for the College Band Directors National Association Intercollegiate Marching Band halftime performance, which featured over 1500 students from 200 different schools.

“They wanted to take the opportunity of the pandemic and all of the things that it has destroyed and create this new community that hasn’t really existed yet of college marching band kids,” Martin said.

However, consumers like Eichstedt and Serink agree that, while software like OVE makes for a good stopgap measure when in-person practice can’t happen, nothing beats the real thing. Martin said it’s still up in the air what will happen with OVE when schools can eventually return to their classrooms full time, but that there are early indications that software like OVE makes for a better final performance by increasing the individual responsibility of each performer.

“If it’s a service that’s valuable, we will continue to do it,” Martin said. “I could just call all the people I was in school with, and all of a sudden we could start a band together. Or is everybody going to be so tired of it that they don’t want to do it, you know? I see several places where it could be really beneficial, but it’s going to require that the educators also feel that way and buy into it.”