BHS band director utilizing software to enhance virtual learning

Chris Thomas has been the BHS band director since 2012-13.

While remote learning is underway in the Bainbridge Island School District, many extracurricular programs have faced an uphill climb compared with basic subjects as those classes typically require more in-person and hands-on instruction.

A prime example is the Bainbridge High School band program, led by director Chris Thomas, who has served in the role since 2012-13.

“Obviously it’s been an adventure to basically reconstruct what band is kind of on a fundamental level,” Thomas said about the challenges of effectively teaching band online.

The BHS band program features three concert bands, a percussion ensemble, two jazz ensembles, a competitive marching band, a competitive winterguard, jazz combos, a New Orleans brass band, and a robust chamber music program, according to BISD’s website.

During a normal school year, practice sessions would consist of a warmup and technique period before practicing the tunes they were preparing for concerts. This year, none of that is possible so Thomas is adjusting on the fly to figure out ways to do as much as possible in a virtual setting.

“We can’t meet for rehearsals, and we can’t meet for concerts so it’s like everything has been turned on its head,” Thomas said. “It’s been a good chance to kind of refocus on what we can do to support individual kids and what technology is out there.

“There’s been a bit of a learning curve trying to figure out which platform to use,” he continued. “Thankfully the kids are so great and so eager to work with each other that they’ve been really patient with figuring out what platforms are going to work best for us.”

Thomas has sought out several music programs to enhance the virtual sessions.

One is called the Upbeat Music App, where students can record their personal takes in their own virtual recording room. Once all the students have recorded their individual takes, after just a few seconds all of the recordings sync together for a combined video. Thomas reiterated that it’s not in real-time and won’t work unless everyone uses headphones and knows how to operate the program correctly.

Another program is called SmartMusic, where BHS students can search for a database of music to play. Thomas said the program can also assess things that are mathematical such as pitch and rhythm for the students to track.

“We can look at a tune, and they can play the tune into their computer, and it can tell them if it’s the right note and rhythm,” Thomas said. “It can’t tell them things like expression and note rhythm…but it can at least get us halfway there.”

A third program is called Soundtrap, a digital-audio workstation that allows users to create music or podcasts. The program has its own sound loops to pull from including drum beats, synthesizer patches and bass loops, Thomas said.

“With Soundtrap, I can create a collaborative file where the kids can all mix their own independent tracks,” he said. “They’re learning a lot about recording technology; how do I get a good sound on my clarinet to record onto the computer? How do I get a good tone on trombone? There’s lots of really cool opportunities to teach performance on the recording side of things.”

From Thomas’ perspective, preparing for this year has been “way harder than normal life.”

“Even though we’re at home and can make breakfast during our break period or whatever, it’s still way harder and way more work than normal,” he said. “The kids are worth it, the vehicle of music is worth it. It’s just been so much learning. I’d never edited a video before.”

“It’s been a struggle but I think we’re finally starting to see a path that’s sustainable.”

From the students’ perspective, Thomas said the engagement “could definitely be worse,” but he is fortunate to be teaching kids who want to be there. He also said there is more flexibility through remote learning for students to make up classes or assignments.

The band programs plan is to hold a few pre-recorded virtual concerts for BHS if the district is still conducting remote learning at those times. Thomas said they are working through what that’s going to look like, but is simply happy to be back doing what he loves — even if a bit differently.

“I love my band kids, and I’m super proud of them all the time,” he said. “I’m proud that enrollment didn’t go down too much. It’s nothing like seeing them in person and seeing them interact casually before a rehearsal but it’s still pretty cool. It’s really good to be back in the swing of things, sort of.”

As the district discusses potentially holding in-person learning by mid-October for its youngest students and for its older students soon after, Thomas stated he would love to teach in-person again but realizes the decision is out of his hands.

“We’re very lucky this is happening in 2020 and not 2001,” he said.

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