Concerned parents and advocates say bring back the school band

WINNIPEG — The ban on playing wind instruments in school bands has left some kids hitting the drums, or nothing at all, as COVID-19 measures continue to make music classes a challenge for teachers.

In response a group of concerned parents is rallying to bring band class back to schools, wind instruments included, saying small groups should be allowed now.

“We can do it safely. We’ve toed the line, we’ve been very good for the last year. The kids have not played for a year and they miss it. There’s still a lot of parents paying for musical instruments,” said parent Melissa Davidson.

Should the ban on wind instruments continue the consequences could be far-reaching, affecting anything from musical skill levels to mental and social well-being, according to Chelsey Hiebert, executive director of the Manitoba Band Association.

“They’ve lost their entire social network, they’ve lost a way in which to communicate and participate with their peers, and a way to sort of decompress and relax from other activities,” said Hiebert.

Music teachers have adapted in a variety of ways with zoom meetings, percussion only classes and air banding, where students use their fingers and keys but don’t blow into the instruments.

“We are all deeply aching and lamenting the loss of being able to make music the way kids would like to make music with us,” said Ross Brownlee, a music teacher at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate.

Brownlee made the switch to a percussion-based band using buckets, and connecting the sounds to future ensembles with other instruments. It was well received by his students because it sounded cool, but he said those who played wind instruments were still missing them.

“The wind and brass instruments they have shape, they have melody, they’re pitched instruments. A bucket, well you can get four sounds out of a bucket,” said Brownlee.

Brownlee stresses it’s easier to build something up than start from scratch, and as many band rooms have been taken for classrooms and music specialists turned into generalists, the future is worrisome. The question is how long it will take to build the programs back up.

“From a student’s perspective they’re losing out on this amazing gift of making music and for many them a really critical part of their day.”

A safe return is possible if precautions are put in place, according to Brownlee. He said studies have shown the use of instrument masks and social distancing measures could reduce many of the associated risks.

“Give the educators a chance to put these measures in place. I do not believe that doing band or choir poses any more danger to anyone than just coming into a school,” Brownlee said.

Education Minister Cliff Cullen weighed in on the matter in a statement on Monday.

“We know students have missed out learning and performing music which is an important part of education and well-being. We are currently consulting teachers and public health on this issue. We ask for the continued patience of students, teachers, and parents as we fight through this pandemic.”

For the thousands of students in the 290 school bands throughout the province, Davidson said the return to play isn’t an option, but a necessity.

“If we’re talking 14,000 teenagers and mental health, and I think the focus needs to be on their mental health and if this is going to help them, motivate them for their other areas of their life and the social aspect that connects them then it’s our responsibility to do it.”

Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, said schools need to work with the government and health officials to safely move forward.

“We know that certainly things like wind instruments, singing and things can increase risk of transmission. So we’re working with this real cautious approach to try to ensure we can keep kids in school, to continue to open things up and as our numbers continue to decline that we’ll be able to do more and more of this,” said Roussin.

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