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SHS band hits high note despite pandemic

On a recent sunny afternoon, evidence of a modest return to the pre-pandemic normal was audible from the front doors of Smithfield High School — the excited voices of band students and the thump of percussion.

Joel Joyner, Smithfield High’s director of bands, said the pandemic has diminished student participation. The group is down to about 50 people from a typical roster of 80. But the dedication and talent of the student musicians is still earning accolades.

In previous years, Joyner would typically have about a half dozen students that would make the all-district band, and some would go on to be selected for the prestigious all-state band. “This year, even given COVID, I had nine kids make all-district band and I have four of them selected to compete for all-state, and that’s an all-time high,” Joyner said.

Ethan Walker and Jacqueline Cutler, both seniors, are among the students who made the all-district band. Both also serve as student leaders in the SHS band. Cutler, whose main instrument is clarinet, said the competition experience was “very different” this year. “We just went on a website and recorded ourselves instead of going in person and being judged and waiting there to be called.”

“It was very challenging,” Walker added. “It was brand new to us.”

As a percussionist, Walker said all-district and all-state audition pieces are usually performed on timpani “but this year it was just xylophone and snare,” since few people have ready access to a full set of the large, melodic drums outside a school or symphony hall.

Continuing to make music throughout all the changes “has been a really big challenge,” Walker said. Culter agreed. The biggest challenge, she said, was “the amount of people that dropped out because they weren’t motivated or thought there was no way we could even do anything, so they just kind of left. That’s the hardest part, the few people we have left.”

“We’ve suffered a lot of losses,” Walker added, a sentiment shared by junior Colin Tabinga.

This year’s band experience has “definitely not been the same,” said Tabinga, who plays the tenor sax. “For me personally,” he explained, “it’s been a lot harder to practice because the way I learn, I’m better at hearing how my part fits in with the rest of the band. Obviously with all the new restrictions and regulations, it’s been difficult to do that.”

On the other hand, the circumstances have also led to new experiences out of necessity.

“I’ve had to switch instruments multiple times to fill in for people that have left because of COVID,” said freshman Alex Muir, who plays the clarinet and sax. “But I have more time to practice because I’m at home a lot.”

Both Walker and Cutler said they’d like to continue playing music after high school. Cutler said she’d like to possibly join a local concert band, “so I don’t lose those skills, because I worked a long time to maintain and keep these skills.” Walker is interested in jazz and would like to stay behind the drum kit on a semi-professional basis, possibly playing regular weekend shows.

“I got into music mainly because of my grandfather,” Walker said. “He was a jazz musician, he was also a drummer, he owned his own bar and had a band in Savannah, Georgia. But I’ve also taken it upon myself to explore other percussion instruments, bass, and now guitar.”

One of Cutler’s first music experiences was seeing her brother play the piano when she was seven.

“I was like, ‘I want to do that too’ and [music] came naturally to me. And I then picked up the clarinet and upon getting to high school, I kept picking up more woodwinds.” Clarinet is her favorite instrument for the concert band. For the marching band, she plays the baritone sax.

Joyner said students are diligent and vigilant in protecting everyone’s safety.

For rehearsals indoors, students stand 10 feet apart along the walls of the cafeteria. They also put bags over the bells of the wind instruments when possible to limit the spread of airborne pathogens. Joyner said students are doing their own risk assessments and going above and beyond, taking responsibility for everyone’s safety. The band’s auxiliary groups, such as flags, also participate in socially distanced rehearsals.

Joyner said there have been no band-related cases of COVID-19.

However, due to ongoing restrictions, the band hasn’t been able to do any of its regular performances, such as concerts or football games. But Joyner said an event is a possibility in the coming weeks. They’d like to invite band booster parents to watch the band perform, likely outdoors on the field. The event may also serve as an awards celebration and senior night to honor the graduating students.

This year’s class has “done some stupendous things for the band to keep it going because they came to play and they’re interested in doing it,” Joyner said. “They maintain good grade point averages.”

Joyner noted there’s one upside to the situation — more time to work with students one on one. And with the continued rollout of the COVID vaccine, 2021 may end on a high note if the health situation continues improving.

“Parents are starting to call me and ask what is the next step after vaccinations are done,” he said. “We plan to stay with what’s on the calendar, what we are allowed to do. And I am so excited to get [students] back.”