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The marching band stood still: Monroe teacher and senior discuss making music during COVID-19 crisis

screenshot of TouTube video of students playing instruments
Monroe High School
Members of the Monroe High School Trojan Marching Band performed the school’s fight song via Zoom. Each performer recorded an individual part. The tracks were then mixed down to create a virtual ensemble.";

Michigan schools are wrapping up a year like no other. As COVID-19 closed K-12 buildings, teachers and students struggled to recreate the chemistry of some group activities.

Getting a high school marching band together on Zoom isn't ideal. To hear how one school dealt with the challenge, Michigan Radio's Morning Edition spoke with Monroe High School music teacher and band director Joey Swinkey and graduating senior Emily Tayler, who was the marching band's drum major this year.

"A huge stop"

Before schools closed their doors in March, Monroe's marching band was busy.

"We were in the middle of a heavy performance season. And obviously that involves a lot of face-to-face contact, a lot of bus rides, and a lot of events," Swinkey said. "Switching over to online one-on-one instruction was just a huge stop."

Good high school bands thrive on collaboration and teamwork, which breeds close-knit cultures. When Monroe's band had to cancel spring trips, banquets, and performances, Tayler felt the loss.   

"We're just trying to keep music alive in our students' lives because we think they need it now more than ever." -Monroe High band director Joey Swinkey

"I think of being in band more like being in a big family rather than a class. And to be a leader this year ... it made me feel good to know that a lot of people looked up to me and followed in my steps," Tayler said. "If I were to look my self in the eyes freshman year and say, 'I'm going to be the drum major,' I would have thought it was crazy because I would never be so confident to do that. It's definitely changed me a lot."

Swinkey said that family feeling among Monroe's students is something he experienced in college as a member of the marching band at Michigan State University.

"It's looking out for each other. It's the place to call home," Swinkey said. "And those are the things that we can't really offer in distance learning."

A virtual fight song

To stay engaged with students during the lockdown, Swinkey posted videos, suggested TED talks they might like, and got musicians he knows to give free one-on-one lessons online.

But Swinkey says getting the marching band to play together on Zoom would have been "very, very difficult to pull off," so he and a friend came up with a plan for the students to record the Monroe High School fight song separately, but together.

"We created a click track, which is just a metronome that beats a steady beat. And we had kids record the parts and then send them in. And then my friend and I compressed all the audio tracks and put them into one project and then had to sync that up with the video and put that out to the public so that we had kind of something to celebrate from afar."


Just over 30 students contributed recordings, but the marching band has 119 members. Tayler said the participation rate might reflect the way her classmates feel about how COVID-19 upended the school year.

"I think a lot of people are feeling down in these times and they find it hard to find motivation to do anything," she said. "It takes an effect on a lot of people."

Trying to keep music alive

As the class of 2020 moves on, Swinkey and his colleagues are planning for multiple scenarios this fall.   

"We have in-person models with social distance in the works. We have hybrid online and also in-person lesson plans in the works. And we're also sort of making a contingency plan for what it would look like if we had to go all online in the event of another large outbreak," he said. "We're just trying to keep music alive in our students' lives because we think they need it now more than ever."

Tayler graduated and in the fall she'll be attending Adrian College in whatever form that takes. She hopes to be part of the band there, too.

"I really haven't felt like it's real yet because I feel like I haven't gotten the closure that I needed from high school. It's exciting to know that isn't the end of my musical journey, but it's also very tough to leave the Trojan Marching Band."

Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length. You can hear the full interview at the top of this page. 

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Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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