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South Valley Journal

Student musicians improvise their tune to meet challenges

Feb 16, 2021 02:51PM ● By Jet Burnham

Students use their cellphones to light the sheetmusic for their peers when the power went out during their holiday concert. (Photo courtesy of Jason Weimer)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

In a moment that orchestra and band director Jason Weimer called “as 2020 as it gets,” a car crash caused the power to go out at Riverton High School during the band and orchestra’s December holiday concert. The students’ reaction is an example of how they have learned to make beautiful melodies out of the sour notes that have punctuated this school year.

“It was in the middle of a piece that the orchestra was playing,” said Christopher Jessee, jazz band and percussion director. “So the students that weren't playing hopped on stage and took their phone lights and shined them on their peers' music stands. We played another 45 minutes of music with the students shining their lights on their peers.”

Weimer is impressed with his students’ resilience and positive attitudes.

“We've gotten good at framing things as opportunities rather than setbacks,” he said. “It would have been easy for them to choose despair in many of these situations. When the power went out, they made a less-than-ideal situation into one of the most amazing memories. They have set an incredible example for their peers, parents, and families.” 

Jessee and Weimer have accepted that this year will look different from past years but they believe they can still provide positive musical experiences for their students. Flexibility has been the melody running through everything they’ve done this year.

RHS music groups have been allowed to perform concerts this year, but they’ve had to improvise the way they prepare and perform. Public safety measures limit audience capacity so performances are livestreamed to a wider audience at home. A former RHS band member who is now a professional audio engineer captures a high quality recording, enabling family members who wouldn’t normally be able to attend the concert hear their student perform.

“I think that means a lot to the parents and it means a lot to the students,” Jessee said.

When quarantined students are unable to participate in the concert, they have been able to perform for their family members by playing along with the streamed video at home.

“We never really know who's going to be in the performance,” Jessee said. “We've had kids that have solos and then all of a sudden, last minute, they have to quarantine for two weeks.”

When a soloist gets sick or quarantined, one of their peers has just a day or two to learn the part and be ready to substitute.

“It’s been fun to see the students step up and rise to the challenge,” Jessee said.

The student musicians are moving forward, continuing to focus on what they do have and what they can do, Weimer said. The band and orchestra are currently preparing for a spring concert. But even practicing looks different this year. Because the flexible Friday schedule has reduced practice hours during class time, many more students are practicing in the band room afterschool.

“The kids here have a very strong desire to succeed and to sound good—they really want to play well,” Jessee said. “So I think it's important to them that they make sure that they're putting the time in.”

Jessee said that with the performances and competitions they missed out on last spring and the concessions they’ve had to make this year, these students appreciate every chance they get to play together and to perform.

“They have a greater excitement and the drive to play their instruments and to be able to perform because they didn't have it for a while,” Jessee said. “A lot of them, if they thought they were taking it for granted before, they're definitely not anymore.”

Directors hope the next generation of students are just as excited to be a part of the music program. They have had to rethink how to recruit middle school students for next year—the normal concerts, socials and occasional swap of music directors between schools—are not possible this year. The experience will be recreated through a video.

“A lot of middle school kids have uncertainty about music in high school, but after these experiences, or getting to know us as teachers, they opt to try it,” Weimer said. “The video is going to be pivotal. In a normal year, we would do a joint concert with the middle schools, where their students play sitting next to our students. We'd have a show-and-tell day, eat pizza and have a good time. We have to try and put those experiences into a video format—it's got to be 100% hype.”

While the high school students are feeling the loss of traditional activities and socials, and traveling to competitions and festivals that act as team-building experiences, they’ve grown more united through facing challenges together. 

“The kids have honestly been the least stressful part of teaching in a pandemic,” Weimer said. “This group of students have a much more mature sense of gratitude and understanding of process over product. They enjoy practicing as much as performing—because the performances aren't guaranteed. Everything feels more genuine this year.”