Dobyns-Bennett HS band takes on virtual band camp, promoting social distancing

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) While some high school bands are hosting summer band camps using social distancing measures, the region’s largest high school band is taking a different approach.

News Channel 11’s Pheben Kassahun has more on Dobyns-Bennett High School’s virtual band practice this week.

As plans for the band season continue to be a moving target, Dobyns-Bennett High School officials have scheduled a virtual band camp to make its students feel comfortable in playing, while staying safe.

Composed of 350 students, the Dobyns-Bennett High School band, which is one of the nation’s top high school band programs, is working on remaining a top notch band, virtually.

“I think our challenge that’s maybe a little different than some other programs is size. For us, to bring in all 350 of our kids, that works until it rains and then I don’t have any place to put 350 kids, socially distanced in our building,” said Dobyns-Bennett High School Band director Lafe Cook.

Students are divided into different Zoom links pertaining to their instruments or position like color guard, flutes, percussion, etc. This is due to the free Zoom feature only allowing up to 100 people per meeting. School officials have been able to get to nearly a 100% attendance rate after working with parents to be able to give students devices in order to use Zoom.

They are taught by prestigious instructors from all over the country. Some are sitting in Kingsport and Johnson City, while others are dialing in from states like Texas, Kentucky, Indiana and Massachusetts. Doctoral student at Boston University and tuba instructor, Ben Vasco, is one of them.

“I mute everyone and I have them listen to me while I play, and I have a metronome going in the background on my phone… It’s a little app here that I use. I’ll put on a metronome and I’ll play along with this. That way, since they can’t hear each other, all they hear is me and the metronome and so I can be their duet partner, if you will. They can play with me and I’m doing my best to display everything as exactly as I want it to sound so that they have an idea in their head of what these things should sound like,” Ben Vasco told Pheben Kassahun.

Cook said, “They say, ‘Okay, Suzie. Play for us.’ They’ll play the first eight -measures of this and he can provide feedback and then goes to Johnny and then all the other kids get to listen to Suzie and Johnny and sometimes there’s peer feedback that we provide, which is a great way for kids to learn and evaluate each other. It’s given us the opportunity to teach in a different way than we ever would have if they were all here in the band room together.”

Cook said the sessions are separated into the two main elements of marching band.

“We have two music sessions and then they do a visual session where we literally say, go outside slide the couch out of the way and we make them march a little bit,” he said.

Many students believe they have also improved in this new age of band practice, like senior alto saxophone player Chadni Bhat.

“When we’re marching and we’re sending videos, Mr. Hawkins, he can individually look at each video and tell us what exactly we’re doing– what we can improve. In a big setting, he might not get to everyone, so I might make the same mistakes over and over but through sending videos and him looking, he can tell me and I can improve a lot more in my marching than if I was out,” Bhat said.

Senior trombonist Levi Hochstetler said the adjustment has allowed for him to remain engaged.

“It’s made me realize that flexibility is more important than ever,” he said. “The days use to be nine hours and then now they’re cut down to three. You have to be prepared to do anything to progress the program.”

Vasco added that he was impressed with the students and their willingness to engage and be consistent attending the virtual band practice.

“It’s a testament to the program that the kids show up on time ready to go,” Vasco said. “It’s been going better than expected. I found that our short time frames about teaching 45-minute blocks instead of our two-hour blocks allows us to stay focused on the task and be quick with what we’re doing, which keeps the kids’ attention. So, they don’t get as distracted as they do in person, when we have to eat up a lot of time.”

In a normal year, the Dobyns-Bennett band would compete at the national competitive band event, Bands of America, but it was canceled.

“With all the uncertainty, those events have all been cancelled. There are no ‘Bands of America’ events anywhere in the country,” Cook said. “We definitely changed our programming to be way more Friday-night oriented.”

The football schedule will have a trickle down effect on the program but no matter what, the band will still hold performances.

“This allows us to focus a little more on concert band and maybe focus on our concert bands a little early. There’s a positive in that. That being said, we know our kids love the marching band experience and we’ll find the opportunities for them to be able to find an outlet to do that too,” Cook said.

The band plans to practice virtually for two weeks. Once the fall semester begins and students are cleared to come to school, officials plan to resume practices.

As for the start of school, as of Tuesday, the Kingsport Board of Education decided to push back the start of the school year from Aug. 3 to Aug. 10.

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