Local band program persevering after difficult year, ready for fall ‘Harvest’

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Science Hill High School’s Topper marching band will bring in “The Harvest” a year later than planned at this fall’s band competitions. Unfortunately, Director of Bands Carson Vermillion doesn’t expect it to be the only fruit Johnson City’s band program reaps as a result of COVID-19’s impact on school music programs.

“We had over 300 students, over half the band program, that did not have any band class last year,” Vermillion said last week as high schoolers drilled in preparation for the coming season.

Performance-wise, the 2020-21 school year was nearly a lost one for area band programs.

Those students were the fifth through eighth-graders at Indian Trail Intermediate and Liberty Bell Middle schools.

Fifth and sixth-graders at Indian Trail didn’t have band at all.

At Liberty Bell, seventh and eighth-graders had band every other day, but those students aren’t as equipped and musically advanced as high schoolers. Vermillion said that made it difficult to do as many things as they need them to do on their own.

“There is a learning loss that’s happened with the seventh and eighth-graders, and obviously with the fifth and sixth graders, there was zero learning that was going on,” Vermillion said. “And so moving forward this year, over half the band program are beginners, basically.”

Vermillion said a normal number of rising fifth-graders (more than 100) are giving band a go. But those who are headed into sixth grade and whose first year of band essentially didn’t happen number only about a third of the normal – just 50 to 55 kids.

“That small number will be there every year, and it’s going to take about seven or eight years for that to cycle through the program,” Vermillion said.

High schools improvise, keep skills up

Things were better in the upper grades. That leaves trombonist Ani Jaishankar excited for his senior year.

While dozens of his bandmates repeated the intricacies of Science Hill’s competition show “The Harvest” on the field behind him, Jaishankar said last school year was one of both disappointment and perseverance.

Science Hill senior Ani Jaishankar

“It started off pretty well, and we were working really hard but slowly as time went on, we realized that competitions weren’t going to happen and COVID got worse within the area,” Jaishankar said.

Despite the disappointment, especially for last year’s seniors, Jaishankar said band members focused hard on the fundamentals of both marching and playing.

“It was more individualized, so you had to submit videos and you’d do practice tracks on your own, so there was a lot of work where Science Hill band members had to do things on their own,” he said.

Vermillion said with the band and percussion ensembles meeting in person every other day and video assignments that included exercises, etudes and other performance-related work, upper-grade students may have advanced more than they would in an ordinary year.

“We were able to at the high school level to maintain, if not even possibly get a little better, than we have in the previous years because we could spend a little more individualized attention with it, and the students had enough experience that they could do those things on their own.”

That gain may have been outweighed by COVID’s sting, especially for seniors who missed their final year of competitions and only played one concert.

“The show we’re doing this year is what they would have had,” Jaishankar said. “They were really disappointed that they’re missing out on this show, but they’re so excited that we get to do it and we’re like another step ahead than this year because all of it’s a little familiar.”

Director says smaller programs may suffer most

Vermillion said the Johnson City system approved a half-time band director in hopes of helping the younger students catch up with some individualized instruction. The money came from federal ESSER funds.

“We can’t make up the time that’s been missed, but we’re trying the best we can in terms of putting another staff member, albeit a halftime member, in the classrooms, and that can alleviate some of the learning loss that we’ve seen,” Vermillion said.

Science Hill Director of Bands Carson Vermillion

He’s afraid the COVID year’s impact on smaller band programs could be very detrimental. Many students dropped out, and those programs have fewer resources to begin with.

“It could be devastating for the smaller band programs,” Vermillion said. “We’re very concerned across the country, music educators are concerned, particularly band directors, because bands were not allowed to go at the middle school level a lot of places last year because of the COVID restrictions.”

Vermillion lobbied for even more ESSER support — the federal stimulus money for schools — and said the mental health component of extracurricular and “co-curricular” programs like band, ROTC and athletics can’t be overstated.

“It gave them something to look forward to when they were coming to school and it wasn’t normal,” Vermillion said. “These programs provided some type of normalcy for them, and I think that’s something we need to champion in the years moving forward – how important these programs were before, during and after the pandemic. We need to make sure that we continue to fund them and support them because they are necessary and there’s merit to the activity that we do.”

In the meantime, Jaishankar and his bandmates are eagerly awaiting the season — and a competition show they hope will leave marching band aficionados on the edge of their seats.

“We’re really excited, but I don’t know how much I can say,” Jaishankar said, keeping show details close to the vest. “But we have a lot of competitions, we’re going to some big ones, one big one in North Carolina and we’ll have our Hilltopper Invitational — so we recommend everyone come out and see us and support the Hilltopper band.”

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