(Graphic by Arijit Trivedi)

Country Day music is sick.

How COVID-19 weakened Country Day music programs

Sitting with her assembled, yet unused trombone after a short Zoom band class, sophomore Harper Livesey decided to quit.

During the 2020-21 school year, Livesey left the concert band after four years of participation. She had grown tired of the “boring” and unproductive Zoom meetings.

Students rarely played their instruments during meetings, which were usually poorly attended. Instead, meetings often ended early, leaving students to practice after class — alone.

Concert band no longer had what drew Livesey to the band in the first place: community and teamwork.

Her involvement in the high school garage band was also forced to a minimum.

“We tried online, and it just wasn’t good,” she said. “We didn’t have a drummer and a bass player. Around November we just stopped and decided this year was not our year.” 

Livesey wasn’t alone in her decision to leave music.

There was a 35.6% drop in student participation in Country Day high school and middle school music programs from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020. 

The 18-member high school 2020-21 band lost five students throughout the school year. This year, the band only has 11 members — seven fewer than the start of the previous year.

The orchestra is at seven members and currently has no violas, a key instrument. This limits the music they can play, said Orchestra and Choir Director Maria Hoyos, although it allows her to be more creative with the violin section.

The choir shrunk from nine high school students to three during remote instruction before rebounding back to nine this year.

Since Country Day first went remote, at least 24 performances have been canceled, including concerts, festivals and pep rallies.

The longtime band director who taught from the fall of 2000 to the spring of 2021, Bob Ratcliff said the significant decline in Country Day’s music programs was largely due to COVID-19 safety measures that prohibited in-person meetings.

“If you started a year with 18 kids in your band and you finish it with 11 or 12, it’s not necessarily because of what the teacher has done,” Ratcliff said. “Whatever attracted the students to the program in the first place is not happening.”

Like Livesey, sophomore Kaitlyn Dias, a clarinet player of 4 1/2 years, said she quit band in the fall of 2020 because of the online format. 

“I really like the band experience of being in a room together, but being on Zoom, we were not actually learning and playing,” Dias said. “The whole point of band is to be together and work together.”

Dias also disliked her homework. During their time online, the concert and jazz band assignments were to record individual parts. These parts were then edited together on GarageBand to create songs that mimicked a full band.

The combined middle and high school choir sing during their Nov. 3 performance in the lower school plaza. (Photo by Arijit Trivedi)

For many, like Livesey and Dias, these assignments were far from ideal.

“You can’t play to a screen and expect it to be the same,” said Ming Zhu, ’21. 

Zhu was a clarinet player in the 2020-21 high school concert band, as well as a member of the Sacramento Youth Symphony, which rehearsed in person. The SYS met outside with proper personal protective equipment — masks and bell covers — following COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

Zhu said it was odd to be rehearsing in person in the SYS and to be fully remote in the concert band at the same time, despite the two bands being in the same area.

“Just looking at Ratcliff trying his very best — literally everything he could do under the (guidelines) — to get us to play and then still not really being able to do that just breaks my heart,” Zhu said. 

Limiting music practice and performances was a difficult but necessary choice to keep people safe, said Head of School Lee Thomsen.

This meant a fully remote 2020-21 school year for music, outdoor playing in the fall of 2021, and an eventual move indoors with improved masks and bell covers for the band. The choir was fully remote for one year before resuming in-person singing with masks. Orchestra practiced the entire time with masks.

Freshman Ryan Xu plays in the orchestra during the group’s performance in the lower school plaza on Nov. 3. (Photo by Arijit Trivedi)

Although musical progress during remote instruction was slow, Head of High School Brooke Wells said the winter concerts for the bands and orchestra and choir in December 2021 were “phenomenal.”

As for festivals, most in California have been canceled. However, Hoyos said the middle school and high school orchestra are planning to participate in the Golden Empire Festival. The festival is smaller due to the pandemic, so the group is on a waitlist.

Band director Kurt Pearsall said recovering from the dip in student participation the pandemic has caused is challenging because band is a progressive class. It requires the majority of students to start playing young, such as in fifth grade, and continue through the years. Following the 2020-21 online school year, Pearsall had four students move from fifth grade to middle school band. He said he’d like to see about a dozen progress each year.

Senior Craig Bolman plays alto saxophone and clarinet in concert band and alto saxophone in jazz band. Bolman noticed a gradual decrease in students since he began playing in fifth grade. However, he saw an increase the year before COVID-19, but the pandemic halted that progress.

“When we got back in person, it was like starting over,” Bolman said. “That being said, we’re making faster progress.”

Another effect of the pandemic is reduced chemistry within the group.

During Bolman’s freshman year, 2018-19, he said the band gelled well.

Returning after the pandemic, with many people who haven’t played together, Bolman said that “the vibe” had been weakened.

“The performances are basically why we play,” Bolman said. “And that’s kind of what holds people accountable for playing. And some people that might be really good players otherwise just aren’t going to practice as much because they don’t feel the need.”

It’s a balance, he said, between safety and advancing music.

Senior Lilah Shorey performs with the high school garage band during the fall of 2021. (Photo by Vanessa Escobar)

Music challenges at Country Day

Having played violin for Country Day for seven years, Allison Zhang, ’19, had different sentiments about student perception of music at Country Day.

Zhang, a junior at Stanford University, was in the Stanford orchestra until the pandemic.

She said she was disappointed with some of the attitudes toward music and the arts at Country Day while she attended the school.

“There was less school emphasis and excitement over these performing groups,” she said.

Zhang remembered a drama performance where then Country Day English teacher Patricia Fels offered extra credit to students who attended. Zhang said the only people in the audience were family members of performers and students in the English class.

Zhang said she also noticed a continuous decrease in participation in the orchestra during her time at Country Day.

“That was a problem at Country Day. The orchestras kept getting smaller and smaller every year I was there.”

Still, Zhang said Country Day did well overall with the resources the school had.

While COVID-19 has caused a clear setback for the music program, Ratcliff said teaching music at Country Day has always been challenging. At Country Day, elective classes are more fragile because of a smaller student body.

“You lose four or five kids and that devastates your program,” he said.

Competition at SCDS is fierce for elective teachers in a way it isn’t at larger schools. Ratcliff said electives at Country Day all compete for the same students, whereas at bigger schools the choices of a few students doesn’t have a substantial impact on an individual program.

Just as Bolman noticed a decrease in student participation in music, Ratcliff observed the same change while at Country Day. He attributed this to a change in elective requirements in middle school.

After middle school leadership shifted from Barabra Ore to Sandy Lyon in 2007, Lyon addressed parent criticism of lacking elective choices, Ratcliff said. In the previous system, the art electives — including band, orchestra, drama and art — were one elective choice, while a few other choices were the second elective. This meant all middle school students were required to take an art elective.

Today, there are over 20 electives in the middle school. Art electives are mixed in with non-art electives. Ratcliff attributed the decrease in music students, which he began noticing after 2013,  to the increase in electives.

“Every year, there would be one or two fewer students,” he said.

Music is something that takes years of work before it really begins to pay off, Ratcliff said. Students who are only required to take one year of music won’t appreciate music as much.

“In eighth grade, you finally get a chance to play things that may be a little more interesting or may have a little more meaning to you, or maybe you yourself mature in middle school to the point where music has a deeper meaning,” Ratcliff said. “That happens in the arts a lot.”

Rebuilding the music program

Hoyos said performances will draw more interest into Country Day’s music programs. 

She was grateful for the administration’s support in organizing the 2021 Winter Concert and revitalizing the music program this year.

“The administration knows how important music is to general education,” Hoyos said.

Despite the size of the orchestra, Hoyos said the group is special.

Few public schools offer orchestra programs, according to Hoyos, and the ones that do are often basic programs that only meet once a week or after school. Country Day, by comparison, meets every other day.

“It’s wonderful that the kids at Country Day still have the opportunity to have this well-rounded education,” she said.

Rio Americano is one such large public high school that lacks an orchestra. What the school does have, though, is a nationally-regarded jazz band program that attracted sophomore Anna Wilson, who plays alto saxophone, baritone saxophone and tuba in Rio’s jazz band and small ensemble group. Wilson began playing saxophone in fourth grade, and at Country Day in fifth grade and middle school.

Like Country Day, Rio was fully remote for the 2020-21 school year.

Wilson said Rio’s bands lost some students during online learning, but she was impressed with how many people stayed. 

When they returned to in-person learning in fall of 2021, Wilson said “everyone was less motivated,” although she added the band was largely unaffected by the in-person rehearsal hiatus.

Like Country Day, they first played outside before moving inside and playing with PPE.

Wilson said the music community at Rio Americano is much more tight-knit and separate from the rest of the school. However, band performances, especially Wilson’s small ensemble band, attract substantial interest from the larger school community.

Country Day’s music program lost a far greater percentage of students than Rio. But the Country Day band hasn’t always been as small as it is now.

“When I first got there, the music program was tiny,” Ratcliff said. “When we started building the program, we had a lot of help from the administration. And it was also something new. So it grew a lot.”

Freshman Andrew Burr plays a baritone saxophone during a band rehearsal. (Photo by Kali Wells)

Peter Mancina, ’07, was part of the growing program. Mancina played bass, and by his senior year was involved in the concert band, jazz band, choir and chamber ensemble.

“We had a lot of good musicians, even at a small school,” he said. “We had a killer jazz band.”

Mancina said the jazz band had about a dozen students, the orchestra was slightly larger, the chamber ensemble had seven students and the choir had about 10.

As the program grew, Ratcliff was able to take the bands to more festivals and opportunities. This growth continued until the increase in elective choices.

Ratcliff’s best years were 2006 and 2011 through 2013. During some of these peak years, Ratcliff said the middle school band was 45 students and the high school was 32.

“I probably would have had one of my stronger years in 2020 if we were allowed to meet,” he said.

While student engagement with SCDS music programs has declined, Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management Dana Vargo said interest levels from prospective parents have been consistent, with a slight decrease during COVID-19 as parents are more concerned about safety and school operations.

As admission into Country Day becomes more competitive — specifically in this fall’s seventh and ninth-grade classes — Vargo said the school can begin to shape classes.

“Musical interest is always a plus,” Vargo said. “Admitted candidates will include students who bring with them a high level of established skill and also novice musicians excited to learn.”

Thomsen echoed similar sentiments.

“Growing the high school from 144 to 180 is automatically going to boost up (music) programs,” Thomsen said. “That’s really exciting.”

Mancina, who built the Mesa Verde High School music program over the past seven years, has taken advantage of the larger student body. While his groups lost a few students during the pandemic, they have been relatively unaffected. Despite a slight dip in participation and motivation due to distance learning during the 2020-21 school year, Mancina said his groups have been consistently growing since the program was formed.

When it comes to building a program, Mancina said the most important attributes are student-teacher relationships and administrative support.

“And then you have to have good opportunities to play,” he said.

Ratcliff is optimistic the school can rebuild music programs.

“It’s not something that can happen overnight,” Ratcliff said. “But the program wasn’t built overnight. You have to go through three or four years worth of students and cultivate those kids to get them involved.”

For Pearsall, the rebuilding process is exciting.

“We’re coming back,” he said.

— By Ethan Monasa and Arijit Trivedi

Originally published in the Feb. 1 edition of the Octagon. Updated Feb. 5.

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