Rediscovering What Makes a Band Class Great
SCHOOLS | November 21, 2020
Rediscovering What Makes a Band Class Great

By Kelley Gossler, Director of Bands at Lincoln Park High School

Sometime around May, it finally struck me that my band classes were going to look different for a long time. 

I don’t know if you can call that a sinking feeling, but it was certainly surreal. From 12 years old onward, music has been a constant in my life. I have been playing the clarinet since I was in the fifth grade, and being in band was the highlight of my own high school experience. 

But the time had come. For the first time ever, creating music in the company of others was no longer an option. That is my job. What do I do now? 

My philosophy as an educator is that every student, regardless of ability level or background, has a place in band. It’s my job to alter the way I teach and evaluate students to meet each student where they are and involving them as much as possible. 

You won’t find me assessing students by going down the line and having them play in front of all their peers like an old-school band director. I won’t be making the entire class stay behind until every last student plays all of their notes perfectly. 

I feel that my band classes are welcoming and inclusive spaces, but I can also admit that my classes—especially my more advanced bands—often measure their school years by the number of performances they complete. 

The year can feel like a race as we move between performances, sometimes up to 10 of them within a few weeks of each other. Sure, there’s camaraderie involved with the hustle, but being in a band is not just about bonding over making music. 

Being in a band is also about the joy of listening to music. Appreciating music. Discovering a new type of music that you enjoy. This year, I think my classes have struck that balance better than they ever have before. 

It should also be a cathartic experience. The number one thing that I’ve heard my students appreciate over the past few months is the sense of community they have in my class. For them, band is a change of pace—not in terms of being a blow off class, but in providing experiences that are vastly different from their other online classes. 

That brings me back to the all-important question: What do I do now? How do I create those experiences for my students this year? One new partnership I am extremely excited for is with Leading Tones Music. They are connecting my students directly with composers to create a catalog of new pieces of music that will be about Chicago and available for all CPS students and teachers. 

This collaborative process will allow my students to see their interests and backgrounds reflected in the music that they are playing—music that was written specifically for them and has never been played by anyone else. Experiences like this are what my students will remember about this year. 

We’ve also had to get creative when thinking about what we are working toward as a band. Leading a band remotely means that I am not able to hear my students in real time, and the students cannot hear each other. 

As my Wind Symphony practices “Sleigh Ride” for the holidays, I stand in front of my computer screen conducting just as I would in the classroom. My students are right there in front of me with their instruments, playing away. 

It looks like a band is on my screen, but they are all muted. All I can hear is the background music that keeps tempo. Eventually, in a few months, the hard work we are putting into this piece now will become a recorded performance that we will share with our school community. 

But this is more than being about a finished product and moving from a holiday song to something more suited for spring. On my screen are dozens of faces who have not been together for nearly a year, and, despite all of the challenges of playing an instrument remotely, still want to keep learning, growing, and making music. 

The pandemic could not stop my students from finding their place in band. 

Conductors always say that your best performance is not the one you have on stage. The best performance is usually had in rehearsal, when it’s just your fellow musicians and yourself. This school year has been my rehearsal. It may not be the most conducive time to lead a band, but it is definitely one of the most important.  

Kelley Gossler has led the band program at Lincoln Park High School since 2017. Her first job in the district was creating the band program from the ground up at Westinghouse College Prep under the leadership of then principal and current CPS CEO Dr. Janice K. Jackson.