The Coronavirus Economy: How a high school band director does his job from home

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The town of Granbury, Texas—with a population of just over 10,000—lies about a 30-minute drive southwest of Fort Worth. Mark Eastin is director of bands and instrumental music coordinator for the Granbury Independent School District (ISD). In addition to overseeing the Granbury High School wind ensemble in the spring and the marching band in the fall, he supervises two middle school feeder programs.

Granbury ISD, like all Texas school districts, has suspended on-campus classes and activities until the end of the spring semester in response to the coronavirus pandemic. As challenging as it is to hold classes on math or science remotely, Eastin says many elements of music education, such as ensemble practice, have become genuinely impossible.

But the intangibles seem to be at least as much of a loss to the music education veteran. The shutdown has meant losing a rich community of students and teachers. It has also meant canceling the annual competitions and festivities that form the culmination of students’ high school music careers. And the possibility of a Texas fall without football and marching bands is hard to even imagine.

Fortune spoke with Eastin for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected his work and his outlook on the future, and to get a sense of how he has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Mark Eastin is director of bands and instrumental music coordinator for the Granbury Independent School District.
Mark Eastin

Fortune: How have you adjusted band instruction to accommodate for the campus closure and remote learning?

Eastin: Since we’re isolated, the ability to perform in an ensemble is completely gone. These mass ensemble videos you see on Facebook, they record themselves individually, then those individual videos are assembled. Because of streaming speeds, it’s just not feasible to do that live.

So everything becomes very individualistic. We’ve taken all of the material we were working on prior to dismissal, and we’re doing individual playing tests on that. Each week we assign a section of the literature we were working on for the [year-end] University Interscholastic League (UIL) competition, and we work on that individually.

I’m also incorporating some listening assignments for my students. I give them a couple of pieces each week, and give them some comparing and contrasting questions. So they’re listening not just as an audience member, but as they would as a performer in that ensemble.

Those competitions are canceled, I take it?

Some regions did go to UIL before spring break. But the vast majority are in April. So that eliminates qualification for awards for this year. Texas also has an honor band, one honor band for each high school classification, and qualifying for that also culminates at the end of the year. This year 6A, 4A, and 2A students are missing their shot.

Texas is known for having probably the best high school band programs in the country, and these competitions are a bit of a confirmation of the work that’s put in to achieve excellence. It’s a badge of honor for our students.

Seniors are also missing out on year-end band banquets, awards banquets, and performances. Every year we take them to a big venue, like the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas, just to give our kids an experience in a professional hall. There are just some really wonderful experiences that we get to offer our kids in the late spring that are now nonexistent.

Are those awards linked to college admissions or scholarships for your students?

A lot of people don’t know, but there’s probably more money for music scholarships than anything else at some colleges. As far as the disruption, it could be worse. The group honors, that’s more in line with, say, a football team winning a state championship. Just because you’re on a championship team doesn’t mean you’re a Division I athlete.

But the auditions for individual scholarships, a lot of that has been thrown up in the air. Some scholarship auditions were planned for after spring break. I’m working to try and coordinate those auditions, but there’s a lot of indecision. There’s not a playbook for this.

How are students taking the disruption?

There’s been a lot of tears, I can tell you that. It’s been one of those times. We in the band world develop such a relationship and such a closeness, it becomes a family. It’s missing out on being with your family.

Normally, we have three concert bands that will meet every day. We have sectionals that meet every day. Kids are at the band hall starting at 7:30 in the morning. I don’t leave the band hall until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. every night, and there are always kids there practicing. It’s very hard for those kids not to have that time, being with their friends.

And GISD believes that one of the best deterrents of truancy, and ways to get kids to succeed, is through extracurriculars. So you’re missing those daily activities that become part of your motivation to go to school.

How bad is the coronavirus situation where you are?

We’re in an outlying county. They have seen a bit of an uptick in Tarrant County, which is our neighboring county. In Hood County, we have had 19 cases total and three deaths. All had pre-existing conditions. We had some that had been on international travel, others were commuting to Fort Worth.

So there hasn’t been a huge spike. That doesn’t mean that there’s not some nervousness about it. Our nonessential businesses are shut down, and we’re very much dependent on tourist dollars. We’re still very cautious, which I think has helped keep the spike down.

Are students resentful about the restrictions, or pushing back against them?

There’s probably some of that. With high schoolers, they do have opinions, they do read. They’re savvy enough that if they’re driving to the store and see all this activity going on, they might question the validity of why we’re having to shut everything down. The more they miss, I think those questions are probably a little bit more to the forefront.

I know that with my own daughter, she’s taking it pretty seriously, and for the vast majority of the students I’m aware of, we’ve seen the same thing. I don’t think there’s been a huge [number] of students who say, “Oh, this is nothing, and we’re going to go on about our lives.”

But being in a small town, the school is very much the center of our community, and the center of the activity our school-age kids are involved in. That’s the biggest challenge for most of them—just the dead stop.

School in Texas is now remote through the end of the semester. How are you planning for the fall—and for the football season?

Texas and football are one and the same. High school football is a driving force of most communities in the state of Texas. As it pertains to the school year itself, if school starts on time, I think football and everything will start on time. It’ll pretty much be determined by when they say school can be back in full force. And if there’s still some residual concern, I can’t see there being football without a crowd, but that may be something they look at.

But we are dealing with such an unknown. We don’t know how long this is going to affect us. So we feel like the only course of action that is going to be beneficial to us is to assume we’ll start in July as we normally do, and football is going to be on track as it normally is.

We’re in the design process of a marching show. We have a meeting with our design team every two weeks, all of our directors and arrangers. We’re still doing drum major auditions, leadership auditions, auditions with our incoming eighth graders who are going to be ninth graders, to get them seated for next year. We’re going full-bore ahead as if we were in school, as best we can, and planning for next year as if when we hit July, we’re back on a normal calendar.

How has this made you think differently about your role as a teacher?

I think this just has given credence to the fact that we as teachers are fully invested in our students. I know that this has been a challenge for a lot of people. I can tell you that as teachers, we get up every morning to be with our kids. And we have basically lost the reason that we do what we do. We still get to teach, but it’s through a computer screen.

As a band director I can tell you, I’ve had days I just had to get in my car and soak it in for a minute. We’ve all felt the sting of waking up in the morning and dealing with the silence. There’s not that cacophony of kids coming into the school. There’s not that interaction with the kids that love us, and we love them.

We spend as much or more time with our band kids as we spend with our own kids. They are our family. They’re our reason for being, in many cases. And we’re the reason they have a place of safety, a place to call home. They no longer have that.

It has left a hole in our soul. I have broken down on several occasions, and I’m not afraid to admit it. The music we create is something that is indelible, and it is gone.

I’m very close to retirement. And if this is what retirement’s like, I’m going to work up to lunch on my funeral.

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—Google, Andrew Yang, and Ariana Grande back a new effort to send an extra $1,000 to 100,000 U.S. families in need
—How live-event companies pivoted to building temporary hospitals and testing sites
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—How Hong Kong squashed its second coronavirus wave
The comfort economy gains momentum during the coronavirus pandemic
—PODCAST: COVID-19 might have upended the concept of the best companies of the year
—VIDEO: 401(k) withdrawal penalties waived for anyone hurt by COVID-19

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