When times are tough people often turn to the comfort of their favourite music, movie, or creative hobby to keep them distracted. So, what is an ensemble musician to do when they can no longer do what they love most? The University of Lethbridge Wind Orchestra asked that question when COVID restrictions meant they’d no longer be able to practice together in-person. Director Dr. Chee Meng Low reached out to colleague Karly Lewis (BMus '97), band director at Gilbert Paterson Middle School, to solve the problem together.

“When COVID hit, my whole band program was thrown online and there’s no platform where we can do ensemble training online,” explains Lewis. “With no fault to our district, there was this anxiety to collect all the instruments back for fear that they would walk. I said, I will not do that. They won’t walk. What ended up happening was that I started receiving emails from parents grateful to the school that the kids were able to keep playing because of their mental wellness.

They were able to turn to something that allowed them to escape, because when you play an instrument, you’re allowed to escape to wherever you want to go.”

Lewis and Low knew both of their ensembles needed an outlet to practice, for the sake of their development and their well-being. This fall university-level musicians enrolled in the Wind Orchestra ensemble are partnering, virtually, with grade 7 and 8 band students for weekly rehearsals over Zoom. The chance to pair a beginner with a university-level musician is an exciting opportunity for both students and the advanced players who are challenged to think in a different way.

“That one-on-one time at this stage of a musician’s development is so valuable,” says Gerald Rogers (BMus ’20), a recent graduate and member of the Wind Orchestra. “In the long run it’s only going to help them because they’re getting focused sessions with other musicians, and it’s a good experience for the university students because learning to teach is completely different than learning to play music.”

Bandmate Claire McMahon agrees.

“I have to really think about the fundamentals of the instrument again, so my technique has been improving a lot just from having to think about how to teach technique. The kids struggle with the same stuff that I still struggle with so it has been forcing me to practice those things so I can demonstrate in the lessons.”

Each Wednesday evening, 47 middle school students join the University Wind Orchestra online and break out into 23 rooms where Low and Lewis can move between and see how the lesson are going.

Rogers and McMahon might be feeling a bit nostalgic when Lewis pops in and offers feedback, as they both started their ensemble careers in the Gilbert Paterson band program. They agree that their time in Lewis’s program helps them connect with her students now as they remember how she taught and understand her high expectations.

“I remember there was an expectation and if you knew what was good for you, you were going to meet it,” says Rogers with a laugh. “It taught me the benefit of working hard at something. Going through her program gives me a good idea of how much I can ask of her students when teaching them.”

McMahon is thrilled to be part of this mentorship program, remembering the influence that senior students had on her decision to attend uLethbridge by visiting her high school and working directly with her and her classmates.

“The Wind Orchestra has always done a lot of events in the community, high school outreach, recruitment activities – and it worked,” says McMahon. “I definitely felt more comfortable going into the program because I knew these three clinicians I’ve been working with are going to be upperclassmen, so I’ll know some people.”

Lewis herself is a self-proclaimed University of Lethbridge lifer – starting with the University Conservatory of Music as a child, then attending the University of Lethbridge studying music and today continuing to partner with faculty and students in her role as band director.

“I started taking horn lessons with Tom Staples (former Wind Orchestra director and Department of Music professor emeritus) when I was 12 and then continued on until I was 22, so I was with him for 10 years of my life,” shares Lewis. “I also attended Gilbert Paterson, where Susie Staples, Tom’s wife, was my band teacher. So, the web that has been woven for me musically in Lethbridge has been pretty incredible.”

Lewis has been teaching band for 20 years now, 14 of those at Gilbert Paterson. She is known in the music community for her program and the strong young players that come out of it. She is grateful to the University Wind Orchestra and Dr. Low for their contributions to her students and program. “Hopefully we will be able to partner again in the future.”

Of course, both ensembles can’t wait to get back to practicing in person, but in the meantime, this rare opportunity to partner virtually is benefiting both the students and the teachers, and everyone’s mental well-being.

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