During most years, the band program at Nutana Collegiate brings students together to learn how to play guitar, play their favourite cover tunes, and maybe record an original song or two.
But the pandemic has turned the program on its head. Almost everything is done virtually: guitar class is taught through Zoom; students create, write lyrics, and play while in their homes; and any recording in the school's tiny recording space is a one-on-one effort that takes place at a distance
The biggest transformation, however, is a boost in creativity among students. In years past almost 95 per cent of the music performed and produced by students was cover songs of established artists. Students in this year's classes have flipped that on its ear, with an estimated 80 per cent of music now being original creations.
It's something teacher Brett Balon credits, at least in part, to the effect of learning and creating during a pandemic
"In a normal year it's mostly playing covers, preexisting music. The writing part was kind of like herding cats — they want to create but they don't necessarily know how and even then they second guess themselves," Balon said.
"This year is overwhelmingly original music. It's usually people writing about what is in their heart or mind, which puts people in an extremely vulnerable position. We have all been vulnerable in the past year; we have no control over our environment and who knows what happens next. People are looking inward and expressing stuff they are feeling, which is really hard to get a teenager to do, but now they are doing it willingly. The environment and the circumstances of the times really lend itself to artists creating because they need an outlet."
The band program at Nutana is like no other in the school division. It's more rock band than concert band — guitars and drums, not woodwinds and brass. And, since January 2020, it has been an operated outside of the usual class hours. It's allowed more students to take part and also offers the opportunity to earn a third credit in addition to the scheduled morning and afternoon classes offered as part of the quarter system at Nutana.
Balon said Nutana's unique atmosphere and student mix — no Grade 9 classes, older students who are upgrading or earning final credits, and students whose previous learning experiences may have not been successful — are among the reasons why this kind of band program has been a good fit for students and the school.
"There are people coming from all over the place. The opportunity in the band class before the pandemic was to connect people in their communities in a way that's pretty personal," he said. "They build a relationship with each other and realize there is some kind of positive thing in their life right now."
Because the class is not taught within the daily schedule — and because delivery has been almost entirely virtual this year — Balon was concerned students wouldn't be as engaged. Instead, providing them with the opportunity to craft their own plan for success and achieve curricular outcomes has been largely a success.
"It's interesting when you give people a free rein over their education and really wide parameters. That freedom to go and take ownership works at this age," he said. "I thought there was going to be a paralysis of choice. 'You can do whatever you want so therefore I'll do nothing because it is too overwhelming,' but they had their plans in to me within a week or week and a half."
Some students are learning beginner guitar, others are playing and refining cover songs, and another group is studying music in a more academic sense in terms of history, ethno musicology, arts and culture, and career opportunities. The largest portion of the class is students who are studying songwriting and creating original music.
"The diversity of opportunity allows people the chance to create and collaborate with other people," Balon said. "For example, electronic musicians who are creating music with their computers and whatever other gear they have. There are a couple of rappers, for example, and they have collaborated with students who are making instrumental tracks. They will create something, record it for themselves and send it to me for feedback."
When the program resumed in a fully virtual form last October, Keep Flying by Jaudy was the first song produced. Since then 35 more originals and cover tunes have been recorded and posted to the Nutana Collegiate Music YouTube channel so far this school year. Another student original, KID by Mandy C, was put to music for the band class, but the words were written as part of a poetry assignment in English Language Arts.
Pre-pandemic recording of a song — whether a student-penned original or a cover tune — would mean a group studio session. Now it's a socially distanced process inside Nutana's studio as individual students lay down separate vocal, guitar, keyboard, and programmed drum tracks with Balon as recording engineer. Occasionally students interested in developing their audio engineering skillset will take over the mixing desk. All of those individual tracks are then brought together to create the final production.
For instance, the song All These Years by Lydia B. recorded during the final months of the 2019-20 school year required 10 vocal tracks and a total of 60 separate tracks to complete the sound. Cotton Candy Clouds by Andy Caswell was recorded during the closure of schools last spring and was the Nutana graduation song for the Class of 2020. Both of these were recorded remotely over Zoom, isolating the audio tracks from the recorded video meeting.
"They are playing together but they are never in the same room. It's kind of what the whole music industry is doing right now, switching to recording because the technology is at a place where you can do that," Balon said. "We are able to stay connected as musicians without having to be in physical contact with each other."
The songs students have written and recorded are creating a bit of attention outside of the program as well. A recent hour-long show on community radio station CFCR highlighted the program and played several student songs.
For students, hearing their songs played on the radio station was validation of the process and their commitment to the program and creating music during a difficult time for both learners and musicians. For Balon, seeing the enthusiasm, hard work, creativity, and time that students have invested in their learning has been inspiring.
"These are young people eager for the opportunity to channel the complicated emotions of the time into something positive and productive," he said. "They (students) have been more productive than ever. I am so proud of them. They are saying 'Let's go, let's run with it, let's make stuff.' It's pretty awesome."
This playlist features a selection of songs recorded during the past 10 months.
Use the drop-down menu (top-right corner) to view and select the songs included in the playlist