RED WING -- When schools across the nation closed down in March, teachers were left to plan ways to deliver their content to students through distance learning. For some, it was an easy transition, but for the three instructors in Minnesota State College Southeast Band Instrument Repair program the switch was a challenge.

“The trick is that it is a hands-on program,” said instructor John Huth. “You can’t just read a book about how to repair an instrument. When everything happened, we knew there was no way we could have students on campus. We had to prepare to deliver the learning part via video conferencing on Zoom, and then do as much hands-on as they could in their homes.”

The instrument repair program at MSCSE is the largest of three such programs in the country, so students come from all over. When COVID-19 shut down the campus, most of those students returned to their homes, often a long distance from Red Wing.

One of the benches used to demonstrate brass instrument repair.  The instructors used a boom mic and overhead webcam to send lessons out via Zoom.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
One of the benches used to demonstrate brass instrument repair. The instructors used a boom mic and overhead webcam to send lessons out via Zoom. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

At that point, Huth, along with fellow instructors Greg Beckwith and John Maddox, had to meet to determine what were the critical skills their students needed to graduate and enter employment, and how was the best way to get the information and practical skills to their students.

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The instrument repair program is a nine-month, two-semester program. During the second semester, half the students spend eight weeks working with brass instruments and the other half spend eight weeks working with woodwinds. At the midpoint of the semester, they switch instructors to learn about the other instruments.

“They all receive the same content, but at different times,” Beckwith said. “They were ready to switch when the restrictions came in, so it was a natural break for us.”

The program has plenty of instruments for students to work on, but one of the problems the three instructors faced was a difference in the tools needed for each type of instrument. The tools needed for woodwinds are smaller and could easily be sent home with students. Tools needed for brass instruments are larger and less portable.

Maddox was teaching the woodwinds students when the shutdown occurred. He made up kits for his students including instruments needing repair, some of the tools they would need, and replacement parts such as pads. Students picked up the kits at the side door and took them home. Greg Beckwith was teaching the brass students and was able to send home instruments but fewer tools.

Old brass instruments hang in the rafters of a  Minnesota State College Southeast classroom, waiting to be used as assignments for future students.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Old brass instruments hang in the rafters of a Minnesota State College Southeast classroom, waiting to be used as assignments for future students. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

“We sat down as a trio and tried to identify for both sides, for brass and woodwinds, what is absolutely essential -- the learning outcomes in our program that students need to know to graduate,” Maddox said. “Then we identified what they would be able to do from home.”

Since most instruction is done in a lab setting with the instructor demonstrating a skill and then helping students practice that skill, Maddox said the instructors tried to create a situation that would be just as helpful for students working at home. They also recorded some lectures so that students could replay them as needed.

“We were able to use a boom mic so that we could have a camera overhead and students could see our bench, similarly to how we have it set up in the labs,” Maddox said. “We were able to continue that type of demonstration format even via Zoom. With some really simple stuff like a boom mic, a webcam, and some tape, we were able to get it to be very good.”

The next problem came when students finished working on instruments and needed to turn them in for grading. Maddox arranged for students to send them in through the college’s UPS account. The efforts to make these special arrangements paid off.

“Comparing the work those students did to the other class that was in the lab the whole time, all three instruments were on par,” Maddox said. “They were just as good as what I was seeing from those students that were in the lab the prior eight weeks.”

The students working on brass instruments, with fewer tools available, were not having such good results.

“The woodwind students fulfilled what we determined was required, so they graduated. They’ve got their diplomas,” Beckwith said. “The brass students, because of the specialized, non-portable tools, are left in progress.”

The classroom is filled with instruments, replacement parts, and tools to help students learn the skills they need for graduation and employment.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
The classroom is filled with instruments, replacement parts, and tools to help students learn the skills they need for graduation and employment. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

The three instructors created a list of 15 items that the brass students would need to complete before they could graduate. The college decided to give them an additional year to finish those final items.

“They have until May 1, 2121, to fulfill these requirements any way they can,” Beckwith said. “Some are already doing this, because they have jobs and are able to do these things at work.”

In spite of the shutdown caused by the coronavirus, the Band Instrument Repair instructors found ways to help their students succeed, and along the way, learned more about their own program and its goals.

“This forced the three of us to take time to sit down and focus on what we wanted this to be,” Maddox said. “It helped us change things, modify things, and made us ask what other doors does this open? We already know things are going to be different when we start things up next fall.”

Face-to-face instruction will resume in the fall with some accommodations in the shop areas, according to Beckwith. Workbenches will be six feet apart. Students will be required to wear masks and to wash and sanitize hands upon entering the work area and again before and after using any vices and other common-use tools. Instructors will be re-designing group projects for individual work and will take advantage of off-site learning to maximize hands-on shop time.