Photograph by Russell Tanakaya
“The band room was their sanctuary,” say Helix High School music director Mike Benge.
Trombonist Mike Benge has been a director of music at Helix High school for ten years, and the 40-year-old musician was also hyper busy leading the San Diego Latin Jazz Collective and touring with the B-Side Players when the Covid-19 disaster struck. Everything changed overnight.
“I started thinking about what we could do realistically, for our students, and how we could engage them. This was going to be hard on them. The band room was their sanctuary — the kids were always either socializing or working on their instruments in practice rooms.”
So Benge hit on an idea, in addition to keeping up with each other via Zoom interactions, why not collaborate on a video that showcased the students and invited select members of working pro-bands like War, B-Side Players, San Diego Latin Jazz Collective, Pacific Mambo Orchestra, and Karl Denson.
“So I just picked up my phone and called some of my dearest friends. And they were all into it. The attitude was basically, ‘anything for the kids.’ I didn’t tell the kids that all of this was happening. I just said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make a video, and I’m going to send you guys a click-track. I want you guys to play along with it. Use headphones and do it in the driest room of your house. Use the best phone you’ve got and then send them to me.’ I tried to give them as much knowledge as I could. I just had them follow my instructions, and they all sent individual videos to me. They didn’t know about all the pros who were contributing until the end. We made sure to respect the concept of social distancing. We take that very seriously.”
So Benge set out to make a music video, even though he had never done anything like that. Did he know what he was getting into?
“I had no idea. I had to sit for hours watching YouTube trying to figure it out. I put everything in Logic which is a recording program. I had to learn how to edit everything, and I spent the majority of the quarantine watching videos trying to figure this out.”
What kind of time are we talking here?
“Hundreds of hours. I lost track. Halfway through, I wanted to give up, but I was too far down the rabbit hole. I still had a long way to go. I gotta give props to the people that create these videos. Our project was just one song using more than 25 musicians.”
So how did the project come out?
“As a video, it is pretty basic, which is fine by me, I was way more worried about the audio. But as soon as I finished, my piano player said, ‘Let’s do the next one.’ But I needed a break. I need a few weeks to not stare at a computer screen.”
How has the pandemic affected the music students at Helix High?
“A lot of educators came together to try and make this as easy as we could for them. Because we know it was going to be hard. I’ve reached out to students and made personal calls to families to check in. We’re trying to be conscious about their wellness. Just trying to be there for these kids. We’re trying to put together some kind of graduation and awards ceremony this week. The school has been working hard and just trying to be there for them during this difficult time.”