Pandemic band practice takes creativity
School music teachers work around COVID-19 restrictions
On a gloomy December morning, Allen Thomas led his choir students into a courtyard outside their high school in Standish, Maine. The students wore masks and stood 14 feet apart while singing in 30-degree weather. He said he encourages students to wear hats and gloves: “I’m a polar bear so I don’t mind it outside.”
In March, a choir in Washington state made headlines after a 2.5-hour rehearsal left dozens sick with COVID-19. Many called the rehearsal a superspreader event and cited it as evidence that singing was a health risk. Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Maryland launched a six-month study on reducing COVID-19 spread during rehearsals. Many school bands and choirs found ways to go online.
More than five months later, the nearly finished study suggests that while singing and playing instruments does increase aerosol particles that can carry the virus, safety measures like properly fitted coverings for singers and instruments can reduce aerosols by 60 to 90 percent. The researchers suggest masked singers 6 feet apart can rehearse safely indoors for up to 30 minutes.
States and school districts set their own safety rules, and teachers have scrambled to comply. In Texas, a high school choir moved its Christmas concert from a church sanctuary to outside at a zoo. In Montana, a teacher chose easier music to make up for lost rehearsal time. Tuba players at New Mexico State University stretch pantyhose over their tubas’ bells, filtering the air leaving the instruments, The New York Times reported.
Thomas’ classes may only hum inside. The class spends less time singing and more studying music theory and learning to recognize chord progressions. Thomas said he lost a few students this fall and others skip rehearsals if they won’t get to sing. Usually, students spend weeks preparing auditions for district and statewide choral festivals. This year, the events are online, and Thomas said he has only one student attending.
Once his students learn the music, including an a cappella rendition of the Disney song “Let it Go,” they’ll record themselves singing their parts. Thomas and some co-workers will combine the tracks into a virtual concert he hopes to release in March. With normal concerts and an April trip to Prague canceled, the students need something to work toward, Thomas said, or it’s like basketball players drilling fundamentals but never playing games.
Thomas said he hopes to hold an outdoor concert next spring, “even if we have to be 14 feet apart and can’t hear each other.” In the meantime, he said a little snow won’t stop outdoor class. He plans to keep going until his fingers are too cold to play the piano.
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