Teachers, students improvise to keep music alive
The special masks for musicians and bell covers for wind instruments finally arrived the day after the first snowfall.
The hardy group of students in the Liberty Bell High School jazz band were rehearsing outside, doing their best to keep their fingers moving and their instruments in tune. “We toughed it out in the snow,” Liberty Bell music teacher David Mills said.
Mills spent the summer and fall researching safe ways for students who attend school in person to actually play music together. This term, the jazz band includes students who play flute, trumpet, trombone, tenor sax, guitar, accordion, violin and percussion, requiring a variety of approaches.
If you’re playing guitar, drums, violin or accordion, wearing a mask doesn’t interfere with making music. But wind players have been under special restrictions because of the role of small aerosol particles in transmitting COVID-19.
Mills looked far and wide for masks that would offer adequate protection for wind players. He finally found triple-layer masks and bell covers that help keep the air from escaping from a company in Texas that was scrambling to fill orders. The masks and bell covers have a special filter that absorbs 90% of the aerosols, Mills said.
The masks have a slit for the mouthpiece, tailored to each instrument. They can be especially tricky for flute players, who blow air across the tone hole, not into it.
The flute masks have two wires, which you have to position just right, especially to play low notes, said 11th-grader Hazel Culpsmith. “It kind of blocks the airflow,” said ninth-grade flutist Glacier Gilbert, although she’s getting used to it.
The mask also gets in the way when playing the trumpet because of a pesky flap that interferes with your embouchure and lip, 10th-grader Madison Strauss said. It also causes condensation to build up, making the mouthpiece so slick that it keeps moving around.
Saxophone players have it easier, since you don’t have to control the flow of breath as carefully, said ninth-grader Peyton Lidey.
The hardest part about playing the guitar outside is that you can’t keep it in tune — or move your fingers, 10th-grader Ilo Curtis said. The cold has also caused strings to snap.
The thick bell covers muffle the sound a bit, particularly for brass instruments, Mills said. But the students are adapting. “They’re taking to the challenge really well,” he said.
Even with the masks — and the cold weather — students are playing outdoors to maximize rehearsal time, often keeping the 20-foot distance they used before they got the masks. Despite a special ventilation system in the classroom and windows wide open, there’s still a 30-minute limit on playing indoors.
Next term, there will be more music options. Mills will be teaching ukulele, for anyone from beginners to experienced guitar players. The school is also exploring a class in steel drums.
Students at Methow Valley Elementary School are also getting a chance to make music. Elementary music teacher Mark Johnson is teaching fourth- and fifth-graders, concentrating on drumming and xylophone. But he’s staying away from singing and wind instruments because he wants to see how things go during the winter — with both flu and COVID — before adding more classes.
For larger ensembles — particularly with wind players — ensuring enough room between musicians and mitigating the moist, warm air that circulates in an enclosed space is still a challenge, Johnson said.
String teacher Pam Hunt has taken advantage of the learning pods set up on Wednesdays for her fifth and sixth-graders, who are- studying violin, viola and cello. In the warmer weather, they met outdoors, wearing masks and sitting far apart. When it got too cold for the students — and the instruments — they moved into the gym, where they could still spread out, Hunt said. “I just really wanted some music to happen,” she said.
Students who are learning remotely participate over Zoom. Hunt records videos of herself playing so students can follow along when they practice.
“It’s a good stop-gap. I would hate to teach this way all the time,” Hunt said, saying she misses the energy of making music in person. “But, somehow or other, the kids are making progress.”
Mills still hasn’t researched guidelines that could make it safe to sing, but he’d love to conduct a choir. There are masks for singers that cover most of the face, with extra room to breathe and push the air out, he said.
In addition, Mills got a $300 grant from the North Central Education Foundation to purchase microphones that allow students learning remotely to record their part at home while listening to a track that sets the tempo. Playing to a recorded track adds another challenge because, when you’re live, you can adjust to what’s happening in the moment, Mills said. Students in the classroom are also recording their parts, which Mills will assemble for their virtual concert.
While not being able to give an in-person concert is disappointing, students will get a CD of their performance to take home, Mills said.
“I wanted the safest options for students. We’re trying to set the bar, as one of the few schools open” for in-person instruction, Mills said.
Sorting out the score on high school music
Many states have restrictions on playing wind instruments or singing because of two choir rehearsals in Skagit County in March that resulted in an alarming number of COVID-19 cases — about three-fourths of the attendees (mostly older adults) became sick.
A study of the outbreak published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that COVID “transmission was likely facilitated by close proximity (within 6 feet) during practice…. The act of singing, itself, might have contributed to transmission through emission of aerosols, which is affected by loudness of vocalization,” they said.
Since then, there’s been research that looks specifically at the role of aerosols in COVID transmission for wind instruments and singers. The research, which is still ongoing, is being conducted at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland. It was supported by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), plus 125 performing-arts organizations.
The aerosol study recommends masks and bell covers with a special filter for wind players. It also recommends 6-foot separation between students — and 9 feet for trombones — and a maximum of 30 minutes for rehearsals. It recommends that singers wear masks at all times.
But understanding of the guidelines for music instruction in Washington appears to vary, depending on the agency or level of involvement with school music programs.
Ginny Streeter, a communications consultant with the state Department of Health (DOH), said last week, “Choir and band activities are and remain prohibited in our current guidance. While we understand these co-curriculars are important to students, these activities (especially indoors) carry an elevated risk of COVID-19 spread. As we continue to learn more about the risks and possible mitigation measures, we will update our guidance and recommendations.”
While many decisions are left up to individual school districts — including how and when to resume in-person instruction, Streeter said, “There are certain guidelines that they must follow and this is one of them.”
But the most-recent DOH guidance for K-12 schools, issued Dec. 3, lists “distancing strategies” that schools may consider to minimize risk, Methow Valley School District Supt. Tom Venable said. These include canceling in-person activities such as choir, playing wind instruments, or activities that require students to remove face coverings. Since the guidelines describe potentially “canceling” these activities, it’s clear that they’re permissible, Venable said.
In its October guidance for K-12 schools, the CDC also suggests considering distancing, bell covers, small groups of students, and outdoor rehearsals to minimize risk in music classes.
The school district has given considerable thought to how to teach music safely, including distancing, proper hygiene and not sharing instruments, Venable said. Liberty Bell High School music teacher David Mills is following appropriate guidelines with his jazz band by using masks and bell covers, small groups, and playing outside whenever possible — even in December, Venable said.
One of the reasons Methow schools have been so successful in preventing COVID transmission is the willingness of staff and students to comply with COVID precautions, Venable said.
“We believe, as evidenced by our recent and ongoing testing results, that our strategies are working. In every situation, including jazz band, we’re acting with an abundance of caution,” he said.
The Washington Music Educators Association (WMEA) would like the state’s guidelines to take into account the fall 2020 recommendations from the aerosol study and is encouraging its members to sign a petition to the state. While the recommendations don’t replace guidelines from public health departments, the WMEA encourages states to take the new research into account.
The petition came about because DOH was recommending the cancellation of most music classes, WMEA Executive Director Scott Ketron said. The state’s guidance has endangered music programs and positions, when music is a way for some kids to maintain interest in school, he said.
“Simply, the petition asks the decision-makers to reference and use the guidelines in the NFHS/NAfME document if and when our schools reopen. That is all,” WMEA said in a letter to its members.
They emphasized that the petition doesn’t rush in-person learning or declare that it’s safe. It also doesn’t deny the need for safety protocols like distancing and masks, WMEA said.
The petition, with about 2,000 signatures, has been submitted to Gov. Jay Inslee and DOH, Ketron said. The state hasn’t responded yet.