How COVID Changed The Look Of Music Education

How COVID Changed The Look Of Music Education
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Those living in Kingsman, Arizona, shouldn’t be surprised if they hear 30 kids yelling simultaneously from Lee Williams High School. That’s just Shannon Bascombe’s marching band letting out their COVID-19 frustrations.

“The kids were like, ‘Hey, Ms. B, can we, like, scream into the void for 10 seconds at the beginning of practice?'” Bascombe recalled. “‘Yeah, sure, I’ll give you guys 10 seconds to just yell it out.’ … Then they’ll start learning drill.”

The coronavirus pandemic has made returning to school this fall a touchy debate. With each district whipping up its own tentative plan, students are either attending school armed with masks, learning virtually from home or doing a half-and-half schedule. They’ve pushed start dates, altered schedules and introduced new technology. Several schools contacted for this story set a date in September or October to reassess and adjust, aiming for in-person instruction by 2021. Needless to say, a little scream therapy is warranted—not just for students, but for teachers, parents and administrators as well.

So how does music education fit into the new school plans? Unlike math or history, which can rely on individual study, collaborative ensembles like band, chorus and orchestra cannot. With social distancing measures in place, getting a band of 50 students placed six feet apart in one room is, well, impossible. Not to mention the whole aerosol concern with kids blowing on their horns. Online group rehearsal doesn’t work either, due to latency issues.

With those difficulties in mind, districts across the country have already cut arts programs. And those teachers who still have their jobs are feeling the pressure to keep them by proving their worth.

“[Parents are] OK with the core teachers being at home and being able to give assignments,” says Jake Olimpi, marching band and orchestra director at Marple Newtown High School in Pennsylvania. “But what is the art teacher doing, what is the music teacher doing? They’re getting paid and where’s the result?”

That pressure, atop the duty to keep students safe, healthy and engaged has become the new challenge for teachers, who are also haunted by the pandemic’s long lasting effects on music education.

Masks On Instruments And Puppy Pads

The spread of aerosols, a.k.a. air and saliva, forced the Centers for Disease Control to recommend the six-feet social distancing rule months ago. But when it came to the performing arts, there was little scientific evidence on how singing and instrument playing contributed to aerosol spread. A study from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), published without peer review in July, gave music teachers some answers.

Conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder, the study found that instruments released fewer aerosols if they were masked at the bell. They found even fewer aerosols when the player wore a slitted mask. In order to return to in-person ensembles, authors of the study also suggested these points:

  • Musicians must stay six feet apart (nine feet for trombonists)
  • Bell covers should have a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 (although any covering is better than none)
  • Spit valves should empty into absorbent sheets like puppy pads
  • Rehearsal times should be limited to 30 minutes
  • Instructors should wait one HVAC air change between classes
  • HEPA filters should be in rehearsal spaces
  • Outdoor rehearsals are recommended over indoor ones

With the scientific guidance, teachers got to work crafting what fall 2020 would look like… and now that school’s back in session, music classes certainly don’t look like they did before. At Bascombe’s school in Arizona, they’re following the NFHS guidelines nearly to a T.

The students at Tarpon Springs Leadership Conservatory for the Arts stick to their cones and try out their new bell covers.
Credit: Anna Ottens

“When they come into the room, they have to wash their hands, drop their stuff off,” Bascombe says. “We go through the symptom checker from the Mayo Clinic every day when they walk into the room… All of the doors are propped open so the kids have minimal touch. There’s hand sanitizer everywhere. Mouthpiece cleaner everywhere.”

Bascombe’s woodwinds, brass, percussion and colorguard all get their own room. Every Friday, she spends an additional hour and a half disinfecting each room, including the bathroom her students use.

At the Southern Nevada Homeschool Performing Arts, program director Bonnie Buhler-Tanouye says brass players wear slitted masks, akin to “boys’ underwear,” and flute players wear shields. She says parents are willing to do even more in order to get their nearly shutdown Las Vegas music scene rolling again.


The students at Southern Nevada Homeschool Performing Arts wear face shields and slitted masks on the first day of band practice. 
Courtesy: Bonnie Buhler-Tanouye

“One of the parents I was talking to the other day, because I was reminding her of masks for her trumpet player, she said, ‘You know what, put me in a hazmat suit, if you have to. Whatever we have to do to get back to playing music together,'” Buhler-Tanouye recalled.

The NFHS study deemed outdoor rehearsal better for dispersing aerosols. Summer band camps served as positive test runs for the rest of the school year, with students respectively keeping their distance. Water and sunscreen breaks are frequent and essential. In Pinellas County Schools in Florida, humidity plagues practices, but kids are happy to endure sweating for a chance to play together, says Jeanne Reynolds, performing arts specialist for the district.

“If you teach in Florida and you’re a band teacher, you become a meteorologist,” Jeanne said. “‘Cause it’s not just hurricanes; we’ve got pretty good thunderstorms, so you have to know when to get out of harm’s way. Which we all do.”

What happens when the temperature drops? When playing outside is no longer an option, bands will be forced to limit the size of their ensembles, based on dimensions of their rooms and state guidelines. Some schools have already taken band class off the schedule completely, exchanging it for smaller groups, broken up alphabetically or by instrument.

Smaller ensembles introduce two problems, though. First, smaller groups equate to more classes, meaning teachers’ course loads have increased. Music programs like the one at Bergenfield High School in New Jersey rely on a large staff, which allows them to assign one teacher each to virtual and in-person classes for all of their ensembles. Bergenfield’s band director, Brian Timmons, considers his program lucky; not all schools have the resources.

Second, teachers must find music for a ragtag chamber ensemble. For example, if groups were split numerically by students’ names, a director might end up with a flute, three trombones, five bass clarinets and a french horn in a class, and music for a combo like that is rare. Thankfully, publishers like Alfred, Hal Leonard and RWS Music Company have flexible arrangements that can be split into a few basic parts, and have become more available during COVID.


The supply of cleaning materials Shannon Bascombe uses to disinfect the band rooms at Lee Williams High School. 
Courtesy: Shannon Bascombe

But will the music ever get performed? State guidelines vary, but indoor maximum capacity has been limited to as few as 25 people per room. Gathering an audience would be infeasible.

Perhaps concerts aren’t even necessary. According to Timmons, it’s time to shake up the dusty format anyway.

“Music education has been so performance-driven all the time,” Timmons says. “And we never take time to explore the other things like the chamber playing or the composition or just ear training in and of itself or theory.”

Students taking virtual band obviously don’t have to deal with these new precautions and guidelines, but they also don’t get to play together. As Timmons says, they’re working on individual assignments, like learning music production, which allows them to sew together an ensemble, piece by piece. Timmons’ students will work on a shared online workspace to record music. It gives students the power to collaborate remotely, he says.

“They can listen to each other’s part and say, ‘OK, our articulation is not punching there. We’re going to have to rerecord this section,'” Timmons says. “I have three teenagers of my own. I watch them killing it on TikTok. If you can do that, there’s no reason why I can’t teach you how to do this.”

And then there’s the fact that some schools are taking little to no precaution. Music teacher Nathan Smith says he was fired from Oakdale Academy in Michigan after expressing his concern over the safety of students and staff. The private Christian high school is not requiring masks this fall, per a letter sent home to parents.

“I had so many plans for this school year,” Smith said. “I certainly wasn’t ready to leave without seeing any of my kids again.”

The Lost Generation And Long-Term Effects

It’s a struggle to keep current music students engaged, but it’s a completely new challenge to get more kids involved. Recruitment requires getting instruments into the hands of fourth graders and presenting the allure of a polished, performing ensemble—hurdles made higher by COVID.

Lackluster recruitment will have damaging effects on the future of music education, says Robert W. Smith, a composer, arranger and professor at Troy University, who has written hundreds of works for high school-level ensembles.

“We cannot have a lost generation of musicians, and we’re about to have it,” Smith says.

If too few young musicians join band, orchestra and choir programs, the ensembles will see dwindling numbers in each subsequent year, all the way up to college groups.

“This is like aftershocks of an earthquake or second and third waves of a tsunami,” Smith says.

Current music students also face the loss of competition and adjudication—third-party feedback that lends itself toward improvement. Many in-person music competitions have been canceled for the fall. On the upside, some organizations have offered virtual adjudication, where students and ensembles can send in their performances for assessment.

But the long-term effects aren’t all bad. Timmons insists that it’s only shifting focus for COVID-era students to prepare for a more viable music career—one that isn’t totally based on performance (though still valuable), but digital skills.

“If you’re going to be successful in music, you have to have a basic understanding of how digital audio works, even if you’re a classical-style player,” Timmons says. “You gotta have an understanding. If we can teach them how to use a digital audio workstation, even if it’s some kind of cloud-based thing, recording themselves and then as a chamber ensemble recording their own product, we’re kind of unlocking skills.”

All of this means that music educators are getting even more creative than before, out of necessity.

“Music teachers by nature are problems solvers. It’s what we do,” Timmons says. “Listen, troubleshoot, feedback, adjustment, listen, troubleshoot, does that sound good? This is just another problem to solve. It’s just a little more problematic than fixing the intonation of a chord.”

Marching Six Feet Apart: How High School Marching Bands Are Coping With The Pandemic

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