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Keeping High School Music Program Alive During Pandemic

By Jim Chlebak on November 03, 2020 hst Print

These days, we all are thinking about safety in ways we never imagined. Surface contamination is concerning, but in our small program we have lockers for each instrument, and we can space out access. Instruments travel in cases from locker to performance space, and they return in cases to lockers when rehearsals are completed.

We play by ear and by note – no sheet music and no music stands. Each night, our custodial staff disinfects the chairs we use during the day, along with locker doors. Our school makes sanitizer available to everyone, and we use it liberally.

So, when I’m thinking safety, I’m really thinking ventilation. With the deep breathing we do to play and sing, with the aerosols we produce that can hang in the air, with no access to data on classroom airflow, with aging HVAC blowers that can’t push or pull air through the higher MERV value filters, I think a lot about what safe ventilation even looks like.

I do not understand why our state education agency guidelines prohibit those indoors, even while wearing masks, from playing winds or singing, yet allow for mask-less indoor lunch with maskless conversation. For now, we sing and play outside, and I plan lessons based on weather.

With regard to singing, we assemble outside the auditorium wall – our windbreak and our sound reflector. We stand zig-zag to either side of the sidewalk or road in front to distance while keeping our formation tight. I wear shades and face the sun.

For playing, we open a garage door at the back of the auditorium stage, with keyboards and percussion distanced indoors, and winds standing distanced just outside. We make it work; these students want so badly to play – even while a semi backs loudly up to the loading dock 10 yards away.

The biggest obstacle, though, will be the snow – and scheduling as some things don’t change. But I believe that for us to make music through the winter, a change will need to come.

Our hybrid schedule, designed with social distancing in mind, finds students grouped by Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday cohorts, with about another quarter of the students spending every day at home. Students who attend in-person cannot come to school on their “remote” days, and those who are “remote” cannot come to school at all.

Despite the Chromebooks we provide each student, connecting is difficult. Large ensembles are now chamber groups or even soloists. We can video conference, all of us, when those at school are indoors, but there we cannot rehearse; and if the group at school goes outside to play, it is challenging, by phone, to stay together with the rest.

So far, three solutions have come to mind to keep us sane. First, we use an LMS, a learning management system. Whether it is Classroom or Canvas, it is huge to have a tool that organizes student work, resources, communications and reporting. Students see the work for each day, and those who are absent have resources to catch up.

In Drum Class where we can play indoors, every class includes a synchronous opener, with everyone participating online or in-person. We play “together” with those online muting their mics, or take turns as individuals. Then we break, work on our own as listed in the LMS, and come back together for the end of class to share out what we have learned. For large ensembles, the LMS provides our only chance to be together, through synchronous video, asynchronous forums or FlipGrid videos.

FlipGrid is a solution I thought about over the summer thanks to colleagues, and now we are using it in all my classes. Student work and teacher feedback are exchanged as video, but more importantly as fun, quick bursts of information. Camera-shy students hide faces behind emojis, but everyone so far enjoys getting private feedback almost as soon as they submit their work. The videos they make are private, too, unless they are willing to share their expertise with peers, as some do.

A third solution is one we will use the most if school again moves to remote. It’s a networked audio tool called JackTrip that some have been using for more than 10 years to connect musicians in real time over the internet. The program is open-source – it’s free – but takes 1) considerable time, 2) considerable tech knowhow and 3) some resources to get working. The promise of connecting even four students together in real-time from their homes makes this a worthwhile possibility.

Keeping music education alive for our students in public schools during these challenging days takes a whole lot of people working together. In our school, we have an indoor option for performance, with safe, reliable ventilation. Our school may have the latter, but our state has yet to provide the former. We also need a schedule or exceptions to the rule for bringing student music groups together. I’m hopeful a solution will be forthcoming that our schools leaders will approve.