As the Covid-19 pandemic continues through the winter, music educators across Central New York have puzzled over the unique challenge of teaching music.
Plenty of evidence shows that schools are some of the safest places in the county, with an extremely low amount of related cases. Kids are not spreading the virus to each other in classrooms.
But by nature, singing or blowing air into a tuba or trumpet are some of the worst things one could do as the airborne virus continues sweeping the nation. Schools took precautionary measures, from teaching music online to cancelling concerts.
Isolated from their choirs and bands, music students across Central New York continue their studies alone, virtually, or in small groups. Students have more time than ever to practice, but they miss singing and playing with their ensembles.
Marcellus Central High School choral director Brian Ackles said his district quickly pivoted to virtual learning, but there was no way replace missed festivals and spring concerts.
It’s yet another disappointment for seniors hoping to perform one last time in high school. (Proms, balls and graduation parties are still up in the air.)
“Everything we shoot for in local music and performing arts are our concerts,” said Ackles. “We’re working toward our goals, but we’re not having the concerts be a culmination of our experiences.”
When the coronavirus first hit last March, Marcellus music student Kate O’Leary thought it might be nice to have an extended spring break. Then the number of cases kept climbing.
“The more time went on, the more I missed going to band and chorus and seeing everyone, and getting to play in such a big group,” said O’Leary. “Even over Zoom, it would be chaos if we all try to play at the same time. Everyone would be a quarter of a beat off, you know?”
The Marcellus music department embraced virtual instruction throughout the fall.
Students received assignments to keep playing their instruments at home. But teachers say those students are missing out on the social-emotional learning of group performances in band class or chorus.
Missing those group activities is “the hardest part,” said O’Leary, who had been looking forward to 2021 all-state performances and the Marcellus all-school show.
Marcellus Central HS band director Andy Wiley got creative with teaching instrumental lessons online. His students send him videos of themselves performing songs, and he sends back videos of his reactions, so the students can hear his feedback in real time.
“When students are seeing the teacher’s face and hearing the teacher’s voice, it build a sense of community at a time when there is none,” said Wiley. “It’s not as real-time as a lesson or rehearsal, but I think it’s the next best thing.”
Wiley said he’s grateful the Marcellus district was proactive and flexible throughout the pandemic. The district switched the entire schedule system and created two cohorts.
“Without that support, I really don’t know what expectation the teachers could have for the students,” he said. “The big thing here is upfront communication with the families.”
The two-cohort system also works well at Westhill High School, where music teacher Erin Tapia teaches wind ensemble to half her class in person, while the other half follows along online. Students at home play with the in-person group with their microphones off.
The in-person students sit 12 feet apart in the Westhill auditorium, playing with black covers over the bells of their horns. Brass and woodwind players wear special masks designed to reduce the spread of aerosols.
“It’s a lot of problem solving,” said Tapia. “We’re figuring out how to keep the music happening… It doesn’t feel like a regular year, but band kids are special and they’re making it work.”
Jill Eckert, a junior music student at Westhill, says it was “strange at first” to play her flute and piccolo with a mask on, but she still looks forward to wind ensemble every week.
“It was such a relief to finally play in band again,” said Eckert. “It’s the best part of my day, really.”
Rachel Colucci, a junior trumpet player at Westhill, says she’s sad the school can’t hold a normal musical this year, but she’s relieved there’s still a virtual “Cabaret” performance for students who want to participate in theatre.
Max Slater is a freshman at Marcellus Central High School. Covid-19 hit in the middle of his eighth grade year, and he still hasn’t been able to experience a typical first year in high school.
Slater sings in the school chorus, which he said has been a strange experience singing on video by himself at home. There’s no harmonizing and no camaraderie.
But he’s taking no chances in getting exposed to the coronavirus. Slater has asthma.
“I’ve gotten a little used to doing work at home,” he said. “It sucks, that’s just the truth. I don’t get to see my friends, like in real life.”
Angelo Carr, a senior Westhill music student, said he had nothing else to do over the summer so he started practicing his trombone 5-6 hours a day.
He eventually grew accustomed to playing with a protective cover on his instrument.
“The intonation tends sounds a bit flat, but we learned to play a bit differently,” said Carr, who plans to study studio production and jazz performance in college. “It’s difficult knowing we won’t have concerts, but getting the chance to play at all is really special.”
O’Leary, the Marcellus flute player, wants to study music education in college. A silver lining of the pandemic has been the convenience of meeting college admissions reps via Zoom.
She’s grateful to have more time to prepare for her college auditions next year.
“After we all have the vaccine, I feel like all the little things we take for granted, we won’t take for granted,” O’Leary said. “We’ll appreciate every little thing.”
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