For most of the 2021-22 academic year, band students at the North Country Union High School have been required to wear specially made face masks during class.
At a Friday afternoon rehearsal earlier this month, students gave their candid opinions of the pieces of cloth: “They’re terrible,” said Zachary Rooney, a first-year trumpet player.
Marelle Mosher, a junior who plays clarinet and trumpet, explained that it took so long to get mouthpieces comfortably arranged behind the fabric that kids would simply hold their instruments to their faces for minutes on end — even when they weren’t playing.
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“You’re sitting there holding your instrument, and you’re just getting tired,” said Mosher, demonstrating how students hunched over with the weight. “So you’re like, sinking lower and lower.”
Over the past few years, the Covid-19 pandemic has turned life in Vermont’s schools upside down. But few school settings have seen a more dramatic transformation than band and choir classes, where the very backbone of the programs — gathering in groups to sing or play wind instruments — seemed antithetical to safety measures.
Now, as schools return to a semblance of normalcy, teachers fear that music programs could be grappling with the pandemic’s effects for years to come — even beyond the masks.
“It is hard, because we did lose a lot of kids, we lost those connections that we created with kids,” said Nick Allen, a band teacher in the Maple Run Unified Union School District in St. Albans and the president-elect of the Vermont Music Educators Association. “Because kids are going through a lot right now.”
In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread across the northeast United States, schools scrambled to go remote. For music classes, that switch was more awkward than in other subjects.
At North Country and elsewhere, students took their rented instruments home and rehearsed virtually, through video calls on Google Meets.
“At this point, there isn’t any technology that exists that can allow live synchronous music making across an internet connection,” said Emily Wiggett, a music teacher in Danville and outgoing president of the Vermont Music Educators Association. “It cannot be done.”
Rehearsing at home also posed unexpected challenges for students.
“I have a lot of dogs, so I would play outside,” said Pennelopea Gable, a North Country Union junior and band student. “They don’t like my saxophone that much.”
School music festivals, including the Vermont All-State Music Festival, were canceled, and concerts became impossible. At North Country Union and other schools, concerts were replaced with something akin to mixing a song in a studio.
Students recorded themselves playing their parts at home, alongside a metronome, and sent those recordings to teachers. Using editing programs, teachers would touch up the audio tracks, then compile them into one full recording of the piece.
“Depending on the length of the song, each one was 20 to 40 hours worth of work outside of my school day,” Allen said.
When schools reopened in the fall of 2020, state guidance decreed that music classes could take place only outdoors. Some schools, like North Country Union, did not offer band at all that semester; for music classes that were in session, hybrid in-person and remote school forced teachers and students to juggle schedules that were more complex than ever.
In February 2021, after music teachers lobbied for changes, Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French announced in February 2021 that band and choir classes could move indoors.
But classes had to follow strict safety rules: musicians had to be six feet apart, or more for people who played larger instruments. Rehearsals could last only 30 minutes. Circulation systems in classrooms and rehearsal areas had to be able to conduct three full air exchanges an hour.
Singers and wind instrument players had to wear masks at all times, even when playing. Musicians who played wind instruments used special slitted masks, and the ends of instruments had to be covered with bell covers.
At North Country Union, the band still practiced outside whenever possible — even when it was “freezing,” said Mosher, the clarinetist and trumpet player. “Because (it was) in the middle of winter. And our instruments are metal.”
During the 2021-22 school year, as students have returned to classes full time, music classes have begun in earnest again. But it’s still far from normal.
In the fall and early winter, as schools grappled with the contagious Delta and Omicron variants of the virus, student absences and school closures skyrocketed, making rehearsals even more challenging.
“When kids are missing, the parts are missing,” said Bill Prue, the North Country Union music teacher. “And so we’re not hearing what we should be hearing.”
At North Country Union’s concert band class March 4, the effects were still visible. Students were seated three feet apart, and kids played through their masks and bell covers.
But possibly the heaviest blow of the pandemic can be seen in enrollment. Over the past few years, faced with the constantly changing restrictions, dozens of students have left music classes.
With all the restrictions, many students asked, “You know what — the quarantine, and all the mask wearing and stuff — what’s the point?” said Rooney, the first-year trumpet player. “What’s the point of still playing? And they just quit.”
“It’s really sad to see people quit for something like that,” he added.
At North Country Union, the concert band has shrunk from 60 students to 37 during Covid-19. There’s only one trombonist where, two years ago, there was a whole section. There are too few percussionists. Teachers have had to juggle their musicians: Prue has flutes playing trumpet parts, a trumpet playing trombone parts, and nobody playing the timpani parts.
“We just don’t have enough students,” Prue said. “I’m constantly rewriting parts.”
What’s more, some schools have trimmed or cut music programs entirely, Allen said. Citing the dip in enrollment, some schools and districts went from full-time to part-time music teachers, or let them go entirely, he said.
And, with music programs diminished at all grade levels, higher-level band classes have to make do with a smaller pipeline of musicians coming from middle school.
Some students have quit with the intention of coming back once things return to normal, Wiggett said. But she’s afraid they won’t return.
“Because once that door is opened, it’s sometimes hard to get them back through it,” she said.
But now, as restrictions lift, teachers hope that their students are rediscovering the appeal of music class with no masks or screens in the way — how it “feels amazing to be a part of this large group of people to create something bigger than yourself,” Allen said.
Already, at North Country, enrollment has ticked up. Last year, only 27 students played in the concert band. This year, there are nearly 40.
“It’s getting there,” Prue said. “But we’re going to be rebuilding for years.”
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