Music-makers — the dreamers of dreams — at area high schools didn’t let COVID-19 become a nightmare taking away their passions and desires when state education officials offered no help to salvage their programs.
An intrepid group of administrators, teachers and students instead mirrored British poet Arthur W.E. O’Shaughnessy’s words about these dreamers wandering by lone sea breakers, yet being the movers and the shakers from his poem “We Are the Music-Makers.”
“What I did not plan for was for RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) to write in their guidance that schools should consider suspending band and chorus for the year,” said a stunned Toni-Annette Silveira, North Kingstown High School Fine Arts department head.
It left school administrations wondering last summer what to do as pleas for suggestions to state officials went unanswered, they said. Local music teachers and school administrators decided to take action rather than waiting for updated state guidance – would which ultimately never come.
So, for the last several months, melodies have rung through schools, though somewhat muted by masks, off-schedule practices along with bands and choruses having fewer people and lots of social distancing.
This week, state education officials told The Independent that they are finally considering changes to that state guidance, but did not provide specifics.
Public release of the information is expected shortly, they said. It comes now after the R.I. Music Education Association loudly protested that relaxed rules for sports should apply as well to school music programs.
“Participation in a band or chorus group has the same value as participating in a sport,” said Zach Siemmao, a student at South Kingstown High School, who does both.
In either one, students “constantly work hard to achieve something. In the case of the music programs, we work hard for concerts and competitions,” he said.
“Being a senior and going through a little over half a year without any information or solutions on how we can play during this time was difficult,” he said, but the work-arounds “ultimately made the most amidst a grim situation.”
Resilience is important, he said and Katherine Conforti, a student at nearby Prout Catholic High School and who sings in its chorus, agreed.
“COVID has definitely proved to be restrictive, but I think our choir is a great example of the fact that most circumstances can be worked around if you’re willing to be flexible and creative,” said
Ben Cowen, a trumpet player at North Kingstown High School, added, “I see the band and arts activities as just as important as the sports are. As someone who isn’t a sports kid, band is one of the only other things I do in the school.”
Designing Something Unique
Masks for choral singers, instrument players – even “bell masks” for the front of some instruments – as well as social distancing, soon-to-start COVID-19 testing before rehearsals and innovative virtual performances are just a few of the solutions.
Silveira, former president of the Rhode Island Music Education Association, described the approaches in her school that mirrored similar actions other area schools took.
Teachers contacted for this story told about their push against difficult odds and with no previous reference, and no assistance or guidance from the state.
“I am lucky that NK worked with high school music to allow our classes to sing and play,” Silveira aid, noting, however, that elementary and middle school music programs were much more curtailed.
In the high school chorus, students sit 14 feet apart in school auditorium seats and sing with masks. The teacher is on the stage facing them.
They can only sing for 30 minutes and then they must leave the space. It allows for a 20-minute air exchange before the next class enters. All music was loaded onto chrome books so folders are not touched and shared, she explained.
The high school orchestra, as with some other schools, was delayed and resumes shortly. Students will wear masks and be six feet apart because they do not expel aerosol to play.
They cannot share stands or music as they typically would. In addition, the high school band classes also start up shortly under similar rules.
“I had to order musicians’ masks for the brass and wind players. These masks have a hole that the mouth pieces can enter through,” she said. It also has a flap so when the instrument is not in their mouth, a flap covers that hole.
She also has to order “bell covers” that are put on the ends of instruments to act as an instrument mask. There are about 5 different bell covers for 11 sections of instruments that need covers, she said.
If that’s not enough, brass instruments need absorbent pads under them to soak up excess water from their spit valves. That needs to be safely discarded after every class, Silveira said.
Trombones and oboes expel more aerosol so they need to be placed back farther than the others.
Percussion, she said, can be six feet apart, but will be limited to one instrument per class. Students cannot share any auxiliary percussion instruments, such as triangles, shakers and cymbals.
Silveira said she also has to order special music because the band is broken in half because of a hybrid school schedule in which students attend during different times of the day.
“I had to find music that did not feature soloists or small sections as we will never be together as a whole group,” she said.
In addition, all music classes include distance learners which means that “we may have 30 students in front of us playing and another 30 at home joining in by live streaming,” she said.
At Narragansett High School, choral director Sarah Kane said, that she would typically would see in chorus class about 25 kids at a time, but now only about two or three at a time.”
“It’s really interesting. You don’t really get the ensemble feel and we are allowed to sing indoors because there are so few of them,” she added.
Music teachers explained that the usual performances students do have been shelved. So, too have been before-school and after-school extra-curricular activities.
In essence, most schools right now are only offering basic music classes for which students earn credit.
Ryan Cox, music director at The Prout School, offered, “For performances, it was clear from the beginning that a traditional concert wasn’t going to be possible.”
Instead, he, like teachers at some other area schools, had his students record themselves at home and later these were pieced together into a concert presentation.
It was made available online to parents, students and others. Cox said he, like parents and relatives, wanted to see the traditional school performance so he made it as close to real as possible.
Fritz Benz, instrumental music director at South Kingstown High School, also took the video approach.
“Because we cannot perform concerts, we have produced a number of videos that we have shared with the community, including playlists of solos, along with band, jazz, orchestra and choir virtual videos,” he said,
These videos are comprised of individual student video performances recorded independently and then grafted together to create a single performance production.
“While incredibly time consuming to create, they have been our only available outlet for publicly sharing our music and we are grateful for those who have viewed and shared them,” he said.
His co-teacher at the school, Ryan Muir, choral and theater director, said that performing live is the capstone each year for students.
“That performance aspect of our class is missing this year. We have been able to have virtual concerts, but it does not have the same feeling as an in-person concert,” he said.
Tough Year for Students
The various changes have brought a tough year to students, especially those who explore and develop their musical passions through school programs rather than expensive private lessons that also have been cutback during the pandemic.
It has been, several said, a time of both opportunity gained and lost opportunity. Yet, one glimmering part was the dedication of their teachers and school administrators, they said.
South Kingstown High School’s Zach Siemmao said that “The first half of the year was very difficult attending a class where I would be playing but instead I’m not.”
Yet, his teacher, Fritz Benz, didn’t give up. He and other students did it virtually online with Benz.
“Mr. Benz also kept this same positive energy through these difficult months, despite there being no clear alternative to playing as a group together he still stayed positive and I truly commend him for that,” he said.
“Being a teacher responsible for arguably the largest class in our high school and still maintaining great positivity despite not even knowing if the group will ever be able to perform together again is truly inspiring,” Siemmao added.
For Kate Conforti at Prout, teacher Ryan Cox was also an example to her, as were many other teachers to students in Narragansett, South Kingstown and North Kingstown.
“I’m definitely glad that Mr. Cox was able to make that happen this year. I joined choir as a sophomore and have really enjoyed my time with the choir, so senior year would have felt incomplete without it,” she said.
Teachers, Administration Commitment
In these regional schools, teachers interviewed said they had the commitment of the school’s administration, including superintendents and principals.
Many teachers said it was more than just ensuring that a program, which parents wanted, too for both the student and college scholarships or applications, was kept around in some form.
“We had a very strong commitment from our administration in doing this and doing it safely because we knew how much it means to students,” said Dan Healey, Narragansett school system’s band director.
“The object is to keep core of program intact so kids continue to keep interest and don’t drop off,” he said.
He noted the fears of other teachers who have said that they expect to see participation sink next year because so many group activities were modified or canceled due to the pandemic.
“They lose interest and we need to help them keep it,” said Healey.
Muir, choral and theater director at South Kingstown High School accented how that interest keeps students involved and cements a lifetime memory of high school years.
‘This is the toughest part about this year. Our music program is more than just a sequence of classes. We are a family that rehearses together, learns together and performs together,” he said.
Some students spend an entire four years of high school in a music program and “they are missing out on choir retreats, music trips, holiday concerts and all the events that make our music and theater program exciting and more than just a class,” Muir explained.
It became all about changing - not suspending – the music programs, said students and teachers.
Kate Conforti said, “We would all love to be able to stand on stage or at Mass together, less than 14 feet apart, and sing like we would in any normal choir performance, but we needed to adapt this year.”
She added, “It will be a very happy day when the restrictions can be safely lifted, but for now we are making things work in spite of them.”