For music classes, the beat goes on

  • Ouray School fourth graders Imogene Demuth and Mikayla Hurt play recorders in music class wearing masks made by high school art students. The custom layered masks have a slit for the instrument’s mouthpiece, and fabric is also wrapped around the end of the recorder to limit the spread of airborne particles that could carry the coronavirus. Photo courtesy Karisa Hoover
    Ouray School fourth graders Imogene Demuth and Mikayla Hurt play recorders in music class wearing masks made by high school art students. The custom layered masks have a slit for the instrument’s mouthpiece, and fabric is also wrapped around the end of the recorder to limit the spread of airborne particles that could carry the coronavirus. Photo courtesy Karisa Hoover

As her students lined up in front of the truck carrying the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree, Ouray School music teacher Karisa Hoover reminded them to keep their “arm space,” maintaining distance between them as they prepared to sing.

“Sopranos, how do you stand in the classroom?” Hoover asked them, gesturing to spread out and reminding another student to pull up his mask when it slipped below his nose.

The students, all wearing masks, fidgeted as they waited for their chance to perform, singing a few verses of “O Christmas Tree” for the crowd who turned out to see the tree.

When Hoover was asked to bring her students to sing at the event during the tree’s stop in Ouray in November, she jumped at the rare chance to have them perform in front of an audience, in a school year with other events and concerts canceled and replaced with virtual performances.

It’s one of the many changes made this year to allow music classes, typically tactile and communal, to go on under the restrictions of the pandemic.

“We’re doing all the things we can to keep them as safe as possible, but still be able to participate and help them learn to love music,” she said.

Students must remain masked, including wearing custom masks while playing recorders. Made by students in a high school art class, the masks have multiple layers of material and a slit just large enough to fit the instrument’s mouthpiece through. Students then attach two layers of fabric to the end of the recorder with a rubber band, all in an effort to minimize the airborne particles that can spread the coronavirus.

“There’s not a time when we’re not masking,” she said, even, and especially, when students are singing. “Projection is a little bit harder, and being able to analyze things like vowel structures and articulation is a little harder.”

That was the case even when classes were meeting outside. Hoover, who lives a few minutes from the school, said she used her yard as an outdoor classroom, as so many teachers were trying to find space for their classes. “That was just one more buffer to help us,” she said.

She’s also moved into a larger classroom in the school, where students have more space to spread out. “Typically, in a music classroom you would set it up in a U-shape,” she said, where students can hear and see each other easily. This year, “it’s all straight forward and staggered so nobody’s turning toward another person where particles could potentially expose someone.”

That’s made it a little tougher for students to work together in ensembles, she said, “but they’re working hard to make it work.”

An ongoing study at the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Maryland, commissioned by a coalition of performing arts groups around the country, found that wearing slitted surgical masks and covering the bell end of wind instruments appears to reduce aerosol emission “between 6o percent and go percent”

The impact varies by instrument, as different amounts of aerosols are produced; preliminary results show that playing an oboe, for example, appears to produce more aerosols than playing a flute. “Flutes and recorders create a minimal amount of aerosol,” and both should be played with cloth masking the end of the barrel, according to a November report from the study.

Outdoor rehearsals are the safest option, followed by indoors with more frequent air exchange and indoors with filters or air cleaners, according to the study.

Ridgway Secondary School music teacher Michael Scott said in an email that his curriculum is “more rooted in percussion and guitar until we have the necessary PPE (personal protective equipment) and procedures in place to protect all stakeholders.” A typical year would have included more vocal and instrumental instruction; this year, students are focusing on drums, keyboards, cymbals, guitars and other instruments deemed safer. Scott taught music at Ouray School for five years before he was hired by Ridgway in July.

The district’s elementary music teacher, Diane Brand, resigned over the summer due to the pandemic.

“I struggled with this decision every day since the beginning of the summer, trying to wrap my head around planning a quality and fun musical experience for students and keeping them safe,” she told the Plaindealer in August. “Music is social, and they couldn’t interact with each other.”

Rather than hire another elementary music teacher for the current school year, the district replaced music with extra physical education class for its youngest students.

When classes can return to their typical form, Scott is optimistic that his secondary students will be able to transition “back to Band and Choir ‘as usual’ with relatively few challenges.”

“My goal is to create an atmosphere that is challenging musically but also fun and social for all those involved,” he said. “Of course the social distancing norms have made this more difficult, but our small sized cohorts and adequate facility have allowed music to happen.”

The small size of Ouray County’s schools have allowed students and teachers to continue attending in-person as larger districts around the state have had to rely on virtual or hybrid models. Both school districts have implemented cohort models to minimize interactions between groups of students and adults, which brings both challenges and advantages.

Instead of Ridgway students opting into yearlong elective music classes, sixth through loth graders all rotate through nine weeks of music, art, Spanish, computer, shop and outdoor education classes with their assigned cohorts.

Typically, Hoover would teach each elementary and middle school grades once a week throughout the school year This year, she sees one grade at a time daily for several weeks, to minimize the number of students she interacts with at any time.

“It’s tough, because I’ve already seen the first grade, they’ve come and gone and I won’t see them until they’re in second grade,” she said. “I had this really bulk time, I got to cover curriculum and material in a really concentrated time. And then there’s a huge gap between now and when I’ll see them next.”

The entire high school is considered to be one cohort, but music classes are capped at ro, and some, like her choir class, are even smaller, with only three students.

Sharing is off the table, too, including instruments, music stands and desks. Elementary students are assigned individual bags of handheld instruments to use throughout the quarter, and all middle school students are assigned their own ukulele instead of sharing them, Hoover said.

With no performances or concerts to look forward to, the class dynamic has changed in some ways. “When you’re preparing for a performance, there is that eagerness to really perfect a song and make it be super performance-ready,” Hoover said. With no in-person concerts on the calendar, they’ve shifted their focus to virtual, video performances for their families, which doesn’t carry quite as much excitement.

Scott said his students performed “mini concerts” for others in their cohort in the absence of their traditional holiday concerts. He hopes to find ways for students to perform for their families “when the time is right,” he said.

Finding new ways to perform isn’t new for Hoover, who also performs with her husband as the folk-rock duo You Knew Me When, and is sharing that mindset with her students.

“It’s affecting everybody that does music,” she said. “You just have to get a little more creative with how you approach performances, whether online or outside. We have to work with what we have available.”

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas. Email to make a tax-deductible donation to support her work.