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A Challenging Piece: the Music Department’s Struggle Against Corona

Most activities and hobbies we took for granted prior to COVID-19 have not been spared from the pandemic’s effects. Music, unfortunately is one of those. At Forest Hills Eastern, orchestra, band, and choir needed to approach the pandemic from the same angle—by implementing cautionary measures to keep germs contained and musicians safe. Each program has created and curated unique strategies in their battle against the virus.

Orchestra was perhaps the most fortunate of the trio. Playing string instruments only involves physical contact of the hands, arms, and legs with the individual instrument (which most students have their own of), so making music with string instruments hasn’t raised much concern over the infectivity of the mostly airborne-spread COVID-19. The American String Teachers Association (ASTA) worked with the CDC before the State of Michigan implemented its return-to-learn plan. Together, they determined that the “normal” preventative strategies—masking and social distancing—along with sanitizing student-shared instruments would be sufficient for school orchestras to do their part in flattening the curve. By August, Anne Thompson, the orchestra director at Eastern, was confident that her orchestras could adhere to Michigan’s plan.

FHE’s choirs have had to deal with more difficult circumstances: studies have proven that singing increases the travel distance of emitted virus particles. In response, the choir director, Emily Blink,  had to enforce the CDC’s stricter guidelines, which choir found more difficult to deal with than orchestra. Initially, these guidelines included an order that the musicians didn’t need to wear masks—only if they sang outside. Thankfully, before the October chill could bother the classes too much, a study in Colorado revealed that limiting the amount of time that students sang for (compounded with masking and social distancing) mitigated the spread enough that singing inside was viable.

Bands were hit just as hard as choirs. Since brass and woodwind instruments naturally enhance the range of airborne particles, bands’ regulations have been just as strict as choirs’. Paul Boelkins, Eastern’s band director, was sure to follow the CDC’s guidelines; for a while, his bands could not play inside at all. Eventually, this regulation, was replaced with a requirement to socially distance and put a “mask” of cloth over the instruments’ bells or openings. Before the shutdown, an additional requirement was added for brass and woodwind players to wear additional masks over their own faces with a small opening for the mouthpiece of their instrument.

With these new protocols and the return to indoor playing, problems arose. Socially-distanced bands lost many of the positive aspects of making music in a group. Mr. Boelkins expressed his irritation with the traditional setup of instrument rows being lost. Additionally, since the band was too large for the band room, they were relocated to the middle school gym. Thus, it took them valuable time every morning to set up and take down the necessary equipment. Mr. Boelkins’ primary concern was the disruption of the “norm” among his classes. With the ever-changing hybrid schedule came even more questions: How was Mr. B to teach band when Forest Hills’ hybrid schedule banned many kids from even being in the same room?

Though they faced obstacles, Mr. Boelkins’ attitude mirrored that of his students’—worried and irked, but nonetheless happy to be making music. Rohan Reddy (’21) and Jonathan Mouw (’21), a percussionist and trombonist in the band, shared their teacher’s sentiments. Before the school year, Rohan was especially vexed by the potential effects of the virus on the fall marching season, and was even worried that he may never again march on the field. Jonathan, on the other hand, was concerned that the band wouldn’t be able to play at all. Both love band as a way to wake up and have fun with their “band family” every morning, and throughout the constantly-changing times, both have been content with Mr. Boelkins’ response to the virus, and have enjoyed playing in band as much as they could given the circumstances. 

Pre-shutdown, choir members were just as happy to sing as the band members were to play. Mia Dart (’21), a choir student, was initially daunted by the idea of her choir hour being reshaped into a “study hour.” Another choir student, Taylor Reynolds (’21), was concerned that musicals would be adversely affected. Ms. Blink expressed her discontent with singing while masked, comparing it to “painting without a paintbrush.” Her students shared her distress: Taylor explained how the requirements to mask and distance actually made it harder to hear fellow singers when inside. Both students, though, were satisfied by the steps that Ms. Blink had taken to contain the virus, and were happy to be able to sing with their friends for as long as they could.

The string musicians, though, were less threatened by a potential loss of music than the other sections. Contrarily, their concerns primarily related to the integrity of the relationships amongst them. Ryan Longo (’21), a cellist in the orchestra, was not worried about whether orchestra could play, but rather pondered how the group environment would be affected. At the beginning of the pandemic, Ryan was extremely cautious about sanitation, but after a few months, realized that “there is only so much you can do.” He said he was mostly happy with how the virus is being handled at Eastern. Olivia Benedict (’22), another string player, is pleased with the improvement from spring. She expressed that “last year, people were just trying their best, but this year is a lot better.” Ryan and Olivia both trust Ms. Thompson to act responsibly, which seems well-placed—thanks to both the luck of the draw and the director’s actions, orchestra carried on nearly unfettered.

Recently, with COVID-19 cases again climbing nationally and a spike in our own Kent County, Forest Hills High Schools have returned to fully virtual learning. This will undeniably dent the musical learning environment and relationships between student musicians, but many community members are relieved by the safety. Over quarantine, the music department’s priorities have shifted to primarily sustaining students’ individual skills while staying safe. Despite the obstacles, we can have faith that compared to August, Eastern is much more prepared in our long-term battle against the pandemic.

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