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South Salt Lake Journal

Extra care given to student-music program during pandemic

Sep 22, 2020 02:49PM ● By Julie Slama

South Jordan Middle choir students are spaced apart while practicing in the school’s kiva. (Norm Emerson/Jordan School District)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

“One day at a time.”

That’s how the Utah High School Activities Association’s music educator of the year Amber Tuckness describes her flexibility in teaching Cottonwood High students while following the safe approach to vocal and instrumental playing during COVID-19 research provided by Colorado State and University of Colorado.

“Right now, we’re using paper masks, cutting a hole in the pleats for mouthpieces until the ones we ordered arrive,” she said. “We also have given our saxophonists, clarinetists and trumpet players school-colored bandannas to cover the bells of their instruments. We’re not legally bound to do any of this, but if we don’t, it’s just risky.”

The instrumentalists’ fabric masks, which appear like a bird’s beak, have a flap over the mouthpiece to reduce the amount of condensation that comes out, Tuckness said. Flutists will wear a flute plastic guard, similar to plastic shields, that will encompass the head joint of the instrument. 

The specialized masks cost about $10 apiece while the flute guards are $14.

Tuckness said that they are looking into fitted bell covers at $7 to $17 apiece or they may purchase fabric for volunteers to sew students’ covers. They also are looking into how to cover the holes in instruments and may get puppy pads, which can be cut in smaller pieces for the spit valves of brass instruments.

Decisions are being made about choir masks, which are duck-bill shaped to allow singers more space, and cost $20-30 each, or perhaps, fabric may be purchased to sew for students to use as masks. Another option may be clear masks so mouths would be visible, said choir director Cecil Sullivan.

“They say droplets are the biggest thing (that help spread the virus) and we’re reducing those droplets hugely,” he said. 

These are some of the purchases that may be purchased with $1,000 from Granite School District earmarked for high schools’ performing arts programs, which, at Cottonwood High, includes about 50 band members, 70 string players and 120 singers. 

In addition, atomizer spray disinfectant is used in their classrooms and additional air is being circulated. Between classes, chairs and stands are sanitized. Students enter in one door and exit from another, have their temperatures taken before they start class and are physically distanced, such as large choirs are spread out 10 to 13 feet in the auditorium and only a limited number of students may participate in the orchestra pit during the school musical this November.

“We want kids to be and feel as safe when we are back in class,” Sullivan said.

While the choir’s annual participation in the 700-singer Veterans’ Day and All-State Choir programs were canceled, the music directors don’t want students to miss out on traditional activities.

Tuckness is making arrangements for pep band to return to a couple football games this fall. They also are planning on their traditional Halloween concert since the school has the largest auditorium in the area with about 3,000 seats. Although the patrons can only fill 25% of the auditorium’s seating, there still will be about 750 seats available.

“We want our kids to be excited about being back and playing, but we want to be safe so we don’t go back online,” Tuckness said.

That is the approach many districts are taking. At Jordan School District, Fine Arts Consultant Norm Emerson said that students will use Merv 13, a commercial, industrial and medical grade fabric against airborne particles down to 0.3 microns, to make band players’ masks. They also have bell covers to contain droplets of moisture. For flutists, they plan to use flute socks, which fit over the end of the instrument. Brass players will use kitty litter to clean the spit out of their instruments.

“Our teachers are innovative and creative,” he said. “We never gave it a second thought about not having music this fall. We’ve approached this with a great attitude, feeling confident that it will work, and our students will be safe.”

That includes Jordan District’s marching bands, which played Sept. 12 with a friends and family show. They then have four performances in the area before state Oct. 30-31.

“Marching band is outside, socially distanced, but all our groups are playing spaced apart. Our choirs are socially distanced at 12-feet apart, wearing normal masks,” he said, adding that many groups are either in the auditorium or outside on the track and football bleachers. 

Currently, Jordan District concerts will be virtual as will those for Canyons School District’s vocal and instrumental programs as Canyons directors say 25% of their auditorium seating is too limited, said Canyons School District Arts Coordinator Sharee Jorgensen.

Canyons, which has two marching bands at Alta High and first-year Brighton High, both plan to play in local competitions and at state, she said, however, music tours for Canyons as for other districts are unlikely as travel is limited or put on hold until after the pandemic.

Canyons band players, too, will wear the specialized masks or flute guards, have bell covers and puppy pads once the orders arrive for middle school and high school programs. High school vocalists will have the special singers’ masks, while middle school students as well as orchestra players, from elementary through high school, will continue to wear the same masks they wear to school.

Additionally, Jorgensen said that mouthpieces for instruments were purchased so students no longer share mouthpieces on rental instruments. Orchestras’ string bases, which often are shared amongst students, will be cleaned between students’ use. The cleaning of masks and use of stands—whether cleaned between students or students providing their own—will be determined by each school director.

“We’re going the extra mile for the students and all of this is extra work for every teacher, but it’s important that we are still able to make music, to do what we love,” Jorgensen said. “Our teachers, like our students, are dedicated to their craft and passion. Mentally and physically, it gives us a recharge and the arts is a social and emotional outlet for us in many ways.”

Through these times, Jorgensen said that many of the performing arts associations collaborated in determining safe practices and are continuing to do so as the school year began.

“We’re in it together to keep kids learning, keep them safe and keep them in the arts,” Jorgensen said.