There is no hiding in the back of virtual choir or band class.

In pre-pandemic days, music students could blend in with a roomful of other students during rehearsals and on stage. But for students who have been taking music classes during Hermiston School District’s comprehensive distance learning phase, participation often means recording a solo performance alone at home, knowing the video will be spliced together with other students’ parts later.

“This way of doing choir is super intimidating,” middle school choir teacher Stacy Cooley said. “For example, when you have to sing into a camera and you’re all by yourself, that’s really hard and you’re super vulnerable.”

The spliced-together method was how the middle school and high school choirs and bands performed their winter concerts. The virtual concerts, still available on the school district’s YouTube channel, create the illusion of the students performing together by carefully layering the audio files together and showing each student in their own little box onscreen.

Teaching during a pandemic

Putting together such videos is one of the many skills music teachers had to learn on the fly after the pandemic hit.

“It’s several hours of work,” Hermiston High School choir teacher Jordan Bemrose-Rust said. “One class video takes about 10 hours to do, and I have five choirs.”

It also takes longer for teachers to prepare their students for the concert videos. Bemrose-Rust has to record herself singing students’ parts for them, for example, so they have a frame of reference while practicing at home during the self-guided learning part of their day. They also need to have a recording of the instrumental accompaniment to practice along with, and to be able to practice harmonizing with other sections’ parts.

She said there is a lot to miss about the old way of doing things, particularly the social aspect and “beautiful” connection that comes from making music together. But teachers interviewed for the article also said they had seen students pushed to significant improvement on a technical level as they have had to work on a much more individual level.

“They’re not feeding off that musical energy together, but they are individually getting better,” Bemrose-Rust said.

Sandstone Middle School band teacher Daniel Allen said he thinks students will come out of the experience with more tenacity and the ability to take responsibility for their own learning. They have also been able to do some fun collaborations with other schools. But he said he misses the communal aspect of making music together, and it has been an adjustment moving more toward giving students feedback on recordings they send in rather than working with them in the moment.

“In normal years we’re standing in front of the class and everything’s in real time and we can hear something and stop the group and fix something right then,” he said.

For HHS band teacher Sean McClanahan, working virtually with students who play a wide variety of instruments means a careful set-up in his classroom where instruments ring the desk where his camera is set up, making it easy to grab whatever instrument he needs.

“I’m looking forward to getting back to a time when I can sit down and make music with the kids again,” he said.

When high school students return to the classroom later this month, McClanahan said the district has been studying best practices recommended by large studies on safely practicing music amid COVID-19. Like other classes, band and choir students will only meet with half the group at a time and will be spaced at least 6 feet apart. Special measures for music classes will range from using bell covers on instruments to wearing certain types of masks for choir students.

Making learning fun

As distance learning hasn’t been as conducive to rehearsing music together, music teachers have tried to introduce new concepts to the curriculum.

Cooley, who teaches choir for both Sandstone and Armand Larive middle schools, said she has tried to come up with fun ways to engage students with music. She did a unit on music in movies and had students put together their own short film with musical score and background sounds. Later, they were asked to write a quarantine-themed parody of a famous song. In one example Cooley provided, student Abby Goller and her father Josh Goller sang “I just can’t wait to be free” to the tune of the Lion King’s “I just can’t wait to be king.”

They also watched the musical “Newsies,” and are now learning the music to it.

“This is the most excited about singing I’ve seen them so far this year,” Cooley said.

She and other teachers said distance learning has been met with mixed reactions from students. Some show up only when they have to, with cameras off and audio muted. Others are still enthusiastic about participating, and come in for teachers’ “office hours” over Google Classroom to get one-on-one help in the afternoons.

When Cooley asked students to send her what the most challenging thing about online learning and the things they have enjoyed, Delaney Wieseler replied it was hard learning the notes to a song over a computer, but it was fun doing video edits. Others also mentioned they liked the special projects, but said it was hard learning new technology and keeping track of assignments.

“One thing I like about online school is that when we are recording we have multiple opportunities and we can go back and re-record but in real school you only have one shot at singing good at a concert,” Carolyn Follett responded.

A difficult spring

Teachers had the summer to prepare for what the current school year might look like, but had an abrupt end to the previous school year. Bemrose-Rust’s students had a choir concert the night that school was shut down. They thought it would be postponed temporarily, but those students never did get an opportunity to show off their work. The high school production of “Grease” shut down, and various festivals and competitions students would have traveled to were called off. They also missed out on field trips to Disneyland, Hawaii, Silverwood and a chance for Sandstone Middle School students to perform at Carnegie Hall.

Cristian Mata, Armand Larive Middle School band teacher, said one of the things he was saddest about canceling a year ago was the annual “instrument petting zoo” that allows middle school students to check out their options for participating in band and choose an instrument they would want to play. It has been an important recruiting tool in the past.

“That was the most damaging thing, is there were some kids that didn’t know that this was an option,” he said. “... We were growing and then we couldn’t do that one small event that had a really big impact on our incoming sixth graders.”

As a result, he said his and Allen’s beginning band classes are less than half the size they would usually be.

While concerns about COVID-19 spreading are still present, the teachers interviewed said they are very excited to see students back in the classroom again, even if it will look different for the time being.

“We’re working so hard for those kids — nights, weekends, personal time,” Bemrose-Rust said. “We do want to make it work and we are there for them.”

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