Chorus students rehearse together

Fair Haven Grade School chorus students rehearse in the gym while following COVID-19 guidelines.

As schools around Vermont returned to in-person learning during the course of this school year, music classes were drastically altered to adhere to state health and safety guidance.

Some school music programs were suspended while others got creative about how they would deliver lessons — moving to individual and remote instruction or creating brand-new lesson plans focused on independent learning.

Now, as COVID-19 cases decline and school employees get vaccinated, schools are once again able to strike up the band.

In mid-February, the state loosened restrictions on K-12 music programs, making way for a return to group rehearsals and instruction.

Under the new measures, students and instructors must stay 6 feet apart (9 feet for trombone players); rehearsal spaces must be well-ventilated, with three complete air exchanges per hour; rehearsals involving singers or wind instruments are limited to 30 minutes; instruments may not be shared; all woodwind and brass instruments must use bell covers; and outdoor rehearsals and performances are encouraged whenever possible.

In addition, all students and instructors must wear either KN95 or disposable procedure masks at all times — this includes singers. Woodwind and brass musicians should wear the same type of masks but, with a small slit for the mouthpiece to enter.

While performances are allowed, audiences are not permitted. The state recommends all performances be streamed online with different ensembles performing in separate spaces, if possible.

At West Rutland School, music teacher Phil Henry welcomes the change in guidance.

Beginning earlier this month, Henry and fellow music teacher Zach Hampton resumed group rehearsals for middle and high school choruses and bands.

Henry said students were “excited and thrilled” to be back together.

“From my perspective, it felt for the first time all year like this was the job that I was meant to do. Before, it felt very strange and little artificial,” he said.

When schools returned last fall, Henry adapted his classes to follow state guidelines and accommodate remote students. That included focusing on music theory, songwriting and solo projects, as well as rehearsing outside.

Henry said he is fortunate to have a spacious classroom that allows for physical distancing. It has good acoustics as well, which helps since being 6 feet apart makes it hard for students to hear each other sing.

“My room is pretty live and the sound bounces around quite a bit, so it’s not too shabby for that,” he said.

Henry said additional band rehearsals are being held in the cafeteria and outside as the weather warms up.

Despite a lack of performances so far this year, Henry said he and his students are rehearsing for a virtual version of the school’s regular Coffee House Concert, for which students will perform solo and in small ensembles.

“It’s exciting to finally be able to make some music again,” he said.

At Fair Haven Grade School, group rehearsals resumed this week.

Cynthia Hutchins, who teaches music for grades K-6 and middle school chorus, said the return has been good for everyone.

“When we got to get back together this week, there were lots of smiles, and we made lots of great music,” she said.

She noted the middle school band, led by Samantha Schreckengost, has also started rehearsing again.

Prior to this week, Hutchins had been working with students one on one or in pairs, which she said has not been ideal.

“Chorus isn’t just about singing in a group. It’s a social experience, too, for middle schoolers,” she said.

Now, they are back together, rehearsing regularly in the cafeteria, where they can safely spread out.

Hutchins said students have been wearing specialized singer’s masks — or “duck masks,” as students call them — which are designed to sit farther away from the face while still safely covering the mouth and nose.

Like Henry, she said the masks and spacing requirements make it difficult for students to hear each other, but it has provided the opportunity to get students to work on important skills like breath support and projecting their voices.

“We’re just happy to be together even though we’ve got to overcome some more challenges and get used to this new normal,” she said.

No performances are currently scheduled, Hutchins said, explaining that she wanted to avoid getting students’ hopes up only to dash them if conditions changed unexpectedly.

“We don’t want to make big plans and have exciting things on schedule just for things to shift and have to cancel them,” she said.

jim.sabataso @rutlandherald.com

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