GOSHEN COUNTY – March 13 is the day the music stopped.
As reality of the pandemic set in, teachers scrambled to connect with their students via Zoom, a video conferencing platform, or Canvas, a course management system, to continue lessons in math, language arts, social studies and science. Music educators learned quickly they faced more of a challenge.
At the time, Brittany Milstead, Southeast’s K-12 music teacher, worried first and foremost about the spring concert, which was still scheduled to take place in May.
“Our classes are very much, you’ve got to be there to keep up with what we’re doing,” she said. “Everything’s done in class. To go from a performance space to online was really hard.”
Zoom has been valuable for educators throughout the pandemic, as kids are able to meet as an entire class or join the physical classroom from their homes. Its fatal flaw, when it comes to music, anyway, is the lag, according to Milstead.
“I have some kids Zoom into class now in the fall and they just have to mute their microphone and I have to trust that they’re singing or playing along with us,” she said. “There’s always a delay in the microphone and the sound and so trying to have them sing or play their instrument over Zoom would have just been chaos.”
Today, Milstead stands in front of her classes, wearing a mask, of course. Her second graders run into the classroom after receiving a drop of hand sanitizer and take their places on the designated X’s, each one six feet away from the next.
Instead of assigned seats this year, Milstead’s kids have assigned X’s where they sit cross-legged or stand. She said the front office has a list of where everyone stands, just in case someone tests positive for the virus.
While her kids sing forte, which means loud, or mezzo forte, medium loud, into their masks, Milstead does the same, standing under a poster that holds truth in 2020: “It is a privilege to have a life surrounded by music.”
Erin Jespersen’s students at Lingle-Fort Laramie Schools wear masks while they sing, too. Though students in her classroom are arranged in a way so they are at least six feet apart from one another, she references a study from the University of Colorado at Boulder that shows increased likelihood of virus transmission when people sing due to a build up of aerosols indoors over time. Jespersen teaches K-12, so a lot of students are in and out of her room daily.
However, these masks are different. Jespersen said the district purchased “singers’ masks” from the Broadway Relief Project. Their purpose, according to their website, is to contain droplets while allowing space around the mouth to sing comfortably. An interior structure keeps the fabric away from singers’ faces so their voices aren’t muffled.
“We do have ventilation when we can get into the gym and spread out even more, then we can remove our masks,” Jespersen said.
GCSD has a number of co-curricular music-related activities, and Jespersen advises a few. She has some students who sing the National Anthem at sporting events, which hasn’t always been an option so far this year. There is an already restricted number of athletes and spectators allowed at indoor games and at outdoor events, singers have to stand close together crowded around a few microphones.
She said they were able to sing at L-FL’s volleyball game during homecoming and they hope to be able to sing again at football games moving forward. In the meantime, she found a way to bring her kids’ voices to the community.
“When we didn’t think we could do live performances, we actually recorded ourselves and then sent it to our sound engineer for the games and they played them,” Jespersen said. “We are working on hopefully being able to (sing live) for the next home football game, if we can get enough microphones and spread out, because we always sing out on the field.”
Gary Glass, Torrington High School and Middle School band director, was “overwhelmed” in March when he received word about continuing instruction online instead of in person.
First, students had to come to school to retrieve their instruments. Some did and some didn’t, effectively ending their participation in band class.
“Some families made a conscious decision that going online was going to be really hard and they wanted their child to focus on their core subjects,” Glass said. “I just tried to encourage (those students). As a district, we were all very forgiving because it was such a new situation.”
At the time, he was only teaching at the middle school, which allowed him to try to be there for all of his students without physically being there.
He recorded videos of himself playing each instrument for each section. Eighth grade flutes, seventh grade percussion, sixth grade clarinet and so on.
“Trying to transition from in-person, performance class where you’re helping kids learn to play and you’re able to sit right next to them say this is how you fix it, this is what you need to do, and then trying to do that through Zoom or Canvas was very difficult,” Glass said.
Now, like Milstead and Jespersen, he takes precautions to keep everyone safe. Everyone sits six feet apart, both in the classroom and during co-curricular activities like pep band, and they wear their masks when they’re not playing their instruments.
Pep band plays at THS football games, but they sit near the end-zone instead of the stands, Glass said. The marching band isn’t yet marching, but he hopes they will have a pregame performance in the coming weeks.
“It’s a difficult thing,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who enjoys wearing a mask, but I just feel like it’s important to do so kids continue to have opportunities.”
What lies ahead
The Wyoming High School Activities Association was originally founded in the 1920s to regulate athletic competition, according to their website. That definition has since expanded to include all interscholastic activities, such as music and marching band.
This past year, 67% of Wyoming high school students participated in at least one activity or sport, according to a press release from WHSAA. An “activities update” posted Sept. 16 lists activities and their current status. For state marching band, “we will have a virtual festival.”
The state string clinic is simply “cancelled.” All-state music is a bit more hopeful, as “auditions will take place virtually. The January event will be decided later.”
For district music clinics, “each district will decide ‘if’ and ‘how.’”
Glass, Jespersen, Milstead and GCSD’s other music educators want performances, and so do their students.
In fact, Milstead said the performance is one of the state’s education standards for music, meaning without them, educators will not technically meet classroom expectations.
The district’s Smart Start School Operations plan, developed this summer, says performances will be held outdoors to provide safer conditions for audience members and musicians.
This doesn’t work during a Wyoming fall, nor when they lack a sound system that will work outdoors.
“The temperature may be nice and high during the day, but about as soon as you hit about 4:30 it starts to drop,” Milstead said. “Trying to have instruments out there in the cold to do a performance, singing out there, would be difficult.”
Determined, and bound by state standards, to perform, GCSD’s music educators drafted a variance with Superintendent Ryan Kramer to submit to Goshen County Public Health. Glass said he isn’t sure how long it will take for the variance to either be approved or denied.
The hope is to have concerts in the gym, which is larger and allows more ventilation and for performers to spread out. Singers will take off their masks to perform, standing six feet apart, and audience members will be masked.
Glass said they could have choirs and bands split in half for performances to allow for more family members per student.
If the variance is not approved, Glass and Milstead said they’ll attempt to record and stream their students’ performance for their loved ones.
Milstead wants her Acapella group to start rehearsing again and to be able to do “singing valentines” in February, which she said is one of the music department’s more profitable fundraisers. Usually in October, her elementary classes start learning music for their Christmas concert. So far, sheet music for “Jingle Bells” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has stayed in the closet.
“These kids don’t join band and choir just to play or sing by themselves at home, they join it to sing with each other and play with each other,” Milstead said.
Jespersen advises 30 students who participate in Goshen County High School Theater. With hopes of the variance being approved, they plan to rehearse.
“We are grateful that our district has taken some steps to allow us to be able to rehearse and to perform, hopefully, for people,” she said. “They all want to make music. They all want to perform in theater, they want to be on the stage, they want to be able to give that back to the community. That’s something they love. These are the classes that are different from everything else.”