Greene County High School band students keep their distance during rehearsal last week. Musicians have been practicing a handful at a time to limit exposure to the coronavirus. CONTRIBUTED PHOTOSGreene County High School band teacher Wes Anderson demonstrates how it’s possible to play a trombone while wearing a mask. In a band setting, the trombone’s bell would also be masked. One recent study recommended that trombones be given nine feet of distance to mitigate spread of coronavirus, instead of the usual six feet, with the use of puppy pads for spit valves.

Strike up the plague

Band and choir require special precautions this school year


By year’s end, Wes Anderson may know more about pantyhose than he ever thought possible.

The sixth-year Greene County High School band teacher has been experimenting at home with various types of hosiery — a personal choice that may end up saving instrumental music for everyone this school year.

Wrapping nylon pantyhose around the bell of a trumpet three times, he said, may be what’s needed to block SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — from being aerosolized.

There have been lots of firsts already in 2020, but who honestly saw the day when band and choir would be risky activities?

“It will be easy to remember this year,” said David Heupel, longtime vocal music instructor at Greene County High School.

Virtually every aspect of school life has been upended by the pandemic, but it’s proving especially tricky to make music, given that singing has been regarded from the get-go as a surefire way to spew coronavirus. And, by their very nature, wind instruments require copious amounts of spittle-laden air from potentially infected lungs.

Plus, two words: spit valves.

After a month of school, Heupel and Anderson are still trying to figure out the best way forward.

“I’m not going to have anything resembling a concert band for some time,” Anderson said.

For Anderson, the way forward will likely involve masks — for the instruments — as recommended by the Iowa High School Music Association.

And, no big surprise: One company that makes bell covers, he said, has a backlog of orders.

That’s where the pantyhose comes into play. The right density, Anderson explained, can work like a bell cover, but too thick and it mutes the instrument.

That might work well for a trumpet or a trombone, but things get positively bizarre when it comes to, say, the clarinets, which apparently ooze particles.

“You need to have a bag that covers the whole clarinet,” he said.

According to an ongoing study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the College Band Directors National Association and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations, all wind instruments release airborne particles, as do singing and theatrical voices. Particle emissions were comparable between all wind instruments, the study determined, with exception to those from the oboe, which is practically downright lethal.

The study recommends the masking of instruments, in addition to the masking of performers.

Anderson has taken face masks and cut slits into them, enabling access to a mouthpiece.

But until bell covers are procured or assembled, band this year locally doesn’t look anything like band as we’ve known it.

Anderson began working on pep band music last week with just a handful of musicians at a time, each player going to their own corner of the band room. A fifth musician may join in from the confines of a practice room.

Without any impending concerts to prep for, he’s free to work on skill-building and listening skills — because, as he noted, spacing musicians 50 feet apart requires careful listening.

For Anderson, this year is as good as any to concentrate on rebuilding the instrumental program. Only 40 students are in band this year, he said, which includes seven remote learners.

Heupel has about 95 in choir.

But, no matter the size, band and choir students aren’t currently able to meet as one because there’s not enough space to spread out in their respective rooms, and the new auditorium at Greene County High School remains under construction.

That has resulted in some creative scheduling at the high school.

Regardless of instrument type or voice part, Anderson and Heupel get what they get. Heupel, for example, has one period of choir in which all the singers are altos, with one poor soprano.

“She said, ‘I’ll just be an alto,’” he said, recalling her unease at sticking out. “There’s probably another class that’s soprano-heavy.”

It’s a heck of a way to have to rehearse — especially when you’re trying to prepare the world premiere of a new choral piece.

Thanks to BOOST funds, Heupel was able to commission Iowa composer Elaine Hagenberg to compose an original piece for choir and piano. The piece was commissioned well before the pandemic to celebrate both the new school’s performing arts center and the restoration of the school’s magnificent, seven-foot Steinway grand piano.

Hagenberg’s piece, “Voices of the Morning,” arrived last week.

“It’s really pretty,” he said. “It’s got some nice things happening in it.”

But for right now, rehearsals are happening a couple of altos and a handful of baritones at a time. Masks are required all around.

“I know we’ll get there eventually,” said Heupel, now in his 22nd year as vocal music director.

All-State auditions will be by video this fall, he said, with the Iowa All-State Music Festival still tentatively scheduled to take place. But even if the 2020 festival winds up being canceled, All-Staters will still be designated.

“They still can get the bumper sticker that says, ‘I’m an All-Stater,’” he said.

Amid the pandemic, there are other unique challenges as well.

It’s recommended, Heupel explained, that rehearsals last no more than 30 minutes in order for the air to be cleared of germs.

“But we have 63-minute periods,” he said.

That has provided an opportunity to work on some important fundamentals, like sight reading. Heupel said the school has a subscription to the online service Sight Reading Factory for vocal students, while instrumental students have access to SmartMusic, a web-based platform that facilitates practice, assessment and feedback.

Anderson’s band students are all required to work in SmartMusic at home on “Highlights From Harry Potter,” with red notes indicating an incorrect pitch and yellow notes indicating if they were early or late. The goal is to achieve all green notes.

The whole thing isn’t totally unlike the video game “Guitar Hero.”

“It teaches kids to practice at home. That is invaluable,” he said. “And God forbid they get addicted to it like I did this summer.”

Short of that, the program also just happens to have analytics that track practice time — meaning that, for the first time, all instruments now go home at night and on weekends.

As if this year couldn’t get any weirder.

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