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Tennis Courts, Parking Lots, Furnace Filters — How The Pandemic Has Transformed Band Class In Maine

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Edward Little High School Band Director Bill Buzza conducts class on a tennis court.

It has been nearly a month since most public schools in Maine returned to some from of classroom instruction, adapting to an array of restrictions, hybrid schedules and mask requirements.

One class subject that has presented a particular challenge during the pandemic is music, as singing and playing brass and wind instruments project aerosols long distances. But schools are finding ways to make sure the band plays on.

On a cloudy Thursday afternoon, about a dozen students gather with their clarinets, trumpets and trombones under a tent on the tennis courts at Auburn’s Edward Little High School. It’s the first band practice of the year. And junior trombone player Ian Lathrop says he’s been eagerly awaiting this day.

“We do the hybrid thing, so we’re only at school two days per week. And on those three days that we’re not, I just sit at home, on my bed, not doing anything,” he says.

While some sports and extracurriculars have been canceled because of the pandemic, Lathrop says this is one of the few activities left that he can still enjoy.

“I remember last year, a lot of times, I’d be like, ‘There’s so much stuff. I wish I had more free time!’ But now I’m just waiting for something to do. So I’m definitely glad this is happening,” he says.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Edward Little High School Senior Aaron Hart fits a filter over the end of his trumpet.

State health guidelines recommend that wind instruments be played only outside, with students at least 14 feet apart. So students here are spread out across the tennis court. Band director Bill Buzza uses a portable speaker on his hip so they all can hear him clearly.

Buzza’s first lesson isn’t about music, but about all the new protective equipment students will need. Students still need to wear masks while they play, so he has purchased specially made cloth face coverings with small slits to accommodate the mouthpiece of an instrument.

“If you put it on the right side of your mouth, slide it to the left, then slide it to the right, and it’ll go right over your mouth.” Buzza says as he demonstrates.

He then hands out small pieces of furnace filter fabric and pieces of stretch cloth. They both cover the end of each instrument to filter out any droplets as students perform. The kids wrestle the new equipment into place and finally play a few notes — the first sounds that have been heard from this band in months.

“Yay, sounds! I’ve been waiting to hear that,” Buzza says, shouting.

Yet getting to this point, simply playing musical instruments together, has been nearly impossible for some band programs around the state.

“We’re really trying to help kids navigate with us, as we also address the losses that we feel, and the changes that we’re being asked to juggle,” says Sandra Barry, a music teacher in South Portland and president of the Maine Music Educators Association.

Credit Robbie Feinberg / Maine Public
Edward Little High School Band Director Bill Buzza helps Junior Ian Lathrop situate his trombone and sheet music.

Barry says many schools and teachers are finding ways to keep band and chorus programs going on athletic fields or parking lots. But she says the state’s guidance around band and choral practices have prompted other schools, including hers, to move some music classes entirely online.

Barry says when she does teach in-person, she has been reassigned to a class on “digital literacy” unrelated to music. And while she says she’s making the most of the new setup, band students just don’t get the same experience when they’re at home.

“School is where they can play. School is where they can sing. And they can get the pointed instruction they need. So we’re seeing already, students having unenrolled from classes — students opting out of the ensembles, and we don’t know where it will go,” she says.

Barry also worries about potential long-term consequences of the pandemic: that with less access to in-person music classes in some districts, towns may cut music programs or students could abandon performing arts for good.

“I can think of numerous times I’ve been at school board meetings, there to advocate for my position or someone else’s. And something, now, that uncertainty, it certainly didn’t feel that way in the spring. But no one’s feeling super certain about anything right now,” she says.

Meanwhile, music educators say they’re closely watching an ongoing study commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations on aerosols from instruments and singing, in hopes that the results could eventually lead to a loosening of the guidance.

In an email, Maine Department of Education spokesperson Kelli Deveaux says that “given the lack of peer-reviewed science” on choral singing and musical instruments, the state has taken an approach that reflects “an abundance of caution, with a goal of ensuring a safe learning experience for all Maine students.

“As research and scientific peer review continues, it will form the basis of possible revisions to music education guidelines,” Deveaux adds.

Back on the tennis courts in Auburn, things feel at least somewhat normal as masked students perform a few pep band favorites. Senior Aaron Hart says he’ll keep at it, even as the weather turns much colder.

“I’m willing to try it at least once,” he says. “Even if it’s going to be kind of sucky, it’s still band. So you get something.”

And Buzza says if school and state guidelines don’t change, he might start a percussion ensemble once it gets too cold outside. Students would use drums, which are allowed inside, instead of clarinets or trumpets.

Buzza says he hopes the band, in whatever form it takes, will keep students connected to school and each other.