Pantyhose and Trash Bags: How Music Programs Are Surviving in the Pandemic

    New Mexico State University’s marching band now practices exclusively outside.

    Pantyhose and Trash Bags: How Music Programs Are Surviving in the Pandemic

    Concerned about spreading the virus through instruments or singing, student music groups are finding innovative ways to perform together.

    New Mexico State University’s marching band now practices exclusively outside.Credit…


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    In 13 years of playing flute, Gabriella Alvarez never imagined playing with a clear plastic trash bag around her instrument. Kevin Vigil never foresaw his fellow tuba players wrapping pantyhose around their instrument bells.

    And neither expected to watch their marching band at New Mexico State University play through cloth face masks, separated by six-foot loops of water pipe, with bags filled with hand sanitizer and disinfectant strapped around their waists.

    But this is band practice in a pandemic.

    The two students, both seniors, are grateful to have practice at all. In March, the coronavirus shut down their band along with much of the country, painfully demonstrating that the pandemic would leave no part of their education untouched. It would take five months for them to regain the precious ability to play together again.

    “In the middle of this summer, I started playing my instrument alone and sat there crying because I was just so upset,” Ms. Alvarez, 22, said. “Making music with other people is part of why I do it.”

    In dozens of interviews, students and educators described similar travails — and similar adaptations — in music programs across the country. In many districts, schools have paused their music programs or moved them online out of concerns that aerosol transmission of the coronavirus during band or chorus practices would turn them into superspreader events.

    Those bands and orchestras that have moved their programs online often found that ordinary video chat platforms are inadequate because of audio lag. And students have said there is simply no substitute for in-person practices, performances and instruction. Even in small group or private lesson via webcam, the details of proper posture, pitch and rhythm are lost, they said.

    Brass players must empty their “spit valves,” which drain condensation, onto absorptive puppy pee pads.

    Ms. Alvarez, who is studying music performance, lost the one-on-one guidance she needed to prepare for auditions with professional orchestras. Mr. Vigil’s first student teaching position, critical for the degree in music education he is seeking, was canceled. Rather than risk entering a job market ravaged by the virus, both chose to postpone graduation.

    Unable to introduce music to children during their formative years, teachers fear a lasting drop in participation that could wipe out much of the next generation of musicians.

    “If children and even college students can’t participate in music, it’s going to create such a void and it’s going to reverberate for a long time,” said Mark J. Spede, president of the College Band Directors National Association.

    Instead of ensemble music, some programs have been teaching music history or theory, or having students submit videos of themselves playing their instruments that are incorporated into collages that make it seem as if they are performing together. But creating such collages requires resources that many schools cannot afford.

    At North Kansas City High School in Missouri, where the governor has slashed the education budget, the band director Carrie Epperson has only half of last year’s funds, and she is still waiting on bell covers her school district promised to send to wind instrumentalists. Nevertheless, mask wearing and strict social distancing seem to have worked: no band members have tested positive for the coronavirus.

    Brenna Ohrmundt is the band director for a small, low-income district in rural Wisconsin, where coronavirus cases have skyrocketed in recent weeks. When schools shuttered in March, many students did not have instruments at home. When they returned to classrooms this fall, they still were not allowed to play together.

    “What I’m afraid of is, students are going to say, ‘This is not what I signed up for,’” Ms. Ohrmundt said.

    Yet, at a time when students could be discouraged from continuing to study music, educators are finding innovative ways for them to play together safely.

    Mr. Spede, who is also director of bands at Clemson University, recognized early on that educators did not know which music activities might be safe. He initiated a study in which researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland have been measuring the spread of aerosols when people sing, dance or play instruments.

    “My biggest fear was that people, administrators, whoever were going to have a knee-jerk reaction and say that can’t possibly be safe, to play music in person,” Mr. Spede said. “What we’re trying to do with the study is, literally, save music.”

    A New Mexico State flute player customized masks with slits that snap shut magnetically for the woodwind players.Credit

    Preliminary results from the study show that some simple rules can help prevent the virus from spreading in music groups: mask wearing, even if that entails cutting a hole in it to play an instrument; covering the bell of brass instruments, such as trumpets, with nylon (pantyhose work); and practicing outdoors where possible, or in properly ventilated areas.

    “Even that information gives people hope right now, which we desperately need,” said Rebecca Phillips, president of the National Band Association and the director of bands at Colorado State University.

    Ms. Alvarez cried tears of joy and relief on the day in August when New Mexico State’s marching band reunited.

    Steven Smyth, the university’s associate director of bands, worked all summer with faculty and students to put into place safety measures. Practice is now always outdoors. To enforce social distancing, Mr. Smyth designed six-foot “hula hoops” made of water pipes that encircle each musician. He recruited a flute player who is studying engineering to customize masks with slits that snap shut magnetically for the woodwind players.

    Nylon bell covers were ordered for brass players. And, following another recommendation from the study, brass players must empty “spit valves,” a tap that drains condensation from inside the instrument, onto absorptive puppy pee pads.

    “There was a lot of negativity going around,” Ms. Alvarez said. “But once those masks came out, a lot of people started saying, ‘Oh, we’re coming back. This is happening.’”

    Mr. Smyth said this week that the marching band had not had a student test positive for the coronavirus. Nationally, the College Band Directors National Association reports that no infections among college band students have been attributed to band activities, Mr. Spede said.

    “I feel a little bit safer just knowing that there are a lot of people fighting to keep the arts alive,” Mr. Vigil said.

    Other schools have used similarly creative measures. Villanova University ordered goggles for their marching band after researchers in China found fewer virus cases among people with glasses, suggesting that eye protection could reduce spread of the virus. At West Chester University, plexiglass walls separate instructors from students in private lessons.

    The Northern Virginia Community College campus in Annandale, Va., is home to a thriving symphony orchestra, open to students and members of the community. Despite having fewer resources and a smaller music department than most universities, it has the support of Reunion Music Society, a local nonprofit group that helped it reach record enrollment this year.

    “This orchestra would not exist without community involvement,” said Ralph Brooker, president of Reunion Music Society and principal cellist in the orchestra.

    This fall, the conductor, Christopher Johnston, has been organizing about 50 active orchestra members, who include older musicians, into small groups. Some rehearse six feet apart in carports and church parking lots, but most use JamKazam, a video chat platform that allows musicians to see and hear each other in real time.

    The technology is imperfect. At a jazz group meeting, JamKazam kept booting Mr. Johnston off the call. The musicians turned to Zoom, where audio lag caused the individual parts of “My Funny Valentine” to trip drunkenly over each other. The song was barely recognizable, but the musicians grinned in their little onscreen boxes — the thrill of playing together had not been dampened.

    “There is therapy in getting together with other musicians.” Mr. Johnston said. “It’s helping us cope with all of the negative byproducts of this time, one of which is loneliness.”

    Safety measures have gone far to reassure students and educators. Results from a survey distributed this fall show that participation in school and community bands has held steady since last year, according to James Weaver, director of performing arts with the National Federation of State High School Associations. Though about 200 of the more than 2,000 band programs surveyed are currently “frozen,” only four education-based bands were canceled outright.

    Musicians at every level say that those who were passionate about a career in music before the pandemic are only more motivated now. Ms. Alvarez plans to get a master’s degree in music performance after she graduates. Mr. Vigil, who aspires to teach music at the college level, has leaned into his leadership role with the marching band.

    In Wisconsin, Ms. Ohrmundt spent weeks hand-sewing masks, soliciting donations of bell covers and scrounging up pillowcases that woodwind players could wrap around their instruments — all in hopes of gathering her high school band in the gym for its first practice in months. But a surge in the virus has postponed in-person activities into next year.

    In Missouri, Nevaeh Diaz, who graduated from North Kansas City High School in May, is now studying music education at Missouri State University.

    In playing the drums in high school, Ms. Diaz had found a healthy outlet for her anxiety and depression. And during the pandemic, she leaned even more on her band director, Ms. Epperson, who personally delivered one of the school’s expensive marimbas to Ms. Diaz’s home for a virtual scholarship audition.

    Now she looks at Ms. Epperson as a model for the high school band director she aims to become.

    “I’m not here for the money, I’m here to change a life,” Ms. Diaz said. “If I can be the teacher to the student that Epp was for me, then I will do that.”


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