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Music departments getting creative with solutions

A school’s holiday concerts are normally well attended, with beaming students showing off the skills they’ve acquired in band and choir, while parents and grandparents happily record the performances. This year, all of that has come to a grinding halt.

With limited access to schools, because of COVID-19, schools have had to get creative in ways of teaching and delivery methods.

“The beginning of the year served as a huge learning curve,” said Lake Holcombe choir director Shaylae Szotkowski, “in adapting to singing safely with masks, learning about how to get permission to record and brainstorming creative solutions to the problems presented by teaching a music class during the COVID pandemic.”

Some districts, such as Cadott, held an early fall band concert outdoors, which was good while the weather was warm and snow free. As late fall moves along into winter, an outdoor concert may not be an option.

“As far as anything else’s all a struggle,” said Cadott band director Nick Peters. “Trying to play safely is tough, trying to find enough space is tough, covering the instruments and all associated face coverings are difficult. I’m doing some smaller group work and come wintertime, hopefully, I’ll be able to do some sort of holiday music.”

Virtual concerts are likely to be the way each district will go, to limit contact, but that has presented more problems. One big issue the districts are running into, is permission to play published music virtually.

Band/choir directors have been stalled in their performance planning for weeks on end, while waiting to hear back if they can use the music they selected for their programs.

“I have adapted my teaching to focus more on skill-building,” said Cadott choir director Terra Larsen. “Essential skills that all musicians should have, are the ability to sightread music, as well as have a well-trained ear to be able to audiate various intervals.

“My students have also been working on the creation of musician portfolios, which will allow them to track their individual progress throughout their years in the junior high and high school choirs. While we still work on choral repertoire, we will come out of this pandemic stronger, because of our work being done right now.”

Szotkowski agrees.

“While I am disappointed in our circumstances, I am also excited about some of the creative solutions,” she said. “Despite the challenges that this year presents, the students are positive, flexible and passionate about making this the best experience that it can be.”

For Bill Bocian, Cornell choir/band director, he’s also had to come up with alternative ways to get his students what they need for music lessons, such as creating a private Facebook page for parents and students.

“It has also been challenging with Zoom classes,” said Bocian, whose district offers My Choice learning. “If the students don’t take their instruments and music home, they cannot follow the Zoom class.”

Districts can “livestream” a concert without any copyright issues, because it’s just like going to the live concert. However, where directors are running into copyright issues, is the concerts being recorded or offered virtually.

“We have to contact each publisher to receive a synchronization license’ in order to add audio/video to the piece,” said Lake Holcombe band director Dawn Anderson. “In Lake Holcombe, our fall concert would have consisted of eight licenses, plus another license to have the concert put on our website or Facebook for a period of time. When contacting some of the publishers, it may take up to six weeks for some publishers to respond.”

Some parents remain supportive of the teachers as they try to adapt to rapidly changing plans, but others have voiced their displeasure over not seeing their children perform in person or of the lack of music concerts.

“Concerts are an important way to showcase the work being done in a musical performance setting, but it is not the most important thing when it comes to learning music,” said Larsen. “Music is about personal growth and the building of necessary skills, in order to be more successful in life, no matter what your post-secondary goals may be.”

Once schools have the licenses in place (some publishers grant access for free, for educational use), the staff then has to have the software and time, to put all the audio and video together to make a full concert. The process has proven to be tedious and time consuming, and given how things change – sometimes hour to hour – music departments are asking for understanding from everyone who cares about the music students.

“Together, we are going to make the best of it,” said Szotkowski.