WESTFIELD, NJ — Robbie Strauss, a drum major for the Westfield High School Marching Blue Devils, got to perform twice this band season.

At the first performance, the first football game of the season, students were optimistic.

At the second performance, seniors waved goodbye to their last season. The show was only granted after they filed an appeal to the board of education.

The marching band followed strict guidelines and rehearsed mostly in small groups. At the show, musicians were socially distant. Everyone was told to keep at least 6 feet apart, all students wore masks and musicians covered the end pieces of their instruments to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Despite the season being shortened and the small number of performances, Strauss said he’s happy with how everything turned out. He liked how the teachers took a more laid-back approach, which he said the students really needed during this time.

Across the district, music students at Westfield Public Schools have been participating and practicing in dramatically different ways due to restrictions on music education brought by the epidemic.

What are the restrictions?

Since classes started in September, Westfield Public Schools have been conducting classes in a hybrid learning model, with some periods of solely remote learning due to outbreaks of coronavirus cases.

“As a department, we’ve tried to focus on what we can do within the confines of hybrid schedules and safety protocols,” said Thomas H. Weber, the district’s supervisor of visual and performing arts. “Teachers have really embraced using many technology tools to deliver curriculum and continue to pursue new ways of providing musical experiences.”

The National Association for Music Education and the National Federation of State High School Associations released guidance for Fall 2020 music education. The goal was to provide music educators and administrators in Pre-K-12 schools with guidance on offering meaningful and safe instruction.

The guidance draws on preliminary results from an Aerosol Research Study for the performing arts that is being conducted at the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Highlights included instruction on how to conduct hybrid learning, how to focus curriculum on parts other than music collaboration and how to practice safely. To practice safely, the guidance involves having participants socially distant and wearing masks.

Guidance also suggested that wind musicians use bell covers with MERV-13 lined material, and that they wear masks with slits for their mouths to play. Recommended play time is 30 minutes.

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Weber said that the district used the National Association for Music Education’s guidelines when creating their own protocols for teachers this year. They also used the September Ready guidance provided by Arts Ed NJ, a statewide arts education advocacy group.

“This year, lessons typically focus on the creating, responding and connecting standards during in-person band and choir sessions,” Weber said. “However, some in-person performing has occurred outdoors.”

Molding the Lessons to the Times

As a co-director of choral activities at Westfield High School, John Brzozowski has found new ways to teach students while still keeping the lessons enjoyable.

“They’re singing as much as possible, because students want an experience that is singing,” Brzozowski said. “However, we’re making a focus more on music literacy this year.”

Brzozowski said he uses the 70-minute classes with students to work on singing and music theory. Students use a variety of programs including Sight Reading Factory (which allows students to practice their sight-reading), Noteflight (a music composition program) and Soundtrap, an online music collaboration studio.

Although the chorus may be unable to host concerts because of copyright issues, Brzozowski said, students have been engaging in activities that have allowed them to share music among themselves. Students hosted an open mic night where they shared music and streamed it on YouTube as a social event for the choruses.

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Because students are unable to sing in person, when class was conducted in the hybrid model, Brzozowski and his co-director, Maureen Francis, would alternate teaching the in-person students and the virtual students.

In-person students would focus on listening or theory activities while the virtual students could focus on performance. However, Brzozowski said there were a couple of times when students were able to practice outside, socially distanced and with masks on.

Roosevelt Middle School Director of Bands James Doyle was also able to allow his students to practice outside a couple of times during hybrid instruction.

Doyle had his students spaced 10 feet apart and all facing the same direction. Students had bell cover masks for their instruments as well as musicians’ masks — those that have a hole for students to play their instruments through.

“It was good for the kids to hear each other,” Doyle said. “It was also great because there were community members walking by. We were out in the park on Clark Street, and people were driving by smiling, walking by and waving. It was really cool.”

Doyle’s goals for this year were to make sure that the class was enjoyable for students, and that they were playing every day, or as much as possible.

“It really has stretched the creative juices for me as a teacher to try to figure out ways to keep the kids engaged and still make this a really enjoyable activity,” he said.

Doyle typically teaches his virtual band classes by playing or having a student play while the rest of the class plays along. This allows everyone to practice together even though they might not be able to hear everyone.

Some of Doyle’s students are participating in a virtual festival hosted by Arts Ed NJ, where they can submit a recording of a solo and receive scores from professional judges.

In addition to performing in the marching band, Strauss plays the flute for Westfield High School’s wind ensemble. He takes his classes virtually, and he said he’s happy with how his teachers have organized the instruction.

“We're doing some listening, we’re talking about music theory, building up some fundamental musician skills rather than instrument specific things,” Strauss said.

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