Whether completely virtual, hybrid, or in-person with modifications, every vocal music class this fall is going to look different. We reached out to experts in our field who have provided some potential frameworks, methods, approaches, and methods you may be able to use as you navigate your choral/a cappella courses during COVID-19.
Prepared by Dr. J.D. Frizzell, AEA President
Note: The AEA is not suggesting that singing in person indoors is necessarily safe. We are simply providing this information to help schools who are singing to do so while reducing risk as much as possible.
If you are teaching vocal music classes in person, there are a number of protocols you can put into place to mitigate the risk for both you and your students. Here are my plans for choirs and a cappella groups at Briarcrest, my school.
- Choir students will be seated 6 feet apart.
- Have individual folders for sheet music that students take with them each day.
- Each student will have a microphone stand with a dual layer POP filter on it to help reduce air flow and aerosol spread. Students will sing directly into this POP filter with lips flush against the surface. Each student will bring their own individual POP filter (provided by the school) to class daily and attach it to the microphone stand.
- Students and teachers will wear a mask at any time they are not actively singing into a POP filter. This includes entry and exit from the classroom and any time they are waiting to sing again. I have found that neck gaiters are the easiest to use for continuous movement on and off the mouth and nose.
- The choir room HVAC will run continuously to increase air filtration.
- A hospital grade HEPA filter has been installed in the choir room.
- The conductor will have a plexiglass shield in front of the podium.
- The accompanist will have a plexiglass shield in front of the piano.
- Large choir classes have been split into two smaller classes.
- Students will have assigned seats in case contact tracing is necessary.
- The back door will be propped open as weather permits to allow outside air to enter and circulate.
Costs for these measures:
- Microphone stands– $28 per microphone stand (class set, not individual).
- POP filter– $11 per student (every student has their own and brings to class).
- HEPA Filter- $220-$320 depending on size of room (Link to Large and Small).
- Plexiglass Shield– $120 (suggested if conductor or piano is closer than 10 feet from students. Not suggested as a replacement for 6 feet of separation between singers).
Let’s say you have 100 students in your program with 30 in the room at a time. You could drastically mitigate the risk of singing by investing $22.40 per singer.
Ideas for separating at least six feet:
- Your normal choir room with smaller classes (this is what we are doing. Our normal capacity is 110 singers and at 6 ft. it is 31.)
- Your auditorium, either on stage or in seats
- A big atrium or open hallway
- A covered outdoor area
- Cafeteria (since most schools are doing lunches in the classrooms this may be available)
Things to avoid:
- Not using masks and/or POP filters at all times.
- Having singers closer than 6 feet together.
- Having students stand and sing in a circle.
- Singing in a room with poor ventilation.
- Plexiglass shields around or in between singers. This hinders the ability of the HEPA filters and HVAC system to circulate and filter air.
Other ideas to mitigate risk:
I used the calculator available from the University of Colorado Boulder to measure the approximate risk of exposure with my conditions and setup. The calculator showed that my solution has a 99.7 percent chance of effectively preventing the spread of COVID-19. That is a percentage that my administration, parents, students, and I are comfortable with.
Depending on the current situation locally (including max gathering numbers), we will utilize a “one ensemble at a time” plan. For example, in a choir concert, we may start with the 6th grade choir on stage with 6th grade parents/friends/family in the audience (socially distanced with masks on). Those students will perform, be released, and leave campus promptly with their parents/guardians. Then, 7th/8th grade choir will perform with their parents/friends/family in the audience and then promptly leave. This process will continue for high school. Students will utilize all distancing and safety protocols from rehearsals in their performances. Online streaming will be available for those who are uncomfortable or unable to attend a performance in person.
Final point of consideration: I would not be singing this fall without ALL of these protocols in place PLUS having a smaller school with the infrastructure and procedures in place campus-wide. Those school-wide steps include
- a robust contract tracing system
- negative pressure isolation rooms for sick students
- disinfectant wipes in every room
- hospital grade HEPA filters in every room
- directed traffic in hallways
- daily spraying of all high contact surfaces with electrostatic disinfectant spray
- daily health screening of all students and faculty
- 6 feet of space for all students in all classes
- technology that allows for immediate remote learning for those who have or are suspected to have COVID-19 or for those who are uncomfortable coming to school
Virtual or Hybrid
Prepared by Shannon McNulty, Co-Producer of the National A Cappella Convention
This past spring, teachers across the country quickly transitioned to a remote learning model and made the best of the circumstances facing us. This experience has left us with a lot to consider as many teachers face a school year of hybrid and remote learning environments.
Personally, I didn’t feel like I had a successful educational experience with my students during quarantine here in Massachusetts and I’ve taken time to reflect on why that is. We attempted a virtual choir – the outcome is something we are all quite proud of, but the process left us feeling drained and unfulfilled. It was emotionally taxing in a way that was not rewarding to the bulk of my students and it’s not something I am willing to repeat.
Based on the early studies released in May/June, I felt it was unlikely that we’d be able to run our ensembles in the fall. And, even in a best case scenario it seemed unlikely we’d be able to have concerts or other types of in-person playing assessments. After challenging conversations and soul searching with my colleagues, the staff at Marlborough High School decided that it was time to pivot. We questioned what opportunities might exist to focus on topics that we have always wanted to dig in on, but haven’t had the time to due to concert prep. We agreed that applying Band-Aids to the existing models of chorus/band/strings was not sufficient and frankly, our amazing students deserved something fresh and exciting to help them endure these difficult times.
We were looking at a complete overhaul of our classes, an overwhelming task to say the least. We developed an idea that allowed us to do the planning and teaching work collaboratively while lightening the load on our guidance department and administration who were scrambling to adjust existing schedules.
I should mention that at the time of this writing, Marlborough is expected to return as a hybrid model with all electives being taught 100% remotely. We pitched the following idea to the administration, which was happily and enthusiastically accepted:
At Marlborough High School, we will only be offering two music classes this coming year: AP Music Theory and our new class. We’ll call it “Music Class X” because this is still a work in progress and we haven’t come up with a clever name yet. Each section of Music Class X will have a different “focus” that aligns with the student’s original ensemble class. So, for example all of my classes will have a vocal focus since I teach the vocal ensembles. Students who had previously been scheduled for our workshop classes (guitar, piano, music production, etc) can choose which focus they would like to sign up for.
This means that myself, the band director and the string director will, in essence, be teaching the same class. For the first time ever, we have the opportunity to collaborate on curriculum, which in my opinion is the biggest perk of this approach for the following reasons:
- We need to be working collaboratively and sharing the load, both educationally and emotionally during these unprecedented times.
- If one of us were to become sick, we are better set up to cover for each other since we are all teaching the same material.
- It gives the students access to all three of us, which we think is a good recruitment/retainment tool for our department. (More on this later)
- Potentially, each teacher can “specialize” in certain units and rotate through each of the classes. This will allow each teacher to focus on fewer areas of broad instruction and give us space to focus on effective delivery instead (which is the real challenge virtually, yes?) While one teacher delivers the broad ideas, we would each approach it through our vocal/instrumental/string lens in subsequent lessons.
In the event that things return to something that resembles “normal” during the 2020/2021 school year, students are still scheduled in their focus cohorts, so it would allow us to easily transition back to models where we can begin to play and sing again.
My colleagues and I aren’t proposing anything revolutionary – it’s just a readjustment of expectations. I believe there is fear about straying too far from existing models of playing and singing and how we may lose kids in our programs as a result. However, I would argue that the strongest asset to your program is you – the connections you have made and will continue to make with your students are the reason that they continue to enroll in your ensembles. Now is the time to bet on yourself – your excitement and enthusiasm is contagious. If we can all get fired up about the opportunities this situation presents us with, that energy will transfer to the students. They will be grappling with so much change and adjustment. I believe that our most important task is to support the socio-emotional wellness of our students and remind them that music brings them joy and release, no matter what the format of delivery is.
As I mentioned, the class itself is still a work in progress. We are in the process of designing our units of instruction which will consist of an overarching topic (ie: Social Justice and Inequity in Music) as a means to teach voice/instrument specific content (Basics of Harmony, Scales, Sight-Reading, Tone and Breath Support, etc). We are reaching out to audiologists, mixing engineers, acoustical engineers, touring managers, etc to invite them into our virtual classroom to show the students the career possibilities that are in front of them. We are exploring online tools like SmartMusic, Noteflight and BandLab to be used in conjunction with tried and true method books from our library.
Most importantly, we are choosing to see this as an opportunity and not a hindrance. We are most certainly missing our students and longing for a time when we can all be in a room together again doing the hard work and feeling the incredible vibrations of sound together in space. We will emerge from this stronger and our students will continue to grow as musicians and as people if we can show them that sometimes even when you want to dig your heels in, the best thing to do is to pivot.
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