COVID-19 pushes new advancements within the School of Music

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Jacqueline Lamothe

Music student Melody Little receives instruction from Piano 1 professor Gail Pollock during the COVID-19 outbreak. Pollock also said that she disinfects the area with Pledge Antibacterial Surface Cleaner between classes.

By Safia Serena Tejani, Mercer University

Ever wonder how an in-class mask mandate applies to singers and other musicians within Mercer University’s School of Music? Singers and other musicians are required to wear masks even while singing or playing their instruments — but how is that possible?

Singers must order specialized masks that form a sort of dome shape around their mouths so that they are able to project their voices while still having the protection of a mask. Other musicians, like trumpeters and flutists, are led to either cut slits in their masks or buy pre-slitted masks in order for them to play their instruments.

“The mask that you will see most wind players wear is a dual-layered mask where they cut one slit in one portion of the mask and then another slit in the back, so that they are able to move them together in order for students to put their mouthpieces in,” said Assistant Professor and Director of Athletic Bands Blake Garcia. 

The School of Music had a difficult transition to ensure the safety of its students and faculty members while still being able to provide them with a proper education. 

“We have had to put some very strict protocols in place. I believe that there are more [protocols] here than a lot of the University because of the nature of what we do here in the School of Music,” said Voice Studies Professor and Director of Graduate Studies Chair Richard Kosowski. 

New protocols explained

Private voice lessons and other rehearsals are being regulated to ensure that rehearsals do not last more than 30 minutes. As an extra precaution, every 20 minutes during a private voice lesson, each student and faculty member clears the room so that the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system can filter out any aerosols in the air.  

Meanwhile, band students not only have to wear masks themselves, but they also have to mask their instruments. They do this through a “bell cover.” According to a 2020 study from researchers at the University of Colorado, a bell cover is used to provide a barrier for any airborne particles that might escape from the end of a student’s instrument. Bell covers help mitigate the amount of aerosols that could potentially transfer from person-to-person. 

Another major change for band students is the increased implementation of sectionals and a newfound encouragement to form Quartet groups. 

Firstly, to help minimize the catastrophic effects of a single band student testing positive for COVID-19 after being in a room full of other band students, Garcia has made it a priority to implement more sectionals so that less students are affected by one student testing positive. 

Sectionals refer to smaller groups of students formed based on their instruments to fine-tune and perfect their music. An advantage to sectionals, Garcia said, is that he would not have to “send everyone home to quarantine” if one student ever got sick. 

Garcia has also made it a priority to encourage the formation of Quartet groups. 

“Within each section, we have passed out a ‘Quartets-for-all series’ since it can get monotonous playing the same part over and over again,” he said. 

With each student having all parts for a Quartet, they are able to have various options to choose from when practicing their music. 

While band students are trying to manage their education and the new protocols, singers are using this time to find innovative ways to study music. 

“The good thing that came from the pandemic is that these programs of virtual music learning were put into high gear. One of these (programs) is called Soundjack, which allows for almost real-time (virtual) collaboration between the student, the accompanist and the teacher,” Kosowski said. “We are looking at less than a 20-millisecond delay, so we are talking less than a snap.”

Students and faculty weigh in

“I feel like we’re doing our best with what we got,” sophomore band student Malia Ayers said. “It’s not the best, but we are doing as much as we can.” 

Ayers said that the protocols aren’t always the most efficient, but students have had to learn to be flexible.

“We’re all just kind of going with the flow because we know it’s not the director’s fault,” she said.

Kowoski said that faculty has had to learn to be adaptable, too.

“I’ll be honest, the teachers are afraid because we stand at the front of the class, and when that class exits, a lot of times, they have to exit right by us. So you have all these people, and it’s like getting on the subway with all these people breathing as they go by you,” he said. “Some of us are nervous. None of us wants to get sick. None of us wants to bring something to our family.”

With these unpredictable times comes great uncertainty from both students and faculty members, and faculty members are simply trying to make the most of the resources available and the situation at hand. 

“Is it inconvenient? Yes, it is. Do we still have a lot to learn? We sure do. But are we doing it? Yea, we are… and to the best of our ability,” Kosowski said.

This story was originally published on The Cluster on September 10, 2020.