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Marching while masked, Iowa school band ensembles adapt to pandemic performances

From face shields, to masks, to plastic dividers during rehearsals, Iowa music students of all ages are experiencing ensemble-playing during a new era.

ANKENY, Iowa — The Ankeny High School Marching Band boasts hundreds of students, between color guard and instrumentalists. But this year, assistant band director Jennifer Williams says the group appears even larger than usual.

"We already take a big band, and at a 6-foot interval we look even bigger," said Williams.

She said the marching band season typically starts in June, but due to COVID-19, they began a late start, in July. At that point, they had marked dots on the field, six feet apart. 

When it came time to choreograph the show, Williams said every student was at least 6 feet apart. On top of that, each student wears a mask as soon as they stop playing.

"It's just another visual element that's added to the show," said Williams.

Williams said now that the schoool year has started, Ankeny Community School District is in the process of implementing masks while playing, which include surgical masks with slits cut out for the mouthpiece.

Credit: Jennifer Williams & Toni LeFebvre
Jennifer Williams, of Ankeny High School, and Toni LeFebvre, of La Salle Middle School, both prepare for a very different school year.

However, at the middle school level, band directors need to view a beginning student's embouchure, which is how a person forms their mouth around mouthpiece. Toni LeFebvre, band director at La Salle Middle School in Cedar Rapids, says that means she'll have students wear face shields when playing. 

"The [face] shields will be really handy for me as a middle school band director because it's important for me to be able to safely, from a distance see students' embouchures as they're developing," said LeFebvre. "It's easy for some habits to start to develop of their embouchure and their mouth isn't working the right way on the instrument so I want to catch that before it turns into a bad habit down the line."

LeFebvre says students will indeed wear facemasks; they just won't be on while they're actually playing a musical passage. As soon as they finish playing, up goes the mask again.

Credit: Toni LeFebvre
Rehearsals at La Salle Middle Schoole will have chairs at least six feet apart.

At the beginning of the school year, she'll be holding one-on-one music students with students outdoors, weather permitting. When they begin group band rehearsals, LeFebvre says they plan on using social distancing measures and guidance from Iowa High School Music Association.

Over in Cedar Falls, Dr. Jeffrey Funderburk, director of University of Northern Iowa School of Music, says they've been closely following cutting edge music research to make researsals and performances as safe as possible.

Funderburk says the UNI College of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences provided the music program with over $40,000 to purchase costly equipment to make safe performing a possibility.

That included equipping several practice rooms with new technology.

"Twenty computers, twenty microphones, stands and interfaces so that we've set up twenty of the practice rooms as basically mini recording studios," said Dr. Funderburk. "Some [students] still need to do remote lessons because, particularly singing without a mask is very problematic. You can't do an opera lesson without a mask on, so they needed a space that would be easy to use."

Additionally, UNI purchased plastic dividers for instrumentalists to play between during rehearsals in Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center.

"I think we're doing everything that can be done," said Dr. Funderburk. "Students have been great--they've been the ones expressing how much they appreciate this effort to keep them safe."

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