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Bismarck school music classes put masks on students, and instruments

Bismarck school music classes put masks on students, and instruments

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Music class might seem like the worst possible place to be during a pandemic in which the virus most easily spreads through the air, but teachers in the Bismarck school district are taking steps to minimize the risk -- including masks for both students and instruments.

Bismarck High School Choir Director Brian Saylor is utilizing a combination of social distancing, mask wearing and regular sanitation to ensure that his choir classes are as safe as possible.

“Is there risk? Probably, but are we doing the best that we can to manage it and be safe? I believe we are,” Saylor said.

Saylor, who holds a leadership role within the North Dakota Music Educators Association, spent his summer analyzing the available research on limiting the spread of COVID-19 during music class.

He cites a study conducted this summer at the University of Colorado in which researchers had student musicians enter a clean, sealed room normally used for indoor air pollution research to perform a short solo piece toward monitors that tracked the spread of aerosolized particles, which can spread coronavirus.

The final, peer-reviewed results of the study are expected in November, but preliminary results showed that singing and playing instruments can produce an increased volume of aerosolized particles in a size that can spread the coronavirus to others. But researchers also found that mitigation techniques could effectively reduce the spread of such particles.

One of those methods surprised Bismarck High School senior Sean Korsmo, who plays the trumpet during band class.

“I didn’t even know this existed, but they said 'We’re going to give you masks for your instruments,' and I was like, ‘What the heck?,’” Korsmo said.

A circular black piece of cloth known as a bell cover is now stretched over the mouth of his trumpet while he plays, and it doesn’t deaden the sound of the instrument, he said. Flute players now have a little plastic shield at the end of their instruments, Korsmo added.

Saylor’s choir classes have been moved to the newly constructed 685-seat auditorium at Bismarck High School to provide students ample space to sing while remaining distanced. Students wipe down their chairs at the end of each class period, and a fog purification system sanitizes the auditorium once students have gone home for the day. Students must wear their masks throughout the class period, even while singing, which they dislike.

Orchestra and band classes can more easily accommodate the COVID-19 measures than can a choir class, Saylor said, in part because the instruments are loud so musical production is not as heavily impacted by social distancing as singing is.

“You can put two trumpet players on the opposite sides of a gym and they can hear each other just fine. You put those same two kids singing and they can’t hear each other as well,” Saylor said. “I would say singing is much harder to accommodate for. It's obviously doable, but it's definitely a challenge.”

All musical performances in the district have been canceled for now. A livestream or prerecorded concert is a possibility, but there are copyright issues that come up when putting someone else’s music on the internet, Saylor said. He hopes the music program eventually can have concerts via a voucher system that limits the number of attendees, similar to how attendance at fall sports is being handled.

But mostly he’s hoping to avoid a shift back to full distance learning, which heavily affected music classes last spring when the spread of COVID-19 prompted Gov. Doug Burgum to close schools to students for the remainder of the year.

Students last spring could practice their musical skills independently at home by recording themselves singing or playing an instrument, and they could learn about music theory with online resources, but the usual method of practicing as a group is “really hard” to do virtually, Saylor said.

“We’ve got a few things that we can do in music that are app-based things … but when we go full virtual, it ends up being way more of that than what kids really signed up for," Saylor said. "They signed up to sing together. And so we are trying really hard to maintain a semblance of that, getting to sing together and getting to do what we do together."

Reach Bilal Suleiman at 701-250-8261 or Bilal.Suleiman@bismarcktribune.com

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