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Music classes are back in school this year, finally indoors and off Zoom


For many students last year, band and choir classes were a far cry from normal. Students practiced outside or over Zoom. As Craig LeMoult of member station GBH in Boston reports, with students back in school this fall, many are overjoyed to take part in almost-normal music classes.


CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: Students in Westwood High School's wind ensemble class catch up with each other and fiddle with instruments as rehearsal begins. Then the director, Dr. Heather Cote, raises her hand, and they begin to tune up.


HEATHER COTE: The first day that we were in here this fall, and they all played together, I started to tear up.

One, two, beginning and ready go.


LEMOULT: Last year, Cote says, they mostly practiced outside, which got harder as the weather cooled. And the students were split into two cohorts that came to school in person on different days.

COTE: We didn't have the whole group together, so sometimes, you know, the balance was weird and, you know, you had too many of one instrument because all the other ones were in the other cohort.

LEMOULT: Senior and tenor sax player Frank Papetti says when they were at home last year, they'd mute their microphones and play along.

FRANK PAPETTI: Yeah, you kind of feel isolated. It kind of turns you off in a sense. You don't really want to play. Nobody can hear you.


LEMOULT: Now he's thrilled they're all back together again.

PAPETTI: Oh, my God. I'm super excited. I love playing my instrument.

LEMOULT: Things do look a bit different in wind ensemble this year. There's a black filter covering the bell of Papetti's saxophone.

PAPETTI: And honestly, it doesn't make that much of a difference. It doesn't make your sound much different at all.


LEMOULT: But scientists say it does make playing instruments safer. Jelena Srebric of the University of Maryland was one of the leading researchers behind a study that used lasers and high-speed cameras to visualize how aerosols spread from instruments and singers.

JELENA SREBRIC: When you put the mask or bell cover, the area that is immediately directly affected by a breath shrinks by one-third, which is enormous.

LEMOULT: Singing is a concern, too. One of the first-known COVID superspreader events in the U.S. happened in a choir in Washington state. The study's authors put out a list of recommendations, including bell covers for bands and masks for choruses when they rehearse indoors. They also suggest things like physical distancing and added air filtration. The organizations that supported the study say about 20 states are requiring these steps - 20 more have some sort of recommendation to follow the guidelines, and 10 have none.

UNIDENTIFIED BAND DIRECTOR: And one, two - one, two, three, four.


LEMOULT: The high school jazz ensemble in Wellesley, Mass., is going a step further. As junior Max Goldensen points out, even as he plays his trumpet, he's wearing a mask.

MAX GOLDENSEN: There's a hole in the center, and each side has a magnet on it, so you can kind of flip it closed whenever you're not playing.

LEMOULT: Freshman Ben Harris says for music class last year, he had to record his bass guitar parts into an app, which told him if he got the notes right. He says he went from loving music class to it feeling like a chore.

BEN HARRIS: I mean, it works, but it's not, like, the nicest way to play.

LEMOULT: He says it felt a bit like a video game.

HARRIS: But not the most entertaining one.


WELLESLEY HIGH SCHOOL CHOIR: (Singing) Walk down that lonesome road.

LEMOULT: Down the hall, about 40 masked members of a Wellesley High School choir are back together, including senior Nora Jarquin.

NORA JARQUIN: For all of us, like, this is our community. This is where we find joy in our day to day. Like, it's a break from the schoolwork, and it's a time - like, all my friends are in these choirs and in these groups. So to lose that was a really hard time. We don't want to do that again.

LEMOULT: And they're all hoping, with these new protective measures, that they won't have to.

For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Wellesley, Mass.


WELLESLEY HIGH SCHOOL CHOIR: (Singing) Walk down that...


WELLESLEY HIGH SCHOOL CHOIR: (Singing) Lonesome road. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.
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