Music department adjusts to new safety protocols a year into pandemic

Fresno State’s concert choir class met for in-person instruction last semester while following COVID-19 precautions. (Cari Earnhart/Department of Music)

After a semester dealing with harsh COVID-19 restrictions, the music department is now faced with new safety protocols and precautions to an expanded list of in-person classes.

When choosing which courses would be in-person for spring, chair of the music department Matthew Darling said the department felt it was most efficient to have the major ensembles meet face-to-face. 

A few of the major ensembles in the department include percussion ensemble, concert choir, jazz orchestra, symphonic band and the symphony and wind orchestras. 

At this moment, not all ensembles are allowed to practice on campus. The department agreed to allow face-to-face rehearsal of string and percussion instruments only in a very limited capacity, and students and faculty are “following every protocol the University has,” Darling said. 

The department will only be utilizing its band room for in-person instruction, but due to distance restrictions class sizes have decreased by almost 50% of their once total in-person capacity, capping at 25 students including the course’s professor and accompanist.

Although in-person instruction began Feb. 8, many music students weren’t allowed back on campus as Fresno County is still in the purple tier — the most restrictive tier in the state’s color-coded reopening plan. 

The purple tier notes that the county risk level of contracting COVID-19 is widespread, meaning that more than seven new cases are being accounted for every day within Fresno County. 

Darling said that while the county is in the purple tier there will be no in-person instruction for voice, brass and wind students until daily COVID-19 cases begin to decrease, and the county moves into the red tier — the second-most restrictive tier.. 

With the ongoing legislative and health/safety restrictions in place, the music department has had its fair share of unique challenges. 

“It’s been pretty tough, but we know the safety of the students is the most important thing as well as the faculty and staff,” Darling said. “Nobody wants to put anybody in any kind of danger.” 

When brass, winds and voice students are allowed to return to campus, strict precautions will be mandated by the music department faculty to ensure their students and staff’s safety. 

Cari Earnhart, director of choral activities at Fresno State, said along with a smaller in-person class and a shortened practice time, 5-minute breaks have been given for every 30 minutes of rehearsal time. 

This protocol will remain in effect for all music students who meet in-person this semester. 

“We leave this space so we can clear the air a little bit where we have been singing and then come back and do another 30 minutes and then we do the 5-minute break again,” she said. 

For this group of students, special masks have also been purchased by the department to ensure their safety and practices will take place outside when Fresno County returns to the red tier. 

Due to the challenges of the pandemic and specific protocols for in-person instruction the symphony orchestra has split into different instrumental categories such as woodwinds, brass and strings.

Each ensemble will meet separately instead of altogether to ensure students and staff stay safe and healthy. 

Masks and social distancing will continue to be in effect as a portion of the music students return to campus. 

As an extra precaution, students meeting face-to-face will be asked to stand 8 to 12 feet apart depending on what instrument they play. 

Thomas Lowenheim, the cello professor at Fresno State and the director of the symphony orchestra and strings, is one of the staff members whose courses are allowed to meet for in-person instruction.

Lowenheim is specifically in charge of the strings section of the symphony orchestra and has said that he and his students have been strict on following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Fresno State’s guidelines when attending in-person practices the past few semesters. 

He also said that they will continue to strictly follow protocols and precautions as they begin the transition back into in-person classes. 

Some other precautions being taken include sanitizing the practice room before and after the class has met and implementing higher filtration rates so there is increased airflow in the practice room and the restroom. 

Loweinheim said within a typical school year the orchestra would have between 65 to 80 students in a classroom together, but now he has kept the number of students down to 20. 

“We used to sit very close to each other so that we could feel the music, now we sit 10 feet apart,” Loweinheim said. 

“We used to rehearse twice a week for two hours. Now we have in-person [classes] once a week for an hour and a half,” he said.

Although the number of students has been cut down due to health concerns, Loweinheim said that students are still able to participate in the orchestra from the safety of their own homes.

A camera and microphones have been placed in the band room that allow these students to see and hear what’s happening during face-to-face instruction. 

Professor Steven McKeithen is the director of Fresno State’s marching band and the professor of one of the advanced conducting courses on campus that have begun meeting in-person for the semester. 

Although his conducting class is allowed to meet face-to-face, the Fresno State Marching Band hasn’t been able to meet on campus for the last two semesters. 

“It’s not fun. I’m just going to be blunt honest,” McKeithen said.  

“We actually didn’t get to do anything this fall. In fact the [marching band] class was folded in. We didn’t even have any registration allowed so the course never met. There wasn’t a section of it. It just didn’t exist.” 

With virtually no marching band last fall semester, McKeithen worked to engage with the scholarship group section of the marching band called the Bulldog Beat. 

“We had hopes that they were going to be able to do some things [last semester], but that clearly didn’t pan out in the pandemic, so I engaged with them online,” he said. “We gave them playing assignments and things like that in order to be ready in case something was going to happen.” 

As he and the marching band wait to hear what’s in store as the next year approaches, McKeithen has been dedicating this extra time to his advanced conducting class and preparing his students the best that he can in a hybrid learning environment. 

“We’re all doing our best with what we have right now,” McKeithen said. 

McKeithen added that he misses the sports game environment and performing with his students during these events. 

“We’re kind of missing that right now…the people are what we enjoy the most and I think the students would agree with that too,” he said. 

Earnhart currently teaches the department’s concert choir class, which is among the list of courses allowed to meet for in-person instruction, but the class has been meeting online through Zoom for the start of the semester as Fresno County remains in the purple tier. 

“So much of what we do, especially when it comes to ensembles, is about building community. That interaction with one another on a day-to-day basis and that sharing of ourselves, that’s hard to get people to do on a screen,” Earnhart said. 

To help students stay connected to one another, Earnhart said she tries to do community-building activities in each of her courses especially those in her ensembles. 

“We do scavenger hunts where they’re in their house and breakout rooms so they get to know one another and [I’m just] trying to come up with ways for them to share who they are,” she said.

Along with the concert choir class, Earnhart also teaches choral conducting. The choral conducting course is similar to McKeithan’s instrumental conducting class, both of which are in-person this semester and started the week of Feb. 8. 

When practicing outside, Earnhart said students are mandated to social distance and wear face masks. 

With some courses online and some meeting for face-to-face instruction, the music department has begun utilizing different apps to help their students learn more effectively during this time. 

Darling said that different apps the department has been using include Noteflight Learn, Sight Reading Factory, Soundation for Education and Smart Music. 

Earnhart said for her courses she’s been utilizing the Sight Reading Factory software, which helps students improve and practice their sight-reading skills. 

“We do some exercises in class together, but on their [the students] own I establish different levels I want them to achieve with each assignment,” she said. “Normally I give them a piece of music and that is our sight-reading exercise, learning that piece of music, but we’re not getting to do that and I want to make sure that their skills stay sharp and that they continue to grow in their music literacy even though they’re online.” 

Earnhart said she was surprised by the positive feedback her students gave her last semester when using Sight Reading Factory. 

They got to watch their personal progress, which made using the app very beneficial to them, she said. 

Music graduate students Sarine Topaldjikian and Kenneshae Murray said adjusting to these changes caused by the pandemic has affected their master’s recitals for their upcoming graduation. 

Topaldjikian, a graduate student in her final year of violin performance, will be attending class in-person this semester with Lowenheim in his string orchestra. 

She said it’s been quite an adjustment transitioning to a hybrid learning environment especially when practicing with one another in-person. 

“You don’t have someone directly next to you, and you can’t hear exactly what’s happening,” Topaldjikian said. “You don’t have that comfort of someone next to you.”

Topaldjikian said it’s bittersweet having her master’s recital during the pandemic. 

Although students won’t be able to have a live audience in front of them to perform their final pieces, the department has been working to make the music halls accessible for those performing their senior recitals. 

“It has both its ups and downs, but I am thankful though that we are trying to get the halls to be utilized this semester. They’ve just been sitting there not being used and I think it would be a good thing to have, especially with all the protocols,” Topaldjikian said. 

Murray, a graduate student in her final semester as a music performance choral conducting major, said that although her master’s performance may look different than a traditional school year, being safe is of the utmost importance.

Murray’s recital is different from those playing instruments because her voice is her instrument. While wood, string and brass instruments are allowed an accompanist, choral students aren’t able to perform with an ensemble due to safety precautions and rules regarding copyright law. 

Because of this, Murray will be pre-recording her recital instead of live streaming it like Topaldjikian. 

“The thing that keeps me motivated is knowing that this is a moment and it’s not forever. I’m going to be a choir conductor someday and I’m going to have my own ensemble and I’m going to know that this made me a better musician,” Murray said. 

“It’s made me a stronger person and it’s made me a stronger advocate for the arts because during this time we fall back on the arts as the only thing that keeps us grounded,” she said.

The staff within the music department said that they’re looking toward the future because while the pandemic brings about many different challenges, this is a point in time that won’t last forever. 

“Keep your goals in mind and don’t think short-term, think long-term goals,” Darling said. “If you want to be a teacher, a scientist or whatever it is that you want to be, those things will still happen. Just keep moving forward and keep your goals lined up and we will get through this.” 

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