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Pandemic Challenges Band Students To Stay Safe While Practicing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For schools that are back in person, music class presents a challenge. Singing can project a virus long distances, and so can playing brass and woodwind instruments. There is a safety measure - send the band out into the parking lot or to an athletic field. Maine Public Radio's Robbie Feinberg has been following along.

BILL BUZZA: All right. So welcome back, everybody. It is so nice to see all of you.

ROBBIE FEINBERG, BYLINE: On a cloudy Thursday afternoon, about a dozen students gather with their clarinets, trumpets and trombones under a tent on the tennis courts at Edward Little High School in Auburn, Maine. It's the first band practice of the year. Junior trombone player Ian Lathrop has been eagerly awaiting this day. He only goes to school two days per week, and with some sports and extracurriculars canceled, this is one of the few activities he has left.

IAN: I remember, like, last year, a lot of the times I was like, oh, my gosh, there's so much stuff; I wish I had more free time. But now it's - I'm, like, just waiting for something to do. And so I'm definitely glad this is happening.

FEINBERG: Maine's Department of Education recommends that brass and woodwinds only be played outside with students at least 14 feet apart. So here they're scattered across the tennis court. Director Bill Buzza uses a portable speaker on his hip so they all can hear him.

BUZZA: So one thing I want to first do is talk about the masks.

FEINBERG: Those masks are still required, even when playing. So students wear modified cloth face coverings with small slits to accommodate each instrument's mouthpiece.

BUZZA: If you take your mouthpiece and, like, put it, like, on one side - on the right side of your mouth, slide it to the left and slide it back to the right, it's going to be right over your mouth.

FEINBERG: Students attach additional coverings made of furnace filter fabric to the end of their instrument to stop droplets from getting out. The kids wrestle the new equipment into place before finally playing a few songs.

BUZZA: One, two - and one, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FEINBERG: They're a little rusty. The masks and coverings don't help. But they keep playing, work out the kinks. Yet halfway through the rehearsal, trombonist Ian Lathrop interrupts.

IAN: Mr. Buzza, I don't know how I feel about these masks.

FEINBERG: It's his mask, Lathrop says. It feels loose and he struggles to get his mouthpiece to fit into it. So he tries a new one. Freshman saxophonist Annabeth Treadwell says all of these new precautions are tough to get used to.

ANNABETH: The restrictions are, like, kind of weird. Putting the bell covers on is difficult. But, you know, I'd rather go through all of the, like, difficult stuff and still get to play music than not do it at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FEINBERG: While the band here has figured out a way to play this fall, Maine's health guidelines have led some schools to move band classes completely online. That has some educators worried that, without in-person practices, students could lose interest in music for good. And already students like trumpet player Aaron Hart wonder what will happen to these practices once snow and ice begin to fall.

AARON: I'm willing to try at least once, you know? You know, even if it's going to be kind of sucky, you know, it's still band. So you get something.

FEINBERG: Band director Bill Buzza says he's thinking of starting a percussion ensemble this winter. Students would play drums, which are allowed inside, instead of clarinets or trombones. Buzza says with the pandemic already taking away so much for students, he hopes band in whatever form it takes can keep going.

For NPR News, I'm Robbie Feinberg in Auburn, Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ODDISEE'S "CONTRADICTION'S MAZE (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.