The masked singers: Music programs implement COVID-19 safety guidelines

A green sign with information regarding COVID policies is placed inf front of a large theater with closed doors.
A sign proclaims COVID-19 policies in front of Garrison Theater on Scripps College’s campus. (Justin Sleppy • The Student Life)

Masks with holes, masks that look like beaks or no masks at all — this is how mask protocol is manifesting in music classes at the 5Cs. 

When music students and professors first heard that classes would be in-person for the fall 2021 semester, most reacted with great excitement. 

For students like Mairead Brownell SC ’21, a member of the Claremont Concert Choir, it meant being able to reunite with previous friends from the music community.

“I actually didn’t do choir last year because I was just like, ‘Well this is going to be really sad to do all this stuff online and not get to sing with other people,’” Brownell said. “I was really excited to be back singing with other people and hearing other people’s voices and sounds.”

However, to maintain a safe environment for the students, professors and accompanists, the experience couldn’t be the same. 

In orchestra, students who play wind instruments needed to use their mouths to play their instruments, and in choir and voice lessons, students needed extra mobility of their mouths, which posed a unique challenge for mask-wearing. With this in mind, music professors researched safety protocols and devised different plans for their classes. 

“We have some very thoughtfully constructed spacing guidelines and other kinds of guidelines on the stage that allow us to feel comfortable that we’re doing things with a high degree of safety,” said Eric Lindholm, the conductor of the Pomona College Orchestra. 

For the orchestra, extra space was added to the rehearsal stage so students can socially distance themselves. Additionally, wind instrument players now wear masks that cover their noses but have a hole for their mouth, along with covers over the bells of their instruments. This setup has proven to be difficult for some students. 

“The masks are very difficult it’s almost like I’m learning the instrument again.” —Victor Chai PO ’23

“The masks are very difficult it’s almost like I’m learning the instrument again,” bassoon player Victor Chai PO ’23 said. “There are a couple of factors that I have to adjust to … it’s a lot harder to blow through my instrument … because [the mask] is double-layered, I can’t really see where the hole is on my mouth … it also changes the sound quality of instruments.” 

In the Claremont Concert Choir, students wear special singers’ masks that look almost beak-like because they are longer and provide more space between the mouth and the mask. They social distance in their Balch Auditorium and sing indoors for only 30 minutes. Afterward, they walk to an outdoor classroom and sing a capella. 

“[The masks] made it a lot easier for me to hear myself and a lot harder for me to hear other people,” Brownell said. “Which is fine, it’s just, I’m a soprano one, so sometimes when I’m singing really high notes, I’m a little self-conscious that I’m the only soprano one singing, even though I know that’s not true. Other than that, I don’t think it’s really changed my singing all that much.”

In private voice lessons, different professors take different approaches. At Scripps College, Associate Professor of Music Anne Harley created a special setup outside Garrison Theater where the student is unmasked and spaced about six meters from the professor and the accompanist, as Harley believes wearing masks and vocal lessons were incompatible. 

“I feel safe from COVIDI don’t feel safe from heat exhaustion.” —Associate Professor of Music Anne Harley

“If they were wearing masks, I don’t think the pedagogy would survive. If they are doing it online, there are other things that don’t survive,” Harley said. 

However, outdoor classrooms pose other challenges; namely, they require students to step out of their comfort zones and sing in public. The burning Southern California sun has also caused problems for the instructors.  

“I feel safe from COVIDI don’t feel safe from heat exhaustion,” Harley said. “I think I was dehydrated. It really caught up to me last Tuesday because each of the applied voice teachers teaches full days.”

At Pomona, private lesson students and professors wear masks indoors and stand 10 feet apart. If necessary, instructors may move some class sessions online if they need to see the student’s face in further detail. 

But even with the various difficulties that the students and professors are experiencing, there is an undeniable sense of joy for simply being back in person. 

“The greatest benefit in this environment is just that I’m able to be with my friends again, just forming pieces and new repertoire that I’ve been dying to play as a musician throughout my whole life,” Chai said. 

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