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Music students raising their voices over not being able to sing in school

Community COVID-19 Featured

“Music produces a kind of pleasure which human nature cannot do without.” — Confucius

All they want to do is sing.

But as numbers of those infected with COVID-19 continue to climb in the province, some local students are wondering when they will be able to get back to singing.

Since school resumed for the year, the voices of music students have been silent while they watched friends and classmates return to sports in school. Gyms had even been opened to community, yet music students remain silenced.

Campbell Hayman, a Grade 12 student at North Nova Education Centre, says she feels arts are sometimes overlooked and they are as important to the mental health and well-being of arts students as sports are to student athletes.

“Us vocalists agreed to do whatever it takes to get our choirs and possibly our musical back up and running. We would wear special singing masks AND social distance to keep everyone around us safe. So basically, sports are allowed to resume pretty much as normal, but us choir kids aren’t allowed to return to even a modified program.”

It’s not fair, she asserts.

“Meanwhile, I’m watching my peers go to their soccer games that are against other schools, hockey tryouts, volleyball and basketball tryouts, etc.,” yet, “I am not permitted to sing with a few students from the same school that I’m already exposed to, with masks.”

Hayman acknowledges the value of sports. And music.

“Sports are important in many ways; I know this from growing up in a family that has participated in a mixture of sports and music. But what music has given me is tools and knowledge I will use for the rest of my life.”

Hayman graduates in June and plans to continue her music education in university.

“Most of my musical education comes from being a part of these choirs and musicals.”

Being a part of the musical productions and choirs at North Nova has shaped Hayman into the young woman she is today. “It made me more confident and has pushed me to be a hard worker.”

Music students are bonded together like a sports team and not being able to sing together is difficult from a mental health perspective, Hayman says.

“Not being around the wonderful group of students that I’ve spent many long days and nights rehearsing with throughout high school pains me. This is my final year at NNEC, and watching my other peers get to have their final year with their friends on their sports teams breaks my heart, because I don’t get to do the same with my fellow music kids.

“We just hope that more people realize that this is unfair to us students in the music program.”

NNEC Grade 11 student Justin Skinner frequently performs with Hayman and is also feeling the loss of not being able to sing in school.

“I’ve been singing ever since I was a little kid.”

The talented young man takes voice lessons from Ann Holton-Melong and studies piano under Jakki Rogue.

Both Hayman and Skinner have performed in the school musicals since they first started at NNEC and both have been competitors in the New Glasgow Music Festival, both being award winners.

Skinner says music students’ main issue is the fact that school sports are still happening, and there’s no social distancing or mask wearing.

“Campbell and I have both been involved in different sports and different sporting events; I still participate in track and field and used to play basketball so I know what it’s like to participate in sports, I know how enjoyable it is. But I also know, being a part of the music program, how essential and important that can be to other students as well.”

Music is not an after-school activity. It is part of the curriculum for those involved.

“Next semester I am taking advanced music and with the current restrictions and not being to sing in the classroom — we’re actually not allowed to sing in the school at all — is an issue for courses and curriculums like that because it’s a fundamental part of the course itself.”

Skinner sees no difference between sports and music in terms of the hazards of spreading the virus. “We’re breathing just as heavily as athletes and we’re coughing just as they would be. I don’t think there’s anything hazardous about singing in school.”

He says, “We (music students) have been advocating that we will do anything to sing again: stand 10-15 feet apart, go outside, wear a mask — wear two masks — we’ll do almost anything to be able to sing again.”

From a mental health perspective Skinner says, “I think people don’t know that a lot of students at school seriously rely on the music program, not only for the singing and academic aspect of it but because it’s almost as if the music room and the music program is a second home to them. I find a lot of kids can connect with sports and I think the same applies to the arts. And a lot of kids rely on that kind of support to get themselves through school.”

Allison Avery, a member of the parents auxiliary for the music program asks, “Where is the consideration for students in our province who don’t play competitive sports? Music programs in schools provide safe spaces for hundreds of students across the province. Music programs are also accessible. There is no financial barriers which limit participation, it’s inclusive by nature. So for many of the students that participate in school music programs, this is their one and only extra or co-curricular activity. This is the space where they can explore their creativity and their imaginations and their love of music.”

She adds, “Due to the impact of the pandemic, time which used to be devoted to scheduled rehearsals is now time at home with nothing to do. They are lacking in motivation which is inevitable with teenagers who are not being challenged.” This lack of drive is concerning to her. “Without productive ways to engage with their peers, there is more time on screens and social media, which we increasingly understand has serious negative effects on the mental health of teenagers.”

Jennifer Rodgers, communications spokesperson for the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education commented by email:

“Ensuring a safe learning environment in schools is our top priority. Our schools follow the Nova Scotia Public Education Curriculum and the Back to School plan that is directly informed by public health guidance. Current NS public health guidance states that group singing is considered a higher risk activity and recommends that there be no singing indoors or outside at schools at this time in grades P-12. As per the Music Education P-12 update for the 20-21 school year, it is suggested that every music teacher (P–12) begin classes in September with learning opportunities that do not require singing, excessive movement, or the initial playing of instruments.”

She notes, “As singing is an important teaching strategy for younger grades, an update from the Nova Scotia for the Music Education P-12 was shared at the end of September outlining that teachers are permitted to sing for instructional purposes with a mask and physically distanced.”

Calls to the Department of Health and Wellness seeking comment were not returned, however, spokesperson Marla MacInnis emailed a response: “Singing has been considered particularly high-risk for COVID-19 transmission, which is why we put specific guidelines and restrictions in place.” Those guidelines specify: “COVID-19 is most commonly spread from an infected person through respiratory droplets generated through coughing, sneezing, laughing, singing, and talking. Singing, use of wind instruments, speaking loudly and cheering may pose a higher risk of spreading the virus that causes COVID-19. It spreads more easily when contact is close (within 2 metres/6 feet) and prolonged (more than 15 minutes). This an area of active research and guidance will be amended as evidence evolves.”

Those recommendations can be found at https://novascotia.ca/coronavirus/docs/COVID-19-Guidance-for-Vocalists-and-Instrumentalists.pdf.

“As a parent and chair of the NNEC Music Auxiliary I have been privy to efforts made by provincial organizations to organize safe singing protocols. I attended the meeting with Dr. (Robert) Strang, and he verified it is not his office but the Department of Education that makes the decisions with regards to music in schools. He was very open to discussing the options being presented to him for safe singing, but at the end of the day it’s up to the board of education. We submitted a letter outlining our concerns to Dr. Strang, Zack Churchill and Gary Adams. However, there has been no serious consideration given to our concerns that I am aware of to date,” says Avery.

NNEC’s William Austin is concerned for his future music career as the Grade 12 student works his way through his final year of high school. He switched schools to NNEC when he heard about its music program and the community that came with it. Now in his final year, he holds the title of co-president of the program and was looking forward to spending his graduate year taking in as many musical opportunities and social ones as possible.

“At the start, it wasn’t too bad,” he shares, adding that at the beginning of the school year the situation was similar to the work-to-rule scenario that many students faced not that long ago. “It started to change when schools announced how extracurriculars would be handled.” As the announcement was made that the Nova Scotia School Athletic Federation would be handling all sport-related regulations, it was also announced that musical activities would be left to the province’s rulings.

Austin shares that wind and brass band members are currently only allowed to practise for 30 minutes at a time with a cover over the portion of the instrument that releases the air, due to the ventilation systems in the school. While he and other musicians have time limits on their practice schedule, across the hall volleyball and other sports are allowed to practise for two hours, unmasked, using the same ventilation system.

He says he grew frustrated “when athletics were allowed to have competitions and everything.” Austin says music students have been more than willing and have offered to physically distance as well as wear masks or even practise, distanced with masks on and outside to be able to sing, however, the requests have been denied.

Austin is planning to take a bachelor of music program and says that he’s becoming concerned that restrictions will have an effect on his post-secondary career.

“I do think that the lack of choral singing will have an effect on my singing in the future,” the grad says. Along with affecting post-secondary education by lack of experience, Austin also shares that next term he is set to take a class called Music Vocals with upwards of 30 students. He is still unsure what will happen with the class but as someone who is planning on pursuing music after high school, he is concerned the lessons in that class would be beneficial for his university career as well as the fact that some students are relying on the class for a music credit to be able to graduate.

Austin shares that if music students had a wish list for things that could be updated, the music policy on singing would definitely be on it as well as increased rehearsal time for instruments — especially wind instruments.

He agrees with other students’ opinions on the social benefits of music class. He notes that normally, students would hang out in the music room during breaks and eat lunch there as well, spending time with other students with the same interests and making new friends.

“By now we probably would have had one or two music parties at the school,” he says, adding that the evenings filled with games and snacks are great bonding and social opportunities for students.

“There’s none of that community and fun that there was,” Austin says.