LA Musicians practicing under the new safety precautions. Maine DOE guidelines say that students can sing or play a wind instrument safely if they are 14 feet apart and wear masks whenever possible. To help the singers hear each other in these conditions the school invested in headsets with personal speakers for each singer in the program.

As Maine teachers prepared to return to school this fall, music teachers faced a particular challenge: according to the Maine Department of Education it is not safe for students to sing or play wind instruments unless they are outside, 14 feet apart, and facing the same direction in a long line. Some schools around the state assessed that this was too difficult and abandoned in-person music instruction in 2020, but not Lincoln Academy.

“We need the arts more than ever right now,” said choral teacher Emily Anderson, “so we are figuring it out!”

Figuring it out has involved multiple steps. First, there are the large wedding tents set up on the LA campus, one on the softball field next to Poe Theater, and one on the track field near Hall House. “We call ours the Poe Theater Big Top,” said LA band instructor Liz Matta.

Early in the summer theater teacher Griff Braley “started talking about using tents to teach in,” according to Matta. “Thanks to [Head of School] Jeff Burroughs’ and [Director of Curriculum and Instruction] Kelley Duffy’s commitment to the music program, we got those tents up in August. We couldn’t run in-person programs without them.”

Next came eliminating shared equipment, which primarily impacts the band program. “In a normal year we share many supplies,” said Matta, “but since that couldn’t happen this year I put together a bag of supplies for each student, including hand sanitizer, pencils and clothes pins (to keep music from blowing off the stands). They also included a bottle of mouthpiece cleaner for all wind instruments.” Instrument-specific items included reeds, valve oil, trombone slide cream and bow rosen.

Making ensemble music with musicians spread 14 feet apart created yet another set of challenges. It soon became clear that the singers could not hear each other from so far away, especially while singing in masks. So during the first weeks of school the department purchased portable microphone headsets with speakers that hang around singers’ necks. “The students are problem solving alongside me how to balance voices through the speakers so we can still create a beautiful ensemble sound and have effective rehearsals. Students learn their voice parts at home during their asynchronous learning time, and come to in-person rehearsals ready to refine and dig deeper into the music,” said Anderson.

Road construction on Academy Hill added yet another challenge to playing music outdoors. “Students have been playing and singing right through granite sawing, pavement grinding, and the beeping of trucks in reverse,” said Matta. “But we are all so happy to play music together, in person, that nobody complains.”

Of course, playing in tents can’t last forever, and while students are bundling up and prepared to be outdoors for as long as possible, eventually the Maine winter will arrive. “When it gets colder and we have to move indoors, the band will learn music written for percussion ensemble,” said Matta. “I was able to purchase a set of drumsticks and a drum practice pad for every band student. This will allow us to continue to play music–though not wind instruments–together inside.”

As for the choir? According to Anderson, “Inside we can do rhythmic work, score analysis, critical listening, and individual musicianship development, and we will continue to sing remotely.”

“The music program is doing what all artistic people do in the face of adversity: adapting to new challenges with creative solutions and a celebration of new opportunities,” said Anderson. And the new ways of learning are not without perks. “The reverb knob on the headsets allows students to create very impressive renditions of Star Wars sound effects and songs–after rehearsing their Italian arias and traditional choral pieces, of course.”