‘We are creative people’
Iowa Central music department adapts to COVID-19 conditions
In the age of COVID-19, schools and colleges around the country and around the world have had to adapt. For many, this meant finding ways to deliver instruction electronically, often through video conferencing for virtual classes.
This was easier for some programs than others. For performing arts programs, the challenge was how to continue in-person rehearsals while also taking safeguards against spreading the virus.
At Iowa Central Community College, the vocal and instrumental music departments have had to make major adjustments to everything from rehearsal spaces to rehearsal times to concert venues.
“The first thing that we did was follow the CDC’s guidelines,” said Will Lopes, director of vocal music. “We also have guidelines that were put together by the American Choral Directors Association.”
Iowa Central’s vocal music ensembles all rehearse on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The largest group, the concert choir, rehearses on the stage at Decker Auditorium, where the stage is divided into rows of six-foot-by-six-foot squares for each student.
“This is all mathematically precise to give everybody a six-foot bubble,” Lopes explained.
To avoid traffic jams in the hallways and entrances, each row enters at a different time from a different entrance, and also exits the same. Each student is assigned a specific square for the entirety of the semester. The chairs and music stands are sanitized before and after each rehearsal.
“We all check temperatures as they come in and they have to wear a mask,” Lopes added. “They are not allowed to share music or any pencils.”
It may sound odd that musicians – singers and instrumentalists – would have to wear a mask while performing. And it has been a challenge to overcome, Lopes said. Face shields amplify the sound of a vocalist for themselves, while masks muffle the sound.
Lopes has had to teach his performers to project their voices further to overcome the hindrance of the masks.
“That’s been a major thing for us, you have to project differently, you have to articulate differently,” he said.
Having the choir spread out also adds to the challenge.
“Because of the spacing here, they feel it is very hard to hear each other,” Lopes said.
Lopes said he thinks the biggest challenge for the students has been that they aren’t able to mingle and gather around with each other before and after rehearsal, as they normally would.
“They love to be here and be connected,” he said.
It’s helped that Iowa Central is requiring the use of face coverings inside all buildings on campus, the choir director said, adding that the students’ willingness has been great as well.
“Iowa Central has done an amazing job preparing us for this moment, but this also has a lot to do with the type of students that we get,” Lopes said. “We want to be here. The students want to be here.”
The choir students have gotten used to singing with masks and face shields, Lopes said, to the point where it’s hard to tell there’s anything different at all.
In Iowa Central’s instrumental music department, director Paul Bloomquist is focused on keeping up with the most current information on COVID-19 and how the novel coronavirus spreads.
“As the studies come out, we’re trying whatever we think will keep kids the safest,” he said. “Currently, we’ve got bell barriers on instruments to minimize the amount of aerosol that is coming out of them.”
With the help of the theatre department, they’re also making custom-designed masks for the band members to use while playing.
“I used it personally on a gig playing the tuba last week and I kept it on for two hours and it was like a self-closing garage door,” Bloomquist said. “It hangs down over your mouth. You have to lift it up and put your mouthpiece in and then when you pull your horn away, it goes down.”
Like with the choir ensembles, the concert band and jazz band rehearse and will perform while spaced out across the six-foot squares.
For the band instruments that are known to collect condensation or spit inside, Bloomquist has supplied them with puppy potty pads to drain onto and throw away to avoid contamination.
Bloomquist applauds the students’ discipline with wearing masks, self-monitoring their health and social distancing on and off campus.
“I think they want to be there, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “It’s not just the music students and the band students, it’s all the students are doing their part because they don’t want to go back on line. For the performing arts, if we go back online, we miss so much of the chemistry of the music, putting it together, the process of practicing. The performance is what the public sees, but it’s the process along the way that’s really the learning experience.”
The entire music department will perform a free concert on Thursday, Sept. 17, at the Karl King Band Shell in Oleson Park. The concert will start at 6:30 p.m. and there will be plenty of room for social distancing in the audience. For those who are more comfortable listening from their car or from home, the concert will be broadcast on the college radio station, 88.1 FM.
The concert, titled “Broadway and Beyond,” will feature selections from many popular musicals, as well as from movies and television.
“I am very excited about this concert because I think that in a time like this, a lot of people just feel stuck,” Lopes said. “And we want to use this moment to bring that encouragement that this is possible, it’s just a different way to do music. We are creative people.”