Person of the Week
Jeremy Taylor: Making Sure The Music Plays On
Old Saybrook High School music teacher Jeremy Taylor is part of a team intent on giving students a chance to keep the music going during the pandemic. (Photo by Jeremy Milton )
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented particular challenges for teaching music in schools and Old Saybrook is no exception. But music instruction has continued, thanks to the district’s support as well as the seriousness with which its teachers have taken the health risks. One of those teachers is Old Saybrook High School (OSHS) music teacher Jeremy Taylor.
“[M]usic is very difficult to teach online because of the limitations of video conferencing,” he explains. “[I]t’s been explained to me—it’s just simple physics—that there’s going to be a delay.
“And when you’re in conversation with somebody, it feels a little awkward,” he continues. “I know we’ve all gotten used to that—you just wait a little longer before you reply and you can’t interrupt people like you usually do.
“But in a musical setting, it’s impossible to play in sync with somebody over the Internet,” he says. “There’s a delay, and the delay is on the order of like 300 milliseconds—it’s not a ton. But it does make it impossible to actually play music together in any sort of collaborative way.”
Over the summer, as it looked as though Old Saybrook schools would open in person, “we got very excited about the prospect of [teaching] in person with our students,” Jeremy says.
But the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention didn’t have much advice on how to do that safely and, at the time, neither did the state.
“There was a concern [that] if we’re singing, if we’re playing wind instruments inside, how do we do that in a way that doesn’t increase the risk to all the participants of disease transmission?” he says.
Figuring out how to mitigate the risk of singing and playing instruments fell to the teachers themselves. Fortunately, there were studies. One particularly relevant one was a study of aerosols commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the College Band Directors National Association, and a coalition performing arts organizations. It was conducted by research teams at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland. Its preliminary findings were made available in August 2020.
The scientists used “airborne particle detectors to measure how many additional aerosols are generated by a person singing as opposed to a person just talking,” Jeremy says. “And then once they could measure that, they could experiment with various mitigation techniques.”
Some of the questions were “What if we put a mask on the trumpet? You know, what if people learn 12 feet apart instead of six feet apart? How long does it take these aerosols to clear?” Jeremy says.
Emerging from those preliminary findings was a series of guidelines that allowed Saybrook music teachers to put together recommendations for Superintendent of Schools Jan Perruccio that were cleared with the local health authority.
Socially Distanced x 2
One of the recommendations addressed spacing: Rather than six feet apart, which would be used in other classrooms, social distancing for instrumental and singing rehearsals would be doubled to 12 feet. These additional space requirements dictated which rooms could be used for rehearsals, so the small jazz combos Jeremy has led in past years weren’t possible this year.
The combos and small ensembles “all used these little, tiny rooms that we crammed the kids into,” he says. “Some of the rooms we used to use aren’t 12 feet long.” With the COVID restrictions, he jokes, “you can put one kid in each room.”
Because of the COVID spacing requirements, it’s not possible right now for the entire band or the entire chorus to meet at once.
“[W]e have a beautiful facility at OSHS; we’re very happy about it,” Jeremy says. “As great as it is, this big band room where last year I would have 80 kids in the room, this year, with 12-foot spacing, I can fit 21.”
Instead, the kids meet simultaneously in three separate rooms.
“[I]n the band room I’ve got a percussion ensemble because they can wear masks and it’s not any more dangerous than any other class,” he explains. He has another contingent in the chorus room, and a third in the cafeteria. “[T]hat spread over two periods is enough time and space for everybody to play.”
Despite the inconvenience, the fact that OSHS students are playing is a pretty great thing.
“[T]here are a lot of school districts where, for reasons of space or reasons of just...supervision of the kids...not having enough people to watch all those rooms, [they] haven’t been able to pull it off,” he says. “We’re very lucky to have the resources to do what we’re doing.”
Short Rehearsals and PPE
A second recommendation was to limit rehearsals to 30 minutes, followed by a 20-minute period to allow the room to ventilate. This is an average, he explains, of how long it takes for the HVAC system to exchange all the air in the room.
“In fact, I’ve been told by HVAC people, that’s ridiculous. [The room should ventilate] three or four times in 20 minutes.” He laughs. “So at least once. Cool. Then all the air in the room passes through the HVAC filter. We can come back.”
The third recommendation concerned PPE required to help protect instrumentalists and singers from those aerosols they produce.
“We purchased some special singers’ masks, which have like a little frame inside them that holds the mask away from your mouth a little bit,” Jeremy says. “And they’re cute. They look like duck bills...They’re not any safer than a regular two-ply cloth mask, but they’re easier to sing in. So that was a measure that we took for the kids’ comfort and for musical reasons.”
Over the summer, before the study’s preliminary findings were released, one of Jeremy’s colleagues sent him a cartoon of a trumpet wearing a face mask.
“Turns out that actually is the plan,” he says. “[E]ven on an instrument like the saxophone, where you figure it has holes all over it and covering the bell wouldn’t do much, it does—it reduces aerosol generation into the room by something like 60 percent...[O]n a trumpet, it’s north of 90 percent. So it’s very much worth doing.”
Students also wear special cloth face masks, each of which has a vertical slit so that the two sections of the mask in front overlap.
“So when they go to play, they have to just kind of...work the mouthpiece through the opening, and then play,” he explains. “And that’s so that when they’re playing and breathing, any air that they inhale is either coming through the instrument, or it’s coming through the mask. So that protects the kids.”
All the special PPE for music instruction has been purchased by the school.
“[T]hat’s another thing that I’m grateful for, that the decision was made over the summer that we are going to prioritize safety, and we’re going to get the equipment that we need,” Jeremy says.
The plan has been effective.
“[B]y golly, at this point, we have not detected any transmission of COVID within our schools...so what we’re doing appears to be working,” he says. “And we’re proud of that.”
It is possible to put together virtual concerts and send them out into the world, and so far OSHS music students have done two. For the next one, Jeremy plans to incorporate art students’ work into the presentation.
The teachers felt it was important to “create a sense of authenticity to the artistic process in school,” Jeremy explains. “[I]f a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, right? Like if you play a piece of music and nobody ever hears it doesn’t count, right? If you make a piece of art and never show it to anybody, does that diminish it in some way? We think it does. And we wanted to find a way for the stuff that the kids are making to find an audience.”
In addition, “[w]e wanted to overcome that separation between the parents and what we’re doing in the building; we wanted to kind of open that window again,” he says. “And third, it’s fun to have just a communal event, because there aren’t any anymore. So we’re manufacturing synthetic ones, essentially, until we can actually have an in-person town event.
“[W]e’re working [on engaging] with our community in meaningful and authentic ways,” he continues. “Online, even with the restrictions that we have. Yeah, it’s a heavy lift to because there’s so many barriers...to doing that effectively. And whatever we do is not drawing as big of an audience as it would have before, but people want it so bad.”
Despite all these difficulties, Jeremy says, student enthusiasm has been high.
“Over and over again through this whole year I’ve said to them, and to anyone who wants to listen, how wonderful our students are, how great they have been, with all of these hardships that they have—just how unfair this is to them,” he says. “They have been such good sports about it.
“My heart breaks for them because they don’t get the prom, they don’t get field day, they don’t get all the fun stuff that they’ve been looking forward to, their senior year especially,” he continues. “But they’re showing up, they keep trucking.
“And that really has been our primary goal in the music program this year, is to give the kids a chance to be social, with a purpose, to give them the opportunity to collaborate and do something meaningful socially and emotionally,” he says. “To have projects where that’s the primary goal. And I think it’s working.”