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Choral students want to sing, even with a mask on

The Pekin (Illinois) High School choir performing at the spring concert earlier this year. (YJI photo)

Pekin, Illinois, U.S.A. – “When words fail, music speaks.” Hans Christian Andersen’s words give musicians worth and a sense of belonging.

At a time that is now known as ‘the new normal,’ words will still fail, but music might not be able to quite speak.

In the midst of a global pandemic, singing is now regarded as one of the most dangerous ways in spreading the coronavirus.

As schools and students across the United States and all over the world are gearing up to go back, what about school choirs?

“Students should wear face coverings while singing and avoid touching, choreography, and singing/playing in circles,” according to the Transition Joint Guidance for Starting the 2020-21 School Year from the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Public Health.

In other words, singing is permitted in the classroom, but only while wearing a mask.

“I am still doing choir this year. I am committed,” said Katie Murfin, a sophomore at Pekin High School and a devoted musician in the choir program.

Murfin said wearing a mask “is doable, but I don’t really like it.”

Middle school choral teacher Jaclyn Hattermann with former students Katie Murfin and the author, Norah Springborn, who now attend Pekin High School in Pekin, Illinois. (photo provided)

Pekin High sophomore Gabe Mullen, a self-described “choir nerd,” described the importance of choir in his everyday life.

“Choir has been an important part of my high school experience, there’s no way I could do without it,” Mullen said.

Emily Frahm, another sophomore at Pekin High School and a passionate vocalist in choir, responded with a different perspective.

“It makes sense as to why we are wearing the masks, but at the same time I feel as if it will be difficult to keep them on and project vocally,” said Frahm, but she added, “I still plan on doing choir no matter what the format is.”

The Transition Joint Guidance rules also had some rules regarding choir directors.

“Conductors should face students from more than 10 feet away from the first row of singers. When possible, conductors are encouraged to wear glasses/goggles or install a plexiglass shield.”

Jaclyn Hattermann, a music and choir teacher at Edison Junior High School in Pekin, is okay with wearing a mask.

“The only other option is no singing or music, and I choose music,” Hattermann said.

She said she is willing to do everything under her control to choose the opportunity and experience of singing for her students.

Rachael Cavallini, another music and choir teacher at Washington Intermediate School in Pekin, is choosing to start choir in January at the earliest in order to comply with state and middle school recommendations.

Cavallini argued the advantage of wearing masks in a choir setting.

“I do believe masks will be a powerful tool in bringing back a sense of unity, as students come together in groups,” said Cavallini. “As a general music teacher, I don’t yet know if I will be able to have class in my musical space or if I will be ‘on a cart.’”

Of course, singing in the classroom is difficult to coordinate, but how to hold choir concerts – that  show off the hard work that students invested in learning the music – must also be considered.

For many choral students, concerts also offer motivation. In the past, the final exam for chorus class at Pekin High School was for students to attend and perform in the concert.

There are clearly details and adjustments to work out.

“If there are no concerts, it will be difficult to find motivation because there is no end goal,” said Frahm, who sings soprano in the choir at Pekin High School. “Yet having this extra time [with no concerts] will allow us to focus more on technique and less on getting the songs good enough to perform onstage.”

Hattermann has a plan for her junior high students.

Norah Springborn/YJI

“I’m looking into an online format for performances,” Hattermann said. “Then we will have something to work for.”

Murfin, on the other hand, is not so sure how she will feel about not performing in a school concert.

“It will most likely make me less motivated in my daily performance, but I will still try,” Murfin said.

But Mullen said he will give it 100% no matter what.

“I’m okay without the concerts! It’s disappointing, yes, but there’s still so much the program can offer,” he said.

The future is too unknown to see what will happen to school choirs.

Plans could change with a simple “No, you are not going back to school full time,” or “Fall sports are not happening this year.”

There is no doubt that with the creativity and adaptability of students and teachers, we will rise to the challenge and make music happen, no matter what form it takes.

“Music benefits the mind, heart, and soul and I will do anything in my power to continue to help students make music!” said Hattermann.

One thing is for sure is we are ready and forever devoted to creating music in the unknown future.

Norah Springborn is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International and a devoted member of her high school choir.

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