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National, State Initiatives Generate Hope for Performing Arts Programs

By Nate Perry on September 03, 2020 hst Print

In any time of crisis, a proverbial call is issued to individuals and organizations in positions of leadership. When the Coronavirus and the ensuing cancelation of thousands of high school performing arts events swept across the United States, that call was heard – and answered – by the NFHS and other national- and state-level organizations determined to preserve the best possible experience for current and future participants.

During the past five-plus months, the diligence and resourcefulness exhibited by these dedicated advocates have resulted in a variety of solutions, initiatives and mitigation techniques. Their contributions have not only improved the likelihood of performing arts activity during the upcoming school year but may also help certain programs stave off elimination due to budgetary concerns.

Led by Dr. James Weaver, NFHS director of performing arts and sports, assistance efforts on behalf of the NFHS began almost immediately following the shutdown.

First came a collaboration with the National Association for Music Education (NAFME) to secure agreements with six publishing houses, which provided legal access to copyrighted materials for classroom instruction, as well as use by students to create recordings for the completion of year-end assessments.

“The publishers were very gracious with their permissions to allow students the ability to complete their year-end assessments while remaining copyright compliant,” Weaver said. “The NFHS has worked for many years to help schools be copyright compliant. This move by the publishers should be applauded, as it provided crucial assistance to schools during an unprecedented time.”

With applicable copyright permissions granted for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year, the NFHS shifted its focus to promulgating guidance for schools hoping to conduct performing arts activities in 2020-21.

The first of three sets of recommendations – “Instrument Cleaning Guidelines” – was released in late April and developed in conjunction with NAFME and the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) Foundation. The document described the difference between sterilization and disinfection, listed appropriate cleaning solutions and the various lengths of time the virus can remain active on brass, wood, plastic, strings and cork instruments, and offered instructions for cleaning specific instrument parts such as mouthpieces, bocals, necks and joints.

“Return to Marching Band Guidelines” followed in early June and presented mitigation measures compiled by the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee – a 15-member advisory committee composed of medical doctors, certified athletic trainers, high school coaches and officials, research specialists and state high school association executives – with insight provided by the nine music educators and administrators on the NFHS Music Committee. The two groups put forth eight pages of material for state association consideration, highlighting the importance of well-established social distancing practices, facility cleaning, participant screening prior to rehearsals and contests, limitations on gatherings and hydration.

“Marching band is an important activity for millions of students around the United States,” said Weaver, the liaison to the NFHS Music Committee. “As we attempt to return to activity, it is essential we find ways to keep our students, directors, adjudicators and spectators safe while engaging in music education and performance.”

As an additional benefit to marching band programs, the NFHS joined with several organizations to produce “Together As One,” a comprehensive field show performance package that can be used free of charge by schools across the country.

Intended to help elevate high school marching band field show performances and ease the financial burdens brought on by the pandemic, “Together As One” was powered by Varsity Performing Arts, a division of Varsity Spirit, in partnership with the NFHS and in coordination with United Sound – a nonprofit organization that provides musical performance experiences for students with special needs. The aptly named program includes a six-minute, fully arranged, designed and choreographed marching band performance that equips bands, cheer and dance teams with all the necessary elements to execute in unison.

In addition to Weaver and executives from other national music organizations, “Together As One” utilized contributions from a world-renowned cohort that included design coordinator David Starnes and composer/music coordinator Robert W. Smith, along with 21 other individuals who are among the very best arrangers and choreographers in the field.

“As our country recovers, young people need school spirit now more than ever before,” said Bill Seely, President of Varsity Spirit. “’Together As One’ was designed to help bring school spirit back into America’s schools in a powerful way, with the collaboration of the cheerleaders, dance team, band programs, and any group in the school that wants to be included. Our hope is that this will help ignite a strong sense of school spirit and community in the fall when our schools need it most.”

Spring is the most active time of the year for high school marching band fundraisers, meaning the vast majority of programs lost most – if not all – of their opportunities due to the pandemic. With field show arrangement costs often totaling multiple thousands of dollars, “Together As One” will not only serve to unite marching bands, cheer and dance teams around the country, but will provide schools with a much-needed cost-effective option for the upcoming season.

Approximately a week after the marching band guidance was published, the NFHS and NAFME put out “Fall 2020 Guidance for Music Education,” which stressed many of the same recommendations and expanded upon them in greater detail. Among the ‘Key Takeaways,’ educators were advised not to work in smaller segments when providing instruction to students with musical instruments and await preliminary results from an upcoming aerosol study.

Perhaps its most significant message, however, was that music education does not have to occur face-to-face in order to be valuable and should have its place in any learning format and scheduling model a school chooses to employ.

The document strongly supported the notion that in a virtual setting students are still able to build music composition skills, complete assessments, perform exercises that grow their knowledge of music literacy and music theory, review and evaluate recordings of professional ensembles and research music of different cultures, historical periods, styles and genres. Finally, the virtual setting does not inhibit a student’s ability to reflect on the meaning of music-making and connect that meaning to the outside world.

Undoubtedly, the most renowned venture since the March shutdown, pioneered by the NFHS and the College Band Directors National Association, is a comprehensive aerosol study that has generated mitigation strategies from respiratory emissions analysis of various performing arts activities. Backed by additional lead funding from the NAMM Foundation and the D’Addario Foundation and further contributions from more than 125 performing arts organizations, the project has emerged as a marquee nationwide initiative.

Under the direction of lead researchers Dr. Shelly Miller of the University of Colorado Boulder and Dr. Jelena Srebric of the University of Maryland, the study has examined subjects playing several brass and woodwinds instruments and engaging in a range of singing and simulated theatre exercises, with aerosol particle size and concentration serving as key areas of observation.

To this point, two rounds of preliminary results have been produced and translated into steps schools may take in order to navigate the threats brought on by the virus.

In its first batch of considerations, the study recommended masks be worn by all students and staff in a performing arts room – even while playing instruments when possible – and that no talking be done without a mask on. Participants unable to wear a mask over the mouth while playing should wear one on the chin and move it over the mouth when resting. Teachers can reduce their own emissions by using a portable amplifier to keep their voices at a low conversational volume.

It was also recommended that students sit facing the same direction while indoors, with social distancing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (6 feet by 6 feet) being applied at all times. Additional space (9 feet by 6 feet) should be allocated to accommodate trombone players.

As a supplement to the NFHS marching band guidance document, the first round of the study found that bell covers – ideally fashioned from multi-layered, high-denier material and placed over the bell of an instrument – made a substantial impact on performers’ aerosol pathways.

The second round of results reiterated the original findings and summarized the entire body of work into five principal points of emphasis – masks, distance, time, air flow and hygiene.

Personal masks should be well-fitting, multi-layered, washable or disposable, and surgical in style. Ideally, bell covers should be made of non-stretchy material that has a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) of 13 – a rating known to protect against cough and sneeze, bacteria and virus particles. However, any type of covering is better than nothing, and the goal should be to use material of the highest denier possible. Masks can be optional but are strongly recommended while performing or rehearsing outdoors; instrument bell covers, however, should be used in all settings.

Study statistics indicate limiting rehearsal times to 30 minutes or less significantly reduces the quantity and spread of aerosol among the individuals involved. Following an indoor rehearsal, activities leaders should wait until at least one HVAC air change has occurred prior to using the same room again, although three air changes is the goal. Outdoors, playing should stop for approximately five minutes after each 30-minute segment to allow the aerosol to disperse.

As can be expected, optimal air flow is achieved during outdoor rehearsals. For programs looking to use tents as a means of sheltering performers outdoors, open-air tents – those with high rooftops and without walls – should be employed. HEPA filters are strongly recommended to increase the amount of clean air and the number of air changes per hour for indoor rehearsals.

In addition to basic hygienic measures like keeping common areas sanitized and encouraging frequent handwashing, it is recommended that instrument spit valves be emptied onto absorbent sheets such as puppy pads rather than directly onto the floor.

The third and final segment of results and corresponding mitigation information is expected with the completion of the study in December.

All of these developments have certainly provided a more hopeful outlook for the future of high school performing arts; however, the possibility remains that most contests and festivals will occur using a virtual model.

As profiled in the May issue of High School Today, several associations pursued and successfully conducted virtual music and speech showcases in the virtual realm. Another group of organizations – namely the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) and the Michigan Interscholastic Forensics Association (MIFA) – applied or will apply the same approach for theatre.

While many governing bodies experienced a certain level of apprehension associated with hosting a virtual event for the first time, EdTA’s anticipation ahead of its first-ever Virtual International Thespian Festival (Virtual ITF) was almost entirely anxiety-free.

“We honestly were excited by the opportunity to produce a virtual event – it’s something we’d wanted to try but didn’t become a priority until COVID forced our hand,” said Allison Dolan, chief content officer at EdTA. “We did worry about how students would perceive a virtual theatre festival. Such a thing hadn’t been attempted before in a major way, so there were no benchmarks for expectations – positive or negative.”

The Virtual ITF saw participation from hundreds of schools across 46 states and eight countries. While a definitive total of student entrants was not reported, Dolan said that more than 2,000 total students and teachers were in attendance.

The festival was hosted via Pathable – an extension of the Zoom platform – with pre-recorded student performances and workshops and entertainment broadcast at specific times, which added to the overall experience.

“In the end, we feel like the event helped create a new expectation for what a virtual theatre festival can be: fun, educational, enjoyable,” Dolan said. “We received so much positive feedback during and after the event from students who were pleasantly surprised at how much they got out of the virtual experience.”

“It was so rewarding to be able to provide our students with a bright spot in an otherwise dark time for them and for theatre as a whole.”

Even though MIFA is no stranger to hosting virtual festivals, it will move its theatre festival online for the first time in late January or early February of 2021. Jon Becker, MIFA executive director, stated the organization is hoping to see involvement from its usual 35-40 schools and approximately 1,000 students.

It is in these lamentable times that decision-makers’ devotion to their cause is brought to light. In the case of those responsible for the advocacy and advancement of education-based performing arts programs, there has been a palpable commitment to ameliorating the lives of the more than four million high school students who hope to soon return to their beloved activities.