Denali Dieumegard rehearses with the Windham Chamber Singers on Wednesday, the group’s first rehearsal inside Windham High School since last March. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Denali Dieumegard walked into Windham High School on Wednesday to rehearse with her fellow chorus members for the first time since September. She was one of about 25 members of the Windham Chamber Singers spaced out in an auditorium that seats 500.

On the first song, a Scottish folk tune called “Caledonia,” Dieumegard stood up to sing a solo. She often had to pull her mask up over her nose as it slipped under the strain of singing, her words hard to understand. After a half hour, the singers took a break to let the air in the auditorium recirculate, following state guidelines.

“It’s harder to breathe singing like this, it’s completely different,” said Dieumegard, an 18-year-old senior. “But I’m just happy to be back here singing.”

Maine school choruses, drama groups and bands have struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly a year now, with students and their teachers carrying on any way they can. When schools reopened for some in-person instruction in September, many did not allow bands or choruses to meet indoors, because of scientific evidence that singing and wind instruments could spread respiratory droplets farther and more aggressively than talking. So some sang outdoors in the fall, then moved their rehearsals online.

Because of state limits on indoor gatherings, many schools chose not to have theater groups rehearse or perform in schools either. Throughout the school year, federal and state guidance and recommendations have changed as new scientific studies have come out, with some bands beginning to play indoors in December with special masks and covers over instruments. Some choruses began rehearsing this month after specific guidance for indoor chorus practice was released by the state Department of Education on Feb. 12. Masks are required for all singers,  while 6-foot spacing, a 30-minute limit to singing in one room and having singers face the same direction are recommended.

Darrell Morrow plays accompaniment on the piano for the Windham Chamber Singers at Windham High School on Wednesday, as they rehearse together indoors for the first time in nearly a year. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

IN PURSUIT OF A PASSION

The pandemic has forced members and directors of school bands, choruses and theater groups to be resilient and innovative as they try to pursue their passions. Faced with the prospect of having to cancel their annual musical, members of Scarborough High School’s Oak Hill Players instead produced and edited a virtual musical review called “High School Zoomsical,” which will end a three-day online run at 7 p.m. Sunday. Some song-and-dance numbers were filmed in students’ homes, with the actors coming to school to get choreography lessons one-on-one, then going to their home to film their singing and dancing. The show features pop songs with lyrics adapted to the pandemic, like “Human Again” from “Beauty and the Beast” changed to “Social Again.” A few numbers were recorded at the school, but with actors widely spaced.

“We knew last summer there was no way we’d be able to put on a normal musical, with an audience,” said Max Bennett, 17, a Scarborough High School senior who performs in the Zoomsical. “It’s really difficult performing without an audience; the core of theater is the audience. But I’d rather perform for people I can’t see than not perform at all.”

Scarborough High School senior Tory Stauffer reviews footage from the school’s virtual musical review, “High School Zoomsical.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Maine Drama Festival, held at various high schools each year, usually sees schools from all over the state competing against each other with their one-act plays. But this year, the festival will be virtual, with more than 55 high schools signed up to present their plays during an online drama festival March 19 and 20, but with no judging. Each school had to find its own best way of doing a virtual presentation, whether recording scenes in small groups or at students’ homes, or doing a radio play or recording monologues. Each school will distribute links to its play, at some point, to families and the school community, festival organizers said.

Students at Cheverus High School in Portland are producing a play for the festival about a pizza joint delivering to all sorts of mysterious places and “dimensions,” said Connor Haskell, a junior who co-wrote the play with classmate Anna Vozzelli. Individual actors filmed scenes in their homes and used some tricks to help continuity. Students turned their cameras off and on to black out their screen and give the illusion of opening or closing a door. One actor would hand a pizza box off camera and out of sight, while another actor would grab a pizza box and bring it into the camera’s view, as if the box was being handed from one actor to the other. The crew is planning to saw some old furniture in half, and put one half of a piece in one actor’s home and the other in another actor’s home, to give the appearance that the actors are in the same space.

“We’re certainly disappointed we can’t do it in person; it’s such a great experience to see all the plays and see other (actors) from all over the state,” said Vozelli. “But having to do it this way has pushed us creatively. It’s nice that we at least have this to do now.”

Festivals for school bands and music ensembles were also moved online this year, with the Jazz All-State festival’s online performances submitted in January. Those and other state musical performances will be shared online at some point on the website of the Maine Music Educators Association, said Sandra Barry, band director at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland and president of the MMEA.

At South Portland High School, director Craig Skeffington’s band met outside in the fall for a while, until frozen fingers and lips didn’t work as well anymore. Then after state guidelines allowed playing wind instruments inside, he started indoor practices in January, but with special equipment. Musicians have face masks with mouth piece openings that cost around $20. The bells of the instruments have to have a fabric covering as well, another $20 expense. The equipment is paid for by the school department. Musicians stand 10 feet apart.

Rick Nickerson, director of the Windham Chamber Singers, conducts an in-person, indoor rehearsal after nearly a year apart. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Until clear state guidance on singing in schools came out Feb. 12, the Windham Chamber Singers had rehearsed and performed mostly online, without being able to hear one another. Richard Nickerson, director of choral music at Windham High School, decided internet delays and other technical issues made it too difficult to have them try to sing together. So he set up the online rehearsals so he could hear them singing individually but they couldn’t hear each other. Nickerson had tried rehearsing with the chorus on Windham high’s baseball field in September, but after the singers couldn’t hear themselves, and he couldn’t hear them, he called off that experiment. So when the group met to sing in the high school Wednesday, it was their first true rehearsal since March 2020, when all schools closed for the remainder of that school year.

Nickerson has tried to keep some of his choral group’s traditions and routines going this year. He wanted the group’s annual holiday concert to go on, so he recorded all the singers individually and mixed their performances together for a free YouTube concert called “A Maine Family Holiday” that went online in December. Besides the Windham Chamber Singers, it featured some professional musicians performing, dancers from Maine State Ballet, and former Portland TV news anchor Kim Block as the host. The singers’ faces can be seen in squares on the screen as they sing.

CHANGING GUIDANCE

When schools were reopening in the fall, the state had issued “recommendations” about how student activities could be done safely, including chorus, band or theater rehearsals, said Kelli A. Deveaux, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education.

The guidance in summer and early fall for chorus and singing instruction at that time – citing the fact that respiratory droplets can travel some 13 feet when propelled by singing – was that they should take place outdoors and singers should wear masks. So most, if not all schools, followed the recommendations and did not hold chorus or band practices indoors.

The state Department of Education monitored studies being done during the pandemic about how the virus is transmitted and about how singers or musicians could mitigate risk, Deveaux said in an email. Researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Maryland determined that masks for singers and masks with mouthpieces for musicians – plus a bell cover – could reduce aerosol emission by 60 to 90 percent. A study at Lund University in Sweden in the fall found that when singers wore a mask, the amount of respiratory droplets expelled “were comparable with ordinary speech.”  The DOE also looked at how other musical programs, including at the University of Southern Maine, were mitigating the COVID-19 risks of singing or playing music.

“Based on the science, musical instruments were first to be brought back inside in December, with specialized masks and bell covers for wind instruments. Singing guidance was then reviewed for schools, churches and other venues and was adapted and aligned in February,” Deveaux wrote.

High school athletes have dealt with their programs being shut down or delayed this year as well. In the fall, tackle football and indoor volleyball were not allowed by the Maine Principals’ Association. Other sports were delayed, seasons shortened, and schedules restricted to playing teams within geographic regions with no statewide, MPA-sponsored postseasons (except golf). This winter, schools are playing the indoor sports of ice hockey, basketball and volleyball. All participants must wear face coverings and no spectators are allowed. Wrestling, considered a high-risk sport by both the MPA and state Community Sports Guidelines, has been restricted to non-contact conditioning practices.

Video director Jack Scannell, center, and Scarborough High School seniors Tory Stauffer and Alex Lehmann discuss making promotional videos for the school’s musical review, “High School Zoomsical.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Guidance for drama groups was not as specific this year and has centered more on spacing out actors, wearing masks that hinder dialogue and facial expressions, and not being able to perform for a crowd. So school districts and schools were left to figure what they might do. Some chose to meet virtually, some decided to wait for further guidelines and others took a year off, said Kailey Smith, theater teacher at Lawrence High School in Fairfield and president of the Maine Drama Council.

For students in choruses, drama clubs and bands, virtual performances this year have been a big deal, several said, because in many cases it’s been their only chance to do something they truly love. For some students, virtual performances have been a way to keep pursuing something they hope might turn into their career someday.

For seniors, it might be even more significant, as virtual performances this year might be the last performances of their high school career. Many seniors who are passionate about music, theater or singing have had to either give up those activities this year or do them in very different ways, including online, without the applause of an audience or the smiles of colleagues on stage.

Parker Thibodeau, a senior at Falmouth High School, sings in the chorus and plays flute and piccolo in band. This year, she was picked for the Jazz All-State Festival and performed in the jazz choir virtually. In the fall, the school bands rehearsed outdoors until it got cold, and since then, they’ve mostly met online. Chorus has consisted of humming through masks, she said.

For Thibodeau, playing music and singing is not just something fun to do. She is waiting to hear from several colleges and hopes to major in vocal music, or at least minor in it. She says this pandemic year and the way it halted and then altered music, singing and theater in schools has probably helped her in some ways and hurt her in others.

“I do think it’s hindered my growth a little bit, because of the lack of instruction and not getting the experience of playing concerts,” said Thibodeau, 18. “But I’ve had more time to learn a new instrument, piano, and to spend time with my voice teacher. It’s given me time to focus on things I want to learn.”

Staff Writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.


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