If you passed by the middle school or the high school recently, you may have heard a chorus of young voices or perhaps a band running through its paces. Follow the music and you would see student singers or instrumentalists gathered outdoors under a flapless tent. Look a little closer and you would realize that those singers were articulating while wearing masks against the spread of Covid. Not only were the instrumentalists wearing masks, but their wind instruments were masked or bagged, as well. You might have found yourself wondering why the sound wasn’t somehow muffled.
District music supervisor Patrick Lenihan has done the research on Covid mitigation strategies that optimize musical performance. The masks the singers wear feature a bit more space around the mouth to accommodate breathing and articulation. Those worn by players of wind instruments allow a mouthpiece to be inserted through flaps over the mouth. Additionally, a trumpet or trombone has a bell cover over the end of the instrument, Mr. Lenihan says. “A woodwind instrument is actually played inside a bag that allows the students to see their fingers, but also provides protection from any of the aerosols that might escape from the keyholes.”
The performers are arrayed under a tent with the flaps up to let the breezes through. They are socially distanced and occupy straight-line grids instead of the arc more commonly found in performance spaces; that way, any aerosolized germs travel in parallel away from the performers, rather than concentrating at a center point in front of them.
Mr. Lenihan credits Princeton health officials and such resources as the National Federation of High Schools for much of the know-how that undergirds that district’s plans for performance studies during Covid. The masks came from a local costume designer, who sewed them to Mr. Lenihan’s specifications. “We've gone through several different prototypes,” he says, “and I think we've settled on some really good designs that are seeming to work for our students.” Early on, students in the Studio Band had suggestions about how to improve the design of the bell covers for the trumpets and trombones. Mr. Lenihan had the costume designer fabricate new prototypes overnight so the students could see the results of their brainstorming the very next day.
As the weather gets colder, choral and band students will move indoors. When that happens, “we want to make sure that our ventilation system is working to its full capacity,” Mr. Lenihan says. “The district is working to make sure there are enough air changes per hour to create safe spaces for our kids to rehearse.”
The school year will continue on its regular arc, with performances throughout the year. The current plan is for virtual performances, like the concert posted to the district website in late October. Students recorded tracks individually at home. The tracks were then mixed together to produce the performance.
The same care has gone into planning for the drama, dance, and visual arts programs, all of which are taught indoors. The district’s black box theater is gridded in 8 foot squares, giving actors and dancers more space to move around. Again, performances are planned at both the middle and high schools. Visual arts students work in the studio separated by plexiglas dividers. Students each have their own art supplies, which they carry back and forth to school in ziplock bags.
Mr. Lenihan joined the Princeton School District in 2006 as its middle school choral director and assumed the leadership of the arts department 10 years ago. “The teachers here do an amazing job meeting all our kids where they are and helping them to grow to their own individual potentials,” Mr. Lenihan says. “And Princeton is just an amazing place for arts education because of the tremendous community support that we receive.”
Mr. Lenihan believes the arts program is thriving in spite of Covid. “I think that staff and students are happy to be back,” he says. “Certainly, there are feelings of nervousness about this new world that we're living in. But it's really exciting and really heartwarming to see the students playing together, singing together, and making art together.”
- Princeton High School