In a time when individual expression is being touted as a way to help students deal with their topsy-turvy pandemic experiences, one main remedy — music education — is being quieted.

Enhanced precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 limit a group’s ability to perform together, encourage some to play outside even in the cold, and require coverings over musicians’ faces and instruments. 

Music educators, creative by nature, have bent over backwards to reinvent music education that both complies with health and safety protocols and meets the needs of students who crave a creative outlet.

While a lot of attention has been paid to how to safely reinstate school sports, music educators feel left behind with minimal and outdated state guidance.

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Billy Ray Poli conducts a choral rehearsal/performance by Burlington High School students on the western steps of City Hall on Oct. 28, 2020. (Photo: JOEL BANNER BAIRD/FREE PRESS)

Choir singing as a solo activity

Billy Ray Poli left his opera singing contract to teach students “how music can be there for you no matter what.” Six years into steering the music department at Burlington High School, that sentiment is more important than ever. The choral director and his students had to bounce back first when enhanced safety measures due to COVID-19 threatened the continuation of choir classes this year and then PCBs kicked the students out of the school building altogether. 

“It literally pains me I can’t be there for them,” Poli said. This sentiment he expressed in song shortly before the year began and the video landed on Good Morning America.

More: Serenades and high-fives: Burlington High School welcomes students back in song and video

Even if he had a rehearsal space, right now Vermont does not permit choirs to sing indoors more than 30 minutes (the duration of Poli’s classes are 80 minutes) due to the nature of singing spreads respiratory droplets through the air. Still, Poli has found ways to connect with singers remotely and through socially distant pop-up concerts.

For group rehearsals, Poli sings all the voice parts while playing the electric piano in his kitchen, in “all of a four by six inch box on their screen,” he said. The musicians sing their part, all on mute, preventing a cacophony of internet delayed voices.

“There’s a reason why online choir is not a thing,” Poli said. 

The repertoire includes simple songs and harmonies or unison singing, rather than the complex, eight-part harmony incorporated into typical choral arrangements. The first time they hear one another is during the performance during which they also sing through masks.

The two choirs with 60 students he has this semester have done two pop-up concerts in September and October. On two dates in December, the choirs will record their winter concert to be livestreamed to loved ones and area senior centers.

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Daniel Gibson, a sophomore at Burlington High School, dons a mask before joining a rehearsal of the school’s choir on the western steps