COVID-19 presented challenges for choir, band and orchestra
By Kayla Lemens, Current Staff
After eight long months, the music department is finally returning to normal.
Since April 6, the West Bend High Schools have permitted the choir and band classes to make music once again. Choir and band students had been unable to play instruments since the school year began.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected the music department greatly this year. All of the music classes had to adapt in one way or another, but overall they have persevered to make music and achieve their escape from reality.
Choir: ‘I think the choir bonded this year’
“COVID has affected choirs in every single way possible, more so than the majority of other class subjects,” said Tess Breit, the choir instructor at West Bend High Schools. “Choir was no longer choir – one day it was music theory, one day it was music appreciation, one day it was music history, one day it was handbell choir, one day it was percussion.”
On the first day when students heard that they had not enrolled in a choir class but in a general music class, many students dropped out. The program now has just over half the number of students it usually does.
Although the curriculum of the choir changed over the course of this year, students’ knowledge on technical aspects of music were able to grow.
“We got to delve deeper into music rather than cramming for concerts, and students got to know each other better with smaller class sizes,” Breit said.
“I think the choir bonded a lot more this year,” East junior Alyy Wiegert said. “There were a lot more group-based activities, and we all got to know each other just a little bit better. It’s honestly like a family.”
As spring approached, Breit was asked to provide singers for different events.
“I had to say no,” Breit said. “I believe it was at this point that the community realized the extent to which the non-singing policy was so negatively affecting our students.”
Shortly thereafter, in April, the choir was allowed to start singing again.
After not being able to sing and perform, the value of singing and music has never been held so highly by the choir students than it is right now. Breit has been jumping at the opportunity to allow her students to perform for their community.
“Basically we have been trying to squeeze in a year’s worth of choir experiences into May,” Briet said. “It has been incredibly stressful, but I am not complaining.”
At the start of fourth quarter, the choir recorded a virtual performance which can be viewed here.
Breit also held choir awards on May 17.
Coming up, the choir is having Star Search on Tuesday. The show will be open to spectators with no capacity limits. Choir students will also perform the National Anthem at the graduation ceremonies for both East and West.
Although the choir department has been regrouping and returning to music in the last month, students have trouble looking back on their last year of choir.
“Choir students were frustrated that it took so long to utilize mitigation strategies that could have been used earlier, but they were extremely excited to start singing again,” Breit said. “However, I know some were disappointed that they were being asked to perform before they were actually allowed to sing. I think they have mixed feelings about things at the moment after this roller coaster of a year.”
East senior Samantha Belfield has been in choir for four years.
“Choir this year has been frustrating, but, through everything, this choir year has been the most rewarding,” Belfield said. “Being able to finally sing and perform and having the ability to perform at my last choir concert next month is so exciting and has given me something to look forward to.”
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, choir-related activities such as the musical were not produced this year. But plans for next year are already in place.
“As far as musicals go, we will be resuming the musical next year with ‘Shrek! The Musical,’ and I will be directing,” Breit said.
Band: ‘This year showed that band is more than playing an instrument’
Like the choir department, the band department has been facing similar effects from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until the fourth quarter, the band had not been able to play their instruments in class because they produce aerosols.
“I fully support the district administration’s decision on that because I obviously didn’t want anyone to get sick,” Leah Duckert-Kroll, the band instructor at West Bend High Schools, said. “But now that teenagers as young as 16 are eligible for the vaccine and case numbers are decreasing, I feel much better about playing and keeping a safe environment.”
In the beginning of the year, band students could be seen outside practicing every day, but without their instruments. The band was often seen marching around the school grounds and parking lots, perfecting their stride.
Due to the setbacks of this year, many students have lost some of their abilities, and have been working to regain their former skills.
“We have a lot of work to do to get our intonation, articulation and balance back to the quality level that West Bend High School Bands are known for,” Duckert-Kroll said. “It’s not just a switch you can flip on and off with musicians – just like sports, it takes time and a lot of practice to hone your skills to a quality level.”
As excited to play as the band is, Duckert-Kroll has been experiencing some challenges as students reassemble their instruments, and tune in to play.
“When you don’t play a lot for a long time, the muscles in your embouchure start to decondition, so just like working out and lifting weights, we need to get that strength, agility and stamina back up” Duckert-Kroll said.
Students were given access to “SmartMusic,” a website where students can find music and play along with metronomes as well as other parts. This program was integrated into the curriculum to inspire students to continue to play their instruments at home.
Accompanying the use of SmartMusic, the class was able to be conducted differently and was able to focus on topics in music that are normally skipped over.
“This year in band has been important to me because it showed all of the band students that band is more than playing an instrument, it goes further than looking at notes and picking up an instrument,” West sophomore Demi Hale said.
With a variety of new techniques and lessons being taught, students were able to further their understanding of music.
“Students composed their own music, learned how to count Indian Rhythm, and got to do African Drumming,” Duckert-Kroll said. “We did a little music theory here and there. And in between all that, we tried to make it a little fun too by doing some bucket drumming and boomwhackers.”
Caeley Champeau, a West senior, has been a member of the band for all her years at the high school.
“In the eyes of my fellow high school band seniors we were very bummed that we did not get to play our entire year like the other schools,” Champeau said. “Finally we got to spring time, and play we did. The school finally allowed us to play our instruments, except we are wearing special masks and bell covers.”
Despite being able to play again, because the band is in the rebuilding phase with embouchure, which can be referred to as “chops,” there are no performances scheduled for the remainder of this year.
Orchestra: ‘The ability to make music has made this year more bearable’
Unlike the rest of the music department, the WBHS orchestra has been playing since day one. Due to the orchestra not producing any sort of aerosols and most students owning or renting their own instruments, there was no reason the students would not be allowed to play. For students who do not own their own instruments, sanitation measures were put in place to keep shared materials safe for students.
In late fall, the department teamed up with West senior Alyssa Markgraf, East senior Annabella Walker and auditorium manager Mark Barnard to record multiple videos of all orchestra sections playing their recently accomplished pieces.
Seth Matuszak has been head of the orchestra department for the past five years. Every year, he arranges a combined performance for his Chamber Strings and the Kettle Moraine Symphony Orchestra. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, Matuszak was able to continue this tradition this year.
“I am proud that we were able to have our Chamber Strings orchestra perform side-by-side with members of the Kettle Moraine Symphony,” Matuszak said. “We quickly put a plan together and made it work very well.”
The performance was recorded and is anticipated to be released in the upcoming months.
Although the orchestra was able to continue playing, the classes experienced a few minor setbacks which include the elimination of the ability to perform in front of a live audience for most of the school year, involve music expert clinicians, or travel to clinics, competitions and performances.
“Nothing can replace the personal experience of performing live in person, and that is a big part of the overall music education experience these students sign up for,” Matuszak said.
Performing in front of a live audience is considered an important part of the students’ learning, for it gives students something to work toward, as well as teach students how to adjust their playing and tone.
Not being able to perform did lead to some unexpected benefits for the orchestra program this year.
“I was able to implement a couple of units without the pressure of preparing for concerts, and for the purpose of music education these units were very beneficial for the students’ learning and understanding of music,” Matuszak said.
Despite the challenges of this year, orchestra students and Matuszak were beyond excited for the year they were given.
“I am grateful that we were still able to make music together and have fun in class,” Matuszak said
East junior Isabella Kufahl has been in orchestra since fifth grade.
“Orchestra this year has been a time in my day where I have a sense of normalcy,” Kufahl said. “The ability to make music with my friends and fellow classmates has made this year more bearable.”
Like Kufahl, Maggie Majewski has also been playing in the orchestra since they offered the curriculum at Silverbrook Intermediate School. Majewski, a West senior, was grateful for her final year with the orchestra.
“I would say it’s been a year where I’ve been able to enjoy the music more than I have,” Majewski said. “With less of a focus on the performance aspect, we got more time to listen to the sound and appreciate the music a lot more than before.”
On Tuesday, the orchestra was proud to put on a concert featuring all sections to conclude their year of hard work.
Despite the hardships and restraints of this year, the WBHS music students were all very resilient and are now able to get back to normal.
Top image is a mural in the WBHS music hall. Photo courtesy of Tess Breit, choir teacher.