Music program marches on
Houghton-Portage Township Schools keeps music program running through pandemic
By Mark Wilcox, for Late Edition
Over the past 16 months, life in the Copper Country, as it has throughout the world, has been greatly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Virtually all aspects of life have been affected, perhaps none more so than education. Colleges and universities relied heavily on online instruction as did most middle and high schools. In public schools, extracurricular activities were curtailed, altered or suspended altogether. The impact of the pandemic on high school sports, where local teams’ quests for state championships abruptly ended, received the most attention and media coverage. Parents and supporters were vocal in their insistence that the benefits of participation in sports must continue despite the concerns of COVID-19.
There is no argument that athletics is an important part of school life, but not every student is a student-athlete. Area schools offer a plethora of outside-the-classroom activities that don’t require skates, cleats, sneakers, pucks or balls. The pandemic took its toll on programs ranging from robotics and Lego League to marching band.
At Houghton-Portage Township Schools, a thriving music program continues to thrive, albeit a bit differently. Music Teacher Kelly Fontaine said the research she conducted before the start of school last fall made all the difference.
“I found help with a University of Colorado study that showed ways we could continue our music program while using precautions and staying safe.”
Fontaine said the school allowed the band to hold daily rehearsals in the school auditorium where musicians kept at least six feet apart. Students were given special masks with a Velcro slit in the middle and bell covers for instruments. Additionally, special singing masks for the choir were used.
The music program’s efforts were appreciated by the student musicians and their families.
“In general the students were very receptive and the parents were very understanding,” Fontaine said. “They were very appreciative that we could continue learning through band and choir safely.”
As you might expect, there were some unique challenges.
“Getting a mouthpiece through the slit of the mask takes a little bit of time, and I don’t have a lot of patience. Toward the end of the school year, the students were very excited to practice marching outside without a mask if they chose to do so.”
Fontaine said they found some very creative ways to make music in the time of COVID-19. Daily Google meets were held for students who chose to do band or choir virtually.
“When the school shut down for a few weeks, rehearsing became tough via computer, so we learned about fundamental music theory, rhythm and score study.”
Fontaine anticipated the school shut down in December acted accordingly. She made recordings of all of the groups from grades 6 to 12 in both band and choir. Michigan Tech’s audio department recorded some of the groups as well. With these recordings, they were able to stream a virtual concert.
“This was not an easy process. Our choir director, Hillary Arundel, spent many hours splicing videos to make it perfect for our students and their families,” Fontaine said.
To be expected, there were some sacrifices. Some performances were canceled such as the UP Honors Band. However, they were able to hold a Virtual Solo and Ensemble Festival where many of the local students received high awards.
“The highlight of the year was an in-person spring concert. We were able to perform in our high school gymnasium where parents and students were spaced six feet apart and wore masks.”
Fontaine said that despite everything they’ve gone through, the music program at Houghton – Portage Township Schools thrived because of cooperation from all involved.
“Although this was the craziest year to date in my career, I am very proud of the way everyone at Houghton handled the pandemic. From students to administrators and everyone in between, we were in it together.”