For many students last year, band and choir classes were a far cry from normal, with musicians practicing outside or over Zoom. But with students back in school this fall, many are overjoyed to take part in almost-normal music classes.

“The first day that we were in here this fall and they all played together, I started to tear up,” said Dr. Heather Cote, the K-12 Director of Performing Arts for Westwood Public Schools who directs the high school wind ensemble.

Last year, Cote said, they mostly practiced outside, which got harder as the weather cooled off. And the students were split into two cohorts that came to school in person on different days.

“You didn’t have the whole group together, so sometimes the balance was weird and you had too many of one instrument because all the other ones were in the other cohort,” Cote said.

Westwood band
Westwood High School French horn player Luke Day (left)

Students playing along via Zoom at home last year would mute their microphones.

“Yeah, you kind of feel isolated,” said high school senior and tenor sax player Frank Papetti. “It kind of turns you off in a sense. You don’t really want to play. No one can hear you.”

Now, Papetti said, he’s thrilled they’re all back together again.

“Oh my God, I’m super excited," he said. "I love playing my instrument.”

Things do look a little different in wind ensemble this year: There are black filters covering most instruments’ bells — the end where the sounds, and aerosols, come out of a wind instrument.

“Honestly, it doesn’t make that much of a difference,” Papetti said. “It doesn’t make your sound much different at all.”

The return to in-person, indoor playing has been guided by best practices developed specifically for performers.

Performing arts organizations around the country supported a groundbreaking study after a choir in Washington state became one of the first known COVID superspreader events in the country.

“When we looked at that incident, we’re like, ‘Yep, this is going to be detrimental to all things performing arts if we don't figure out how to do this,” said Dr. James Weaver of the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Weaver and Dr. Mark Spede of the College Band Directors National Association teamed up to support research looking at how to prevent the spread of the virus in performing arts settings, delving into the problem as early as April and May 2020. That included raising funds to support the research from 125 organizations, which Weaver said was “the largest amount of performing arts organizations we’ve ever seen come together for one purpose.”

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Maryland, involved, in the middle of the pandemic, asking performers to sing or play alone in a room so that the movement of their breath could be precisely observed. Researchers used lasers and high-speed cameras to visualize how aerosols spread from instruments and singers, with and without filters.

“When you put on the mask or bell cover, the area that is immediately directly affected by a breath shrinks by one third, which is enormous,” said Dr. Jelena Srebric of the University of Maryland.

Two boys play the trumpet through face masks, with covers over the end of their instruments.
Wellesley High School students Teddy de Peyster (left) and Max Goldenson play trumpets with masks and bell covers in the school’s jazz band.
Craig LeMoult/GBH News

The study’s authors put out a list of recommendations, including bell covers for bands and masks for choruses when they rehearse indoors. They also suggest physical distancing and added air filtration, and playing outdoors whenever possible.

Weaver said roughly 20 states are requiring these steps and 20 more have some sort of recommendation to follow the guidelines.

Massachusetts falls into the latter camp: the state government is leaving requirements to the districts, but the Massachusetts Music Educators’ Assocation — which Cote leads — put out its own set of recommendations based on the study.

The high school jazz ensemble in Wellesley is going a step further. As junior Max Goldenson pointed out, even as he plays his trumpet, he’s wearing a mask.

“There’s a hole in the center and each side has a magnet on it, so you can kind of clip it closed whenever you’re not playing,” he said.

Cote says she’d like to get instrument-specific masks for her students in Westwood to wear while playing, but she hasn’t been able to because they’re in high demand.
“Everything is hard to come by right now,” Cote said.

Wellesley High School Choral Director Dr. Kevin McDonald directs the school’s Keynote Singers
Craig LeMoult GBH News

Down the hall, about 40 masked members of Wellesley High’s “Keynote Singers” are back together, too.

“For all of us, this is our community. This is where we find joy in our day to day. It’s a break from the schoolwork,” said senior Nora Jarquin. “All my friends are in these choirs and in these groups. So to lose that was a really hard time. We don’t want to do that again.”

They’re all hoping, with these new protective measures, that they won’t have to.