Winsor and Belmont Hill Music Program Comparison: Before and After COVID

Winsor and Belmont Hill’s music programs offer a variety of classes and resources, allowing students to pursue their interests outside of academics. However, because of COVID, synchronous time for classes to practice together is limited. While students have typically been practicing six feet apart outside, winter’s approach poses an obstacle to outdoor sessions. Even so, teachers have been working extremely hard to work around these challenges and maintain a positive environment for their students. 

The Belmont Hill music program enjoys a long-standing tradition at the school. Although many of the instrumental ensembles like the orchestra, jazz bands, and rock bands were only recently created, the choral program in the B-flats has a long history. The program has had to adapt to the new restrictions imposed by the ongoing pandemic, and each group has coped differently. The orchestra has shifted from biweekly in-person rehearsals with seasonal concerts to weekly virtual meetings with recorded music being released to the community. The group still holds out hope for live rehearsals, at least with the non-wind/brass players. The Jazz and Rock bands are following a similar virtual schedule but with less hope of ever being able to play together. The choral program has had the opportunity to meet in person; however, they are not allowed to sing as it would require the removal of masks. 

Students gave their opinions on how the music program has been going so far and how their music careers have been affected by the new school structure. Arec K. ‘22, a pianist in the Orchestra, thought that “Mr. Fiori [the director of instrumental music] has organized the orchestra in a way that allows for the members to still have opportunities to play their respective instruments and create cohesive compositions.” One significant change that Arec notes is the transition from in-person rehearsals and concerts to asynchronous practice and recording. He thinks Mr. Fiori has done a fantastic job of maintaining engagement and productivity in the orchestra even with the difficulty of organizing a large group of musicians without ever hearing them play. Unfortunately, the internet latency of Zoom and other video call platforms make synchronization when playing nearly impossible, so there is no way for any of the ensembles to play together. Although Kevin J. ‘22, a Clarinet player in the Orchestra, wishes to play in-person as a full orchestra soon, “having everyone together would be near impossible.” Unfortunately, the nature of woodwinds and brass instruments prevents them from being played in person, and the risk of transmission is much higher than keyboard and string instruments even outdoors. 

Charles G. ‘22, an alto saxophone player in the Upper School Jazz Band, said, “Covid has allowed us to focus on playing solo, and improve in ways that couldn’t be targeted as easily in a rehearsal.” In the past, little of the group rehearsal time would be spent working on each musician’s solo performance. Even though it is difficult for the band to play without each other, they are adapting well. Additionally, the band is different from most other groups in that there is a set academic period each day where they meet, meaning Mr. Fiori, their conductor, can spend time going through recordings and techniques without having to take up their free time.

Winsor’s Performing Arts Department Head, Ms. Brady-Lopez, teaches a variety of classes in both Lower School and Upper School. She commented on the setup and environment between classes pre-COVID and current classes. Before, “a typical music class typically began with the joyful noise of students coming into the classroom and immediately gravitating to the instruments in the room.” Currently at school, Ms. Brady-Lopez notes that “students go straight to their chairs that are spaced six feet apart.” Furthermore, due to various safety protocols and the reduced number of meeting times for each class, music teachers have had to reimagine how they run their courses. They found a “silver lining” to the situation; whereas music theory has traditionally been a minor topic, the way in which it is practiced fits better with the hybrid schedule.

For Leila G. ’22, a third-year Small Chorus member, “the class has fewer opportunities for creating music and hearing how we sound together. Of course, we can sing outside, but the feeling of our voices coming together is not the same.” Upper School orchestra member Yuni C. ’23 faces similar challenges when rehearsing outside. She said, “It’s kind of hard to rhythmically stay together when we’re all socially distant, but I feel like it also makes us a lot more focused and aware of each other.” Yuni pointed out that when the orchestra is able to move inside in the future, the students are prepared to make creative accommodations. For example, “the woodwinds get special bags to put around the end of their instruments and they have holes in their masks so that they can still play.” 

Outside of music classes, one new, student-led solution is Friday Night Live, an hour-long session of pre-recorded performances ranging from dances to instrument-playing to funny videos. Kelly Y. ’26, a Drum Strum and More student, said, “DSM has performed twice this year, but instead of performing on a stage… we had to record videos to play during events like the fall concert and Friday Night Live… we record the video when we’re all together during an in-person class.” Although virtual performances do not bring the same energy as doing shows in the theater, Friday Night Live has been largely successful as a way to bring a sense of community straight to our own homes.

Winsor’s music students are eager for the day when we can resume our normal schedules. Ms. Brady-Lopez, speaking on behalf of the Performing Arts department, expressed, “we deeply miss hearing our ensembles play and sing together live. Magic happens when music is made by our groups. There is a satisfaction like no other when the students work hard toward a common goal of producing a moving piece of music and then share it with the Winsor community in person. We are longing for that beautiful experience to return to Winsor.” 

Both Winsor and Belmont Hill’s music program participants share similar experiences and ideas on this newly constructed form of performing arts. The schools’ performances are also presented in a similar fashion, with pre-recorded videos sent out to the rest of the community. Vivian D. ‘23 said, “it’s disappointing that we can’t play in concerts… I did the Winter and Fall Concerts before and really like those–[such] performances are now over Zoom assemblies.” Kevin Jiang ‘22 said, “For now, Mr. Fiori has done a great job organizing Zoom rehearsals and putting together virtual pieces.” Overall, each school has found innovative ways to continue their music programs in the face of numerous obstacles that this new hybrid schedule has presented. 

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