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What school holiday concerts look like during the pandemic
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The Flowery Branch High band practices Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in the school band room. Each band member has their own shield they perform behind to protect other band members. - photo by Scott Rogers

Standing inside The Venue at Friendship Springs, Flowery Branch High School’s marching band performed their Christmas concert to an empty audience on Dec. 1. 

Each time they finished a song, they weren’t met with the usual cheers and applause, but instead, silence. 

“It was the kids, myself and the videographer — that’s it,” Miguel Guisasola, the school’s band director, said. “There was something almost sad and surreal about it. Normally when you finish the concert, there’s excitement about Christmas, parents being around and that sense of community. That didn’t exist, they just went home.”

Despite the off-putting atmosphere, Guisasola said his band students still had fun and found a small semblance of normalcy. 

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Virtual concerts

Many choral and band directors plan out their concerts far in advance. However, because of the pandemic, Stacie Mavis, Flowery Branch High’s fine arts department head, said they’ve had to keep their schedules as flexible as possible. 

Leading up to Saturday, Dec. 12, Mavis’ 125-student choir had rehearsed for an in-person concert in Flowery Branch High’s theater. She carefully orchestrated the event, and planned to have a maximum of 20 students perform for 15 minutes with masks on, then switch with another group. During each of these concert breaks, she said the audience would also change.

Two days before the show, Mavis said she had to cancel it, not only because of absences related to COVID-19 among her chorus members, but because of the schools’ overall virus numbers among students and staff. As of Thursday, Dec. 10, Flowery Branch High reported eight absences of students and staff resulting from COVID-19.

Mavis said she now intends to record her students singing and share the video with their parents before Christmas.

“The main thing behind having the concert — whether you’re in band, chorus or theater — those performances and rehearsals give us purpose,”  Mavis said. “And it gives us something to work toward, so I think that’s really important. Even if worst comes to worst and it doesn’t happen, we’ve had a good time making music together and trying to keep things as normal as possible.”

Instead of planning for an in-person show, Lisa Bassett, Chestatee High School’s choral director, recently started a “12 Days of December” virtual concert with her students.

Starting Monday, Dec. 7 and running until Friday, Dec. 18, a video will be posted to the choir’s YouTube channel at 8 p.m. each evening. 

Each Christmas song lasts a little over three minutes and offers footage of the students performing while separated in small groups. Because they aren’t allowed to sing with masks off, Bassett said the audio for the video was recorded separately while they wore face coverings. When filming, she said the students took off their masks and lip-synced the songs.

“I think they’ve really enjoyed it,” Bassett said. “We’re pushing ourselves in new ways. Everything has gone much better than I thought it would.”

Making it work safely

Teresa Williams, choral director for Gainesville High School, said her chorus students will have their holiday concert at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 15, at the school’s Pam Ware Performing Arts Center.

To limit the spread of COVID-19, Williams said her students will perform in groups of 24 or smaller, singing for around three minutes before changing with another group. Each singer will wear a mask and distance themselves on stage.

Williams said this concert will be the first show of the semester for her students and will feature classic ‘80s songs “with a splash of Christmas.”

“I love watching the kids work hard for a goal and for a performance, and then it comes to fruition,” Williams said. “Just to see those shy kids that never thought they’d get out there on that stage and perform, to see them accomplish that is wonderful. My main goal is that they realize how important music is in their lives and they enjoy it.”

Williams, Bassett and Mavis all agree that wearing masks while singing offers a challenge. 

Mavis said when singing, she finds it difficult to inhale the same amount of breath as she would without a mask. 

“The breath support is what fuels the sound, so it’s hard,” she said. “You breathe a lot more frequently, and I think we’ve adjusted to it. But, we’d be happy to go back to the way things were.”

Although wearing masks has made singing difficult, Williams said her choir has adapted well. During her class periods, the choral director keeps her doors open and allows her students to go outside, then return after a short interval.

“We take all the precautions, and the kids are just doing really well,” she said. “I thought the kids might complain and fuss about it, but they wear their masks and they don’t complain. It hasn’t been a bad experience, and I credit that to my students.”

Like Williams, Guisasola said he keeps one of his doors open to the outside to add more air flow. 

While practicing inside, his students are separated in cubicles — which were made by some of the teens’ parents — and wear masks when they’re not playing. The students’ instruments have bell covers that create a barrier, so droplets and germs can’t escape. 

Guisasola said he started his role as band director at Flowery Branch High this fall knowing it would pose many challenges. He said he found that group Zoom lessons don’t work well because of different internet speeds, and book-led instruction isn’t conducive to band at all. 

Even though Flowery Branch High’s marching band didn’t get to perform in front of people this December, Guisasola said the private show was mostly for them. 

“Kids do music and do fine arts because they like it, there’s a sense of community there,” he said. “They’re working for a goal. I think my kids have been super resilient, they don’t take anything for granted. They really cherish everything we get to do and appreciate that, and that’s pretty special.”

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