Connecting through music in a global pandemic
by Sophia L.
Like all subjects, the music department at Duxbury High School was forced to make radical changes to their curriculum in the face of the ever-prevalent coronavirus. The six-feet apart seating, new cohorts, and virtual performances are a small fraction of the new system the students and staff have adapted to. Maria Varonko, an orchestra director for the middle school and high school, has experienced the pandemic’s effect on the orchestras first-hand.
Mrs. Varonko joined Duxbury Public Schools in July of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic.
“I already got over the new-teacher feeling,” she said, giving credit to the craziness of recent events that left no time for stalling.
She added that she often forgets about being new, thanks to how welcoming the staff are. Before teaching at Duxbury, Ms. Varonko was an orchestra director for the entire district of Marshfield, which encompassed five elementary schools from K-5. Now, as a teacher in Duxbury, Ms. Varonko has a single permanent office.
“It’s nice to always have one desk to call home. It’s safer during these times as well,” she said.
The enforced safety precautions have significantly changed the orchestra environment. Instead of the usual arch shape surrounding the conductor, students are seated in a six-feet apart grid. Ms. Varonko said this prevents sound from carrying naturally and everyone has trouble hearing each other. Without the arch shape, she said that it is also difficult to see the conductor.
The separation of students into two cohorts has created a great divide between them. These students, formerly meant to be in the same orchestra, now play music separately in two tiny groups on different days. Ms. Varonko stated that in some regards, she considers these different groups as two different orchestras. She learned to focus on each cohort’s respective needs and make adjustments according to them.
Mr. Schmetterer, a fellow orchestra director, added, “I think the two cohorts do have different personalities; Cohort A is mostly underclassmen and then Cohort B is mostly upperclassmen. It is a little different working on A days versus B days but we are still doing the same music with both halves.”
Luckily, the orchestras have ended up with a fairly even distribution of instruments, meaning that no orchestra is overwhelmed by high-pitched screeches of violins or drowned out by the deep resonance of basses.
Regarding the pandemic’s effect on different grade levels, Ms. Varonko remarked that the sixth graders never got to have a true “orchestra experience.” To them, all these changes have always been there from the start.
The music department is making an effort in getting Cohort C kids included. They stream their practicing online, still have auditions, and still must do their “Wednesday Work.” Lately with the cold weather, their instruments have been very out of tune, so the staff has taught them how to tune over Zoom. If an instrument gets too out of hand, students can send them over to the school for the teachers to fix themselves.
When asked about the biggest hurdles the orchestras are facing now, Ms. Varonko answered that keeping the kids motivated is a big challenge. “…and keeping myself motivated too,” she laughs.
When the usefulness of online tools were questioned, Ms. Varonko said that playing over Zoom is a difficult task. This is what prompted the music department to use websites such as SmartMusic more frequently. With SmartMusic, students can submit recordings from anywhere with ease.
The virus affected the music department outside of school hours just as much as in. For example, the staff were told that concerts cannot happen, so they experimented with a virtual live concert which took place outside under a tent. For co-curricular music groups, Ms. Varonko remembers how nearly everything was cancelled last year. Now, the musicians are slowly making a comeback. About three weeks ago, Ms. Varonko was able to teach private lessons in-person for the first time. “It was great, and weird,” she admitted. “I’ve gotten accustomed to teaching over Zoom.”
News has come out that school is coming back full-time on April 5th, and Ms. Varonko is prepared. Her current plan is to move orchestra classes into the band room starting in April. Since the band room is bigger, it is possible to fit all string students in maintaining the six feet of distance. Although Ms. Varonko is concerned about everyone’s safety, she is looking forward to having the orchestra back together. She thinks that it will be very beneficial for all of the groups to play as one big group. She has found that some cohorts have younger students, and they would really benefit from having the older students back with them.
Ms. Varonko continues to tackle every issue with optimism and looks forward to a safer and relaxed future with the orchestras. She hopes for more in-person interactions and having everyone back together when things are safe, “playing fun and challenging music like we always do.”