If this were a normal year, the marching band at Farmington High School would be in the middle of a busy season of competitions and performances at football games. Choirs at Albert Lea High School would be readying for the first concert of the school year. Students in Minneapolis' Roosevelt High School world drumming class would be in a classroom, learning to play steel drums.

But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, music programs in Minnesota schools look — and sound — very different.

The competitions and concerts are off. Those who attend choir class in person stand 6 feet apart to join in song, their voices muffled by face masks. Band members fit their instrument mouthpieces through specially designed masks, wear gloves to play percussion instruments, and attend class outdoors, or in the school cafeteria or gym. And instead of gathering together to play music, many students are at home, tapping their drumsticks or playing the trombone to teachers and bandmates on a computer screen.

Katy Linné, the band director at Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis, is teaching her classes online, including those for students picking up an instrument for the very first time. She said it is working so far, and students seem eager. But it's hard to replicate the camaraderie — and the sometimes earsplitting sounds — that come with teaching kids to play music together.

"It's hard to keep from tearing up sometimes, wishing you could hear a really bad B-flat concert scale," she said.

Of the many challenges schools and educators face this fall, figuring out how to safely teach, sing and play music is among the most complex. Many music teachers spent the summer parsing the special guidelines for music activities and performances issued by national and state agencies, including the Minnesota Department of Health, and reading studies examining the spread of virus particles during musical performances.

Some of the recommendations from the state: Keep musicians at least 6 feet apart (or 9 feet if they play the trombone); have brass and woodwind players put special coverings on the ends of their instruments; shorten rehearsal times and limit groups to 25.

Spread out, wearing masks

At Farmington High School, the 155-member marching band spent the summer practicing in groups of 10 for a season that consisted of a single major event: a onetime performance for family members. Band classes are limited to 30-minute rehearsals so the air in the room can be refreshed with the medical-grade air purifier the school district bought for the band room.

Forest Lake Area High School band students play in the gymnasium, scattered across the bleachers. The middle school band is playing outside, for now, waiting for the delivery of special instrument covers meant to prevent the spread of aerosolized particles of the virus.

In Edina, middle school bands are also playing outdoors, as long as the weather holds. At the high school, students spread out in the band room, wearing masks, and are not allowed to share instruments. There are rules about hand washing and sanitizing equipment and marked paths for moving to and from class.

Still, Edina High School band director Geneva Fitzsimonds said students are eager to participate.

"Kids have been really receptive," she said. "I think they just want to make music with each other — they're doing everything we ask."

Diane Heaney, vocal music director at Albert Lea High School in southern Minnesota, said her students say they're glad to have music classes again, though the situation is far from ideal. Singing — and teaching others to sing — while wearing a mask can be a struggle, she said.

"When you sing with a mask, you can only hear yourself," she said. "You think you are singing loud and … it's really not fun."

Hybrid in harmony

In schools operating under a hybrid schedule, bands and choirs are rehearsing with half their members one day and the other half the next. Plus, most schools also have student musicians who have opted for full-time distance learning.

Maria Wilson, who teaches choir at Northdale Middle School in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, has nine different sections of choir, split between students at school and at home. For her largest class, she's simultaneously teaching 17 students singing in person, plus 27 more at home.

Last spring, when schools abruptly shifted to distance learning, Wilson said joining all her students together in harmony, virtually, seemed like a tall order. But she spent the summer figuring out how to make distance-learning choir work.

"Last year, 50 kids on a Google Meet, singing together, just didn't seem like something that was plausible," she said. "But now I actually would have my kids sing on a Google Meet."

At Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, Adrian Davis is teaching a variety of music classes remotely, including drum line and choir. He uses technology to allow students to play and sing together, whether it's in call-and-response exercises with his drum students, or in programs that allow students to record their own beats.

Having to give up some of the hands-on instruction has also provided more time for (virtual) classroom discussion on many subjects, with music as a starting point. Davis said that's particularly important in such an eventful year, and for students at a school near the site of George Floyd's death and the unrest that followed it.

"Music is naturally that social-change agent," he said. "It provides a safe connection to [talk about] what's going on in our world, what's going on in our neighborhood."

Some music teachers said they worry that districts could look to their programs for cuts because of pandemic-related budget shortfalls, or because school leaders may think it's too complicated for students to safely participate in band or choir. Bradley Mariska, band director at Farmington High School, said the strange times of the moment should call for the opposite response.

"The arts are vital to humanity and personal expression, and music and art are things that cannot be replaced and cannot be taken away," he said. "They are one of the most pure and true forms of human expression, and we need them in times of difficulty more than ever."