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News / Northwest

Washington choir instructors say students still recovering from the pandemic’s ‘devastating’ effects on music

By Roberta Simonson, The Spokesman-Review
Published: February 4, 2024, 5:13am

SPOKANE — When Nicole Lamartine, the director of choirs at Central Washington University, adjudicated about 250 Northwest choirs in the spring of 2023, she noticed an interesting pattern.

“When students sing in the choir, their heads jut forward,” she said. “When the head juts forward, it changes the singing sound, and so when we realign the body so that the head is more in alignment with the spine, we get a richer, warmer, more mature sound, which is what we’re all after.”

She surmised the trend is yet another aftereffect of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We spent two years staring into our computers with our heads forward trying to communicate on Zoom and do all of our work through the computer, so that alignment of the body feels normal for the students,” she said.

Lamartine spoke with her dentist about another phenomenon that she said is affecting how choirs sing.

“My dentist has seen more people with cracked teeth in the last three years than ever before in their career. What happens is that people are really stressed out and they clench their jaws at night, and so the muscle that connects the jaw to the skull, the masseter muscle, gets really, really tight, and that also creates a really tight sound in the choir, which is exacerbated by the head jutting forward,” she said.

Lamartine was one of about 400 music educators in Spokane last week for the American Choral Directors Association’s biannual convention in Spokane. While there, she gave a lecture titled “And we’re back… now… teach them how to SING,” where she spoke about trends she has seen while evaluating choirs and offered exercises educators can use to address them.

“These trends that I saw, I think were pretty fixable as it were, and I wanted to offer real concrete tools for the teachers to change some of the things that were trends in the sound,” she said.

The four-day event featured performances by more than 20 choirs and gave hundreds of choral students and educators the chance to gather and share resources and knowledge.

The 2024 convention was the first time the event was back in full without pandemic restrictions, and attendees were glad to be back. But regional music educators say their choir programs and students are still recovering from the affects of the pandemic.

“I had upwards of 80 kids in my program, and when we got to go back part-time, I went down to about 30,” said Kristy Sorce, director of choirs at Lewis and Clark High School. “I’ve just been slowly rebuilding, and I have 70 in the program now, so we’re getting there.”

LC sent three students to the convention this year — and that’s a win. But four years ago, the school would have sent 15 to 20, Sorce said.

Sorce said choir classes had a hard time transitioning to online when schools closed in 2020, and lasting restrictions, like singing 6 feet apart and wearing “duck bill masks,” discouraged many students from joining later on.

“It was devastating,” Sorce said. “Nobody wants to sing in front of a camera.”

Mathew Johnson, director of choirs at Ferris High School, had the same experience with his students.

“It was not fun, because one of the main reasons people get together in these ensemble classes is to be together, and then when you take that away, it becomes a much different situation,” he said.

Johnson said involvement in Ferris’ choir program is at pre-pandemic levels, but “that’s not the norm. A lot of schools had a huge dip and haven’t been able to have that bounce back yet.”

Sorce said more than just the numbers, these restrictions added to the isolation felt by students.

“When you’re isolated, you feel like you’re singing a solo. And yeah, some of these kids are solo kids, but most of them aren’t. They just want to sing in a group,” she said.

Lamartine believes mental health impacts from that isolation still affect choir students.

“There was a real apprehension (after returning to in-person), but a real hunger to be together and to make music together, and I think that’s what we’ve been working through for the last two years, because I think there still is some apprehension,” she said.

“The big missing piece for me is not so much the musical training or musical experience, but it’s the life skills and the mental health issues. I just see so many students not able to cope,” Lamartine said. “That’s really hard, because as musicians, we really train our students to be vulnerable together so that we make the best communicative music together, and when we can’t be vulnerable together, the music is stunted.”

Ferris High School senior Mia Kubicek’s first introduction to singing in a choir was during the pandemic.

“I watched my sister before COVID when she was in (Ferris’s jazz choir) before me, and so I kind of knew what it was like, but it was very weird, having such a different setup than I pictured,” she said.

Kubicek remembers attending choir class via zoom at 9 a.m. every school day while the rest of her family was still asleep.

“Sometimes, I admit, I would pretend to sing because I wouldn’t want to wake up my family with my freshman voice that was a little rough at the time,” Kubicek.

Students would sing with their microphones on mute because the system couldn’t communicate sound simultaneously.

Mahana Richards, a junior at LC, has been singing in choirs since third grade but took a two-year hiatus during the pandemic.

“When COVID came, it kind of just tore us all apart, because it’s hard to make music without people being in direct contact with you,” she said.

Richards joined choir again as a freshman in high school, when restrictions remained.

“I definitely was a little bit lost, because, like, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” she said. “But once I got into the music program at LC, everything just kind of came back. I think my voice was just a little tired and didn’t know what was happening.”

Richards said the convention was the biggest performance she’s ever had.

“Being able to sing in a choir with 130 girls and to be able to work with that kind of caliber of music … was probably some of the best moments of creating music in my life. I’ll definitely never forget it,” she said.

Sorce said she enjoyed watching students perform again.

“It was powerful, just the strength, the volume, the passion these kids have,” she said.

Though LC’s choir program is still rebuilding, Sorce said it was nice being around people who have gone through the same recovery with their students.

“I think this is one of the first years all of us really feel like we’re coming back.”

Roberta Simonson’s reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.

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