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‘These kids just really want to be singing’

Grandville — Aliyah Garner and Giada Musa get very excited when talking about choir at Grandville Middle School. The two eighth-graders have been singing under the direction of teacher Rachel Niewiada for several years. Both mourned its loss in the spring, and both are thrilled to be back doing what they love. 

But choir rehearsals in the age of COVID-19 have a very different look and feel. 

For Aliyah, who returned to in-person learning, it means having to move from the choir room into the wide expanse of the school auditorium, trying to hear her socially-distanced classmates while singing through a mask. 

And for Giada, who is learning virtually but attending classes synchronously, it means singing alone in her bedroom, trying to keep time with the on-screen Niewiada’s direction despite occasional internet connection lags. 

None of it diminishes their enthusiasm for the music. 

Choir teacher Rachel Niewiada directs a song from the auditorium stage while her students sing along from their seats and at home

“Choir is so fun – it’s a blast, and even with all the precautions we need to take, the best part is still being able to sing,” said Aliyah. “Because a lot of stuff has been canceled or postponed, I’m happy to have one thing that we were able to overcome. I play volleyball and soccer too, but I wasn’t able to play for, like, almost all of quarantine … So I’m just like, ‘yes, I can actually do one of these things that I love.’ And I feel like I’m speaking for a lot of other people on that, too.”

That students like Aliyah and Giada are able to sing in school at all this year is a testament to hard work and research by Niewiada and her fellow music teachers in the district, as well as educators and scientists nationwide. As medical understanding of the novel coronavirus and its spread grew this spring, so too did reports of choirs being a vector due to aerosol particles that are generated while singing. 

Determined to bring back singing in a safe manner, Niewiada made changes to her classes based on best practices by fellow teachers, including masking and moving to the auditorium in order to socially distance.

She also followed recommendations from a Colorado-based aerosols study for musicians that took place this summer. The study recommended a room’s ventilation system conduct at least three air changes per hour (ACH), so Niewiada spoke with an engineer to confirm the auditorium was in compliance. (In fact, its system makes six ACHs per hour among the seats.) The study also found that aerosols began traveling farther after singing for 30 minutes. So, despite a class time of 47 minutes, Niewiada keeps to a strict limit of 30 minutes of singing time. 

“It was a lot of research and a lot of changes, but we had to make sure we did everything in the best interest of students,” said Niewiada, who teaches two sections each of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade choirs, as well as a musical theater class. 

“I think it’s so impressive just how well they’ve adapted. I really thought there was going to be a lot of pushback about wearing a mask, specifically singing with masks, but choir is an elective and these kids just really want to be singing. They’re going to do what they have to do to be a part of this community.”

Speaking from an in-person perspective, Aliyah said masks have helped the student singers learn more about articulation, since words can get muffled under layers of fabric. They’ve also been able to experiment more with different types of breathing and have learned that taking quicker, shorter breaths before the next phrase helps to keep the masks out of their mouths. 

Both Aliyah and her teacher agree that the biggest challenge they’re facing is being able to hear one another in the largeness of the auditorium.

“Instead of half volume you need to sing at, like, 110% volume to be able to hear each other, because you have to social distance and you need to fill up all that space that’s there,” said Aliyah. “Sometimes you’ll get nervous, and sometimes you feel like you’re the only person singing. But once you get over that, it’s completely fine. I feel like everyone’s trying their very, very best and eventually we’ll be able to fill up the entire space.”

Distance-Plus

The challenges facing remote learners are compounded. With about 20% of each choir class attending remotely, Niewiada has gone to great lengths to keep them connected. Using an iPad attached to a tripod, she carries her remote students with her everywhere she goes – from stretches in the auditorium to vocal warm-ups at the piano to directing both sets of students from the stage. The remote students are kept on mute, but Niewiada keeps an eye on the chat feature while directing or playing the piano, to make sure she doesn’t miss a question. 

I’m just like, ‘yes, I can actually do one of these things that I love.’ ”

— Grandville Middle School eighth-grader Aliyah Garner

Alone in her bedroom, Giada said it can be “kind of awkward and weird” to sing by herself, especially because the iPad speakers aren’t close enough to pick up the sounds of her classmates singing in the auditorium. If her internet connection lags, she has to close out of the program, reconnect and try to figure out where the class is in the song. 

But this new approach to choir has had a few benefits as well. 

“I’m kind of glad I’m alone because I can actually hear my own voice better,” said Giada. “Sometimes last year I couldn’t really tell when I was too low or high or off pitch, so it might be better to be online because I can hear myself way more clearly. And sometimes it’s good for me to not be by my friends because I can get a little distracted.

“Even though it’s weird to sing to myself, I’m getting used to it,” she added. “I love singing and even through the bad times of it, I still want to sing and I still want to learn how to do things with my voice.”

Singing Out, Checking In

After their 30 minutes of singing is up, Niewiada uses the extra minutes left in class to share “Good Newses” – an opportunity for the in-person and virtual students to connect and talk about neat things going on in their lives. At a time when many students are struggling or feel isolated, Niewiada said it’s become an important element of class. 

“It really helps to spend a bit of time focusing on their health and their emotions,” she said. “Checking in with each other is clearly very important right now. And music is all about community to begin with, so we might as well start establishing that. If kids don’t feel comfortable with each other, they’re not going to sing.”

When the time comes to perform the songs they’ve been working on, Niewiada plans to have each student record themselves singing their part for each song. Then she’ll edit all of the videos together so that everyone will be able to hear the full choir, singing together at last. 

“Kids need the arts, especially now,” said Niewiada. “It’s just really a great community to have, and it gives them a sense of belonging. So we’re making it work.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio or email Beth.

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