Musicians barred from regular shows get creative during COVID-19

COVID-19 measures have made the world a little quieter, as public health measures limit large-scale performances for bands, choirs and musicians, but some Manitoba musicians are finding ways to keep the music going.

At Oak Park High School in Winnipeg, students can’t sing ‘O’ Canada’ in the classroom, but band practice is still going on. It’s just being held outside.

“The goal is to try and have as many extracurriculars go forward as possible,” Principal Troy Scott told CTV News. “We’ve had to say no to a lot of things over the last six months and we want to start saying yes.”

The pandemic has changed the way music programs function.

Many schools have cancelled choir and band classes, but even on windy days, teachers and students at Oak Park have found a way to keep playing together, at least for now.

“It’s been strange, but I’m really grateful that we have it,” said Isabelle Buisson, a student at Oak Park.

Others have found more unique ways to play.

Kara Heckford, a 17-year-old high school student and clarinetist, decided to start a virtual ensemble because she missed performing.

After she put out a call for help online, she received responses from around the world, with musicians from countries including Spain, Estonia and Portugal signaling their desire to be a part of the project.

Musicians recorded their own parts of several symphonies, which were then edited together to create videos of the ensemble working together.

“Performing is my life. When I play, I really connect with people I play to,” Heckford told CTV News. “It’s sort of like this bond, but with people you’ve never met before.”

Musical performances are one of those bonding experiences that have been fundamentally altered by the pandemic, and as the months drag on, some are calling for change.

The Manitoba Choral Association (MCA) started a petition requesting the provincial government review its recommendations for instrumentalists and vocalists, calling the existing measures too restrictive for choirs. The Manitoba ChoralFest, one of the MCA’s “flagship programs,” had to be cancelled in August ahead of its upcoming November dates, something the MCA announced with “great sadness.”

“We have thousands of singers here in Manitoba that would love to get back to choir, and of course, we all want to do it safely,” Jenny Steinke-Magnus, executive director of the Manitoba Choral Association, told CTV News.

Right now, the COVID-19 guidelines in Manitoba state singing and playing brass or wind instruments carries a higher risk of transmission, due to performers projecting their voices or breath as part of the performance. Performances are allowed, but the province recommends they occur in smaller groups, at outdoor venues where physical distancing is possible.

But with cool weather setting in, outdoor performances will soon become impossible.

The Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, which had been doing virtual performances, will begin live performances again this fall.

In order to make the experience safer, a significantly smaller audience will be permitted into their concert hall, which seats 2,300 people at capacity.

“We’re able to have a really reduced number of audience members,” Julian Pellicano, WSO associate conductor told CTV News.

For those who love to play, the music will continue. The question going forward into winter is whether or not the audience will be able to participate in the same way. 

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