CALGARY -- Boasting the largest music program in the city, Western Canada High School in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood is preparing to resume rehearsals while adapting to the new pandemic reality.

Alberta Education has outlined its back to school strategy amid the COVID-19 outbreak and will distribute two masks to each student and teacher.

Instruments that can be played with a mask on, such as percussion and strings, will be spaced out in the band room as they had in years past, but for the instruments in the wind and brass section that require breath, high school band will look very different. 

“Students will be taking their instruments home and they will be doing a lot of live-action playing at home,” said Brendan Hagan, learning leader of fine and performing arts and director of bands for WCHS.

Incoming Grade 12 student Elaine Gentleman has been playing the French horn for five years, but will not be able to play it live on campus with the ensemble next month.

“I’ll be sad that I can’t play it here but I will definitely be playing it at home and making sure that when we can, that I’ll be ready,” she said.

That doesn’t mean she’ll be sitting out completely.

She and other students that require embouchure to play their instruments will be provided drum sticks and a rhythm pad to “tap” along their parts.

Hagan will also teach conducting, to allow students a better understanding of how he’s been leading the music groups at Western for nearly a decade.

His classes will also include more of an emphasis on the study of music and how it's used to score film and television among other things.

“It’s going to provide a deeper layer of understanding of music,” said Hagan.

"(This will be) really important so that students stay engaged and excited about what they’re doing as we head into the year with day-to-day things changing.” 

Technology as teaching tools

Private music teachers quickly pivoted to online video sessions last March, and expect they will continue to assist with high school band music. 

“We want to keep our kids playing as much as possible while this (pandemic) is happening,” said Amanda Kinnear, who teaches clarinet and saxophone.

She’s begun utilizing a video editing tool have students play multiple parts of a music piece — in essence recording a duet with themselves — which she says has been a helpful tool.

Hagan also expects recordings and uploads to the school’s software platform will help with grading and instruction.

The high school has already utilized a web music program that is expected to return in September.

“It’s kind of like karaoke for us, we play our parts and have the sheet music and can listen to the rest of the band playing which was really cool but we never actually play together but it was as good as it could get,” said Gentleman.

As for vocal instruments, plans for choir are still yet to be determined, says Hagan. 

According to Alberta’s government website, “singing is a high-risk activity because infected people can transmit the virus through their saliva or respiratory droplets.”

There were 330 students in the band program at Western Canada High School in the last academic year.