Music students keep their rhythm despite the unsteady beat of lockdown

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It’s not lockdown but the periods in between that have proved trickiest for Janine Pero, the director of music at Ringwood Secondary College.

Music is a big deal at the large government school in Melbourne’s east. Ms Pero heads a music program that involves 330 children playing in 16 jazz and classical ensembles.

Year 11 student Matthew Nolan plays percussion in a musical ensemble at Ringwood Secondary College. Credit:Luis Ascui

When Melbourne entered its second lockdown last year, Ms Pero feared it might spell the end for the school’s ensembles, which require students to commit a significant amount of their free time.

She went online to see what schools in the US and Britain were doing to keep their music programs going.

The picture wasn’t encouraging, with plenty of advice to concentrate on teaching online and let ensembles go until students could return.

“For us, it wasn’t a choice because we are an ensemble-driven program,” she says.

Ringwood’s students have met on Microsoft Teams to play together in lockdown. It’s not slick, but it’s effective in keeping the program going, Ms Pero says.

Ringwood students rehearse together online.

“It was a matter of keeping the kids engaged, otherwise you come back and you don’t have a program. It’s working OK online. If anything, our kids have really knuckled down and they’re having to take a lot of responsibility for their playing and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.”

But playing when schools are open has brought the new challenge of complying with health authorities’ guidelines to avoid the spread of COVID-19 via aerosol generation.

Last year, when Melbourne emerged from its 112-day lockdown, education authorities banned singing, brass and woodwind on school grounds, drawing protests from music teachers. This year the ban has been lifted and replaced with detailed guidelines on density limits, room ventilation and instrument hygiene that make schools go to great lengths to play music.

One of Ringwood Secondary College’s 16 ensembles rehearsing on the school oval earlier this year.

Instruments have been categorised as “high” (trumpet, bass, trombone, oboe), “intermediate” (bassoon, piccolo, flute, French horn) and “low” risk (tuba).

In Ringwood’s case, this has meant splitting its ensembles into separate rooms, putting some students indoors and others outdoors, with some even streaming remotely.

“If anything, it made the second lockdown seem easy,” Ms Pero says.

It’s also meant keeping irregular hours.

For year 11 student and ensemble percussionist Matthew Nolan, keeping up with his music in lockdown has meant forsaking one of the few benefits of remote learning: a midweek sleep-in.

“It’s a bit brutal. I have to get up at 6.30 and be there at 7.15 on the dot.”

There were days when the effort didn’t seem worth it.

“I think a lot of people have probably had to dig deep a little bit. Sometimes you have a bit of a rough patch and maybe lose a bit of motivation,” Matthew says. “But I think overall everyone just pushed through and knew it was going to be better than just giving up.”

The students managed to come together once this year for a winter concert when the state was free of community transmission. Now in lockdown again, they are clinging to the hope of going on a scheduled band tour before the year is done.

Viv McPherson, a parent at Ringwood and a music teacher at Rowville Secondary College, says the school’s persistence with its music program has preserved a critical point of connection for some students. “For many of them, it’s the reason they turn up to school, so it’s essential to keep it going for their wellbeing and for their literacy and numeracy,” she says.

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