In-person rehearsals are finally back at high schools, and student musicians are thrilled

High school campuses have remained quiet over the past 12 months, but now there’s music in the air once again.

While students soon returning to classrooms and the reinstatement of high school sports have dominated the headlines in the last month, other students have also been allowed back on campus to participate in extracurricular activities.

Earlier this month, music programs received approval from the Long Beach Unified School District to resume outdoor rehearsals on campus, bringing together groups of students eager for the chance to rehearse with each other again.

“It was like Christmas, Disneyland, the first day of school, and the last day of school all rolled into one,” said Wilson High Musical Theater teacher Paula Riley. “It just felt great. I can’t even explain it. It was such a unique and bizarre experience.”

Riley is in her fourth year at Wilson and has been a longtime choir teacher throughout the city. She was able to hold an outdoor rehearsal with her students on March 9, finally providing them with their first in-person instruction after 51 weeks apart. Riley recalls the excitement from her students, who made sure to confirm that they were not expected to wear their school uniforms to rehearsal.

“They dressed up as cute as they could. Everyone looked like a fashion icon,” Riley said with a laugh. “They were so excited to see each other and look cute.”

Music students at Wilson High School rehearse outdoors. Photo courtesy Paula Riley.

During the first week of rehearsals, Riley had 27 students participating. Then as word spread among the students via group chats and social media about how much fun the rehearsals were, the number of attendees rose to 35 the next week—more than half of the students in Wilson’s musical theater classes.

“It was a wonderful surprise to know that the district had approved us to go back,” said Wilson senior Kaylee Brubaker. “Whether we’re inside or outside, performance classes are just not the same over Zoom. To be able to go back and hear everyone’s voices again, it was a really energizing moment. It was just nice to see real people. I think that’s what I was missing so much was that real connection.”

Senior Brynn Anderson shared that sentiment. After a year of distance learning, she said it was an emotional experience to be back around her classmates again.

“Online school throughout this whole year has been awful,” Anderson said. “My teachers are great and the school is trying so hard, but sitting in my room all day and staying in my room to work on homework on my computer is just draining. I feel this new energy and I’m pumped up. It’s a complete 180 from what I was feeling before. It’s making it feel like finally we’re getting somewhere. I had no hope for anything to happen this year after we’d been progressing so slowly, and this gave me hope.”

Anderson said one of her close friends in class started crying as soon as they walked through Wilson’s playhouse. It had been a year since they’d been in there together, and that temporary return to their lives before COVID-19 elicited a flood of emotions.

“Being able to go back after all this time, honestly I was kind of nervous because I take (the virus) very seriously, and I don’t go out much at all,” said Anderson. “So being able to see my friends that I have not seen in forever, you felt the love. You felt the energy and excitement to be back.”

There were safety measures in place, with all students wearing masks, having their temperatures checked and maintaining social distancing.

Wilson ASB President Dylan Bernstein is a member of both the musical theater program and the orchestra, which has been organizing socially distant group rehearsals at the park. For the first time in almost a year, the musicians can actually work together and form a cohesive sound, rather than playing their parts individually at home.

“Being out in the park, it’s been our one time to really be an orchestra again,” explained Bernstein. “Because without playing together, you only hear your part. I play bass, so I never have the melody, and without those cues the music becomes a little dull. We’re not fitting in with anyone, we’re not being an orchestra, we’re not harmonizing. To be in person, to see the other instruments, it’s nice.

“You’re with friends that you haven’t been able to see and you get to make music with them again. It’s pretty special,” she said. “It’s an experience that I used to take for granted and now I don’t anymore.”

Earlier this week, the LBUSD issued more specific guidance for music programs holding rehearsals on campus. All rehearsals that include singing or playing of wind instruments must be held outdoors, and the school district will be supplying bell covers lined with a MERV-13 filter for those instruments. Musicians will also receive a slitted-cloth face mask to wear while playing, and the district is supplying specialized masks for singers as well. Rehearsals with string instruments may be conducted indoors with mask-wearing and 6-foot social distancing procedures in place.

Furthermore, as schools prepare to reopen for in-person instruction, students participating in on-campus rehearsals must have a parent or guardian sign a consent waiver to participate in those activities. According to LBUSD spokesperson Chris Eftychiou, larger scale outdoor rehearsals will likely be held on high school campuses once schools resume in-person learning—beginning April 19 for high school seniors, April 20 for middle school, and April 26 for grades 9-11.

Riley’s class will continue rehearsals in preparation for an outdoor concert production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid,” which is tentatively scheduled for June 4-5. But whenever that show ends up taking place, Riley and her students are just grateful to be together again for now.

“The good thing is, this has all made us more flexible and taught us to not have weird expectations,” Riley said. “It’s completely freeing. It’s taken the pressure off of having a perfect performance and put it on what I think is most important, and that’s us being together, making music together and having fun.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct Brynn Anderson’s last name.

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