Ukuleles and drums keep the music playing at Bay City Central High School

Students at Bay City Central High School are trading in their wind instruments for string instruments.

Playing the wind instruments ­– such as clarinets, saxophones, and tubas ­– requires removing face masks. In the beginning of the year, band class moved outside. That’s not practical as the winter weather forces band class back into the building. So instead, Band Director Kristy Keenan raised money to buy ukuleles that can be played indoors while the students and teachers wear masks.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on most industries. It has forced businesses to adapt to curbside pickup and delivery, put students and employees on new work-from-home schedules and turned almost every event into a virtual meetup. It’s also changed music instruction in the schools. (Read how Handy Middle School adapted its band program during the pandemic.)

Although schools in the area went back in person as of late October, it returned to the online format from Nov. 11 through Jan. 19 earlier this week. Even before that switch, some activities had already completely changed from what they used to look like. Keenan faces the challenge of restructuring the band program around new COVID-19 guidelines.

“We’re planning on being outside as long as the weather allows us. I’m hoping we can make it through Thanksgiving outside,” Keenan says. Indoor music options are limited due to mask mandates. “We can play percussion instruments. We just can’t sing or play wind instruments right now because the health department is deeming that unsafe.”

Keenan’s solution to the problem is to introduce a completely new family of instruments to most of her students. “One way we can keep making music that is pretty inexpensive is ukuleles.”

Her goal isn’t to outfit the entire ensemble with new ukuleles, but to split the class in half. In her plan, “half the class would be doing bucket drumming for about 3 or 4 weeks while the other half of the class is doing ukuleles and then we would sanitize everything and switch groups.”

For most Bay City Central students, this will be a completely new endeavor, Keenan says “Some kids have their own ukuleles and they are part of ukulele club after school” but this will be the first time most of them have tried their hand at any type of string instrument.

“We just want to keep making music in some way. I think it’s important because students need a chance to connect to each other. That’s what a lot of us don’t have right now because everybody is trying to stay so isolated from everyone else. [Music] provides that connection to each other.”

In a few days, Keenan raised more than $3,000 to buy the ukuleles. The goal of the Donors Choose fundraiser was to have the ukuleles fully funded by Nov, 30 when the students will move inside due to cold weather.

The description of the fundraiser states that “One of the main reasons students are in band is to make music but our current budget doesn’t allow for us to outfit the band with ukuleles.” This fundraiser would help them do so.

Keenan emphasizes that “This is our in-person solution. If they’re at home, they can play their instrument, no problem. I don’t want the kids sitting there [during in-person class] on the computer doing theory lessons. That’s not what they signed up for. They signed up to make music.”

As far as concerts for parents and community members, Keenan isn’t sure what that will look like yet. “I don’t know if we’ll be able to have [in-person] concerts. We’ll definitely do something where we’re playing and we can stream that live or record it and send it out.” While performance is an important part of music education, the ability to safely make music in the classroom during the school day is the main priority for the time being


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