MITCHELL, S.D. — A small group of students gathered recently for jazz ensemble practice at the Mitchell High School band room. They prepared their instruments, warmed up and set about rehearsing exercises and numbers as instrumental groups often do when they gather to practice.

This practice, however, looks a little different than past years. The obvious difference is that everyone in the room is wearing a face mask, something that appears foreign in an environment where playing an instrument involves using the mouth to propel air and sound through an instrument to make music.

Mitchell High School student James Payne adjusts his modified mask so he can play his trombone during practice on Monday afternoon in the MHS band room. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell High School student James Payne adjusts his modified mask so he can play his trombone during practice on Monday afternoon in the MHS band room. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“Things are just different,” said Ryan Stahle, longtime band instructor at Mitchell High School.

Safety procedures put in place since COVID-19 have changed the look of life in the school system. Marching band, for example, generally practices outdoors when possible, making it fairly easy to maintain the recommended 6 feet of social distancing and therefore does not require participants to wear a mask.

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“The difference for us when we’re outside is not drastic,” Stahle said. “One of the things we have to do is try to maintain a 6-foot-by-6-foot spacing around each musician, and in marching band that’s not necessarily that difficult.”

But eventually South Dakota weather and the change to concert band season will require those musicians to move indoors, as has already occurred with some smaller instrumental groups. When it is necessary to move indoors for practice, students must wear a mask, and that’s where a group of band parents stepped up to provide specialized masks that can accommodate wind instrument players.

Cindy Gerlach, left, and Dee Mutziger helped lead the initiative to make masks that could be worn while students in the band could still play their instruments. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Cindy Gerlach, left, and Dee Mutziger helped lead the initiative to make masks that could be worn while students in the band could still play their instruments. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Stahle approached some parents with the idea of making masks designed specifically to allow students to play instruments while wearing them.

“I just talked to parents about a month ago and said this is what we need to do. Could we potentially make these?” Stahle asked. “We have this wonderful group of supportive moms who went, yep, we’ll get it done. It was a matter of a couple weeks before they had over 180 masks to distribute.”

Denise Van Meter is one of those band parents who coordinated the sewing effort. As a parent dedicated to her child’s activities, she had made it clear to Stahle that she was willing to help out with band needs whenever she could.

“I’m a band geek mom. When my oldest started marching band, I just went to Ryan and said whatever you need, just let me know,” Van Meter said.

Stahl contacted her at the end of July about sewing enough masks with slits in the front that allow the wearer to play an instrument. Van Meter immediately set out to talk with fellow band parents and found she had a group of about a dozen volunteers ready to get to work.

Mitchell High School Drex Martinek wears a special mask modified to allow him to practice on Monday afternoon in the MHS band room. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Mitchell High School Drex Martinek wears a special mask modified to allow him to practice on Monday afternoon in the MHS band room. (Matt Gade / Republic)

“I went to my core group, and they were in,” Van Meter said.

Her group secured a pattern for the masks and sourced material from Spectacular Quilting in Mitchell. Soon, she had over a dozen volunteers working in a small group at the school or from home producing the specialized masks.

“We got going on that and had three work days and ended up with a little over 15 moms who sewed at home or met at the school and had a sewing party,” Van Meter said, noting that the volunteers sewed the masks while wearing masks of their own.

It was a concerted effort, with sewers of varying skills applying their talents where they were best suited.

“I can sew a straight line, iron and pin, but looking at the pattern? It was nice to sit down with the group and we could divide up the task. Some were devoted to sewing and some to cutting out,” Van Meter said. “It was really nice.”

Cindy Gerlach was another one of the volunteers who worked on the project, and noted the group was enthusiastic about being able to help out in an unusual situation. Ironically, in an era that requires social distancing, the project actually brought new and established band parents closer together.

“It was no problem getting help, and it was a great project to get us back together again, and to get some new parents involved is always a good thing. They can feel a part of it,” Gerlach said.

Zachary Van Meter wears his special masks modified to allow him to play his trumpet while practicing on Monday afternoon in the MHS band room. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Zachary Van Meter wears his special masks modified to allow him to play his trumpet while practicing on Monday afternoon in the MHS band room. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Stahle said the volunteer effort has allowed his students to continue to practice and perform while maintaining the safety factor that school officials are looking to foster this school year. And it also serves as a cost-savings measure. Some band supply outlets are selling similar masks for up to $10 per mask.

Adjusting to new ways

The masks are just one measure being taken to ensure the safety of students. Stahle noted band participants also utilize special covers that go over the bell of instruments to reduce outward airflow. All the music rooms used by the students also have HEPA filter exchanges, and the groups have access to large performance areas at the Performing Arts Center, where even moderately large groups can spread out to maximize social distancing.

Stahle said that while students and teachers are grateful to be back in the classroom, it has taken some time to adjust to the new protocols. The bell covers can change the tone of the instruments, and even for an experienced instrumentalist, playing through a mask can be odd.

“This is very foreign. I’ll attest to it personally having played saxophone with those kids, just the initial adapting to using it,” Stahle said. “The thing this year I’m impressed with is we threw the kids all of these processes and new stuff and they’re high school kids, so change can be difficult, but they’ve been really good.”