I parked in the front bus lane and jogged up to the main office, tailing the building service manager, who smiled (I think) from behind his face mask and waved me in. As an instrumental director, I’ve spent plenty of time in my empty school building: quiet mornings before the sunrise for a marching band competition, sticky summer afternoons performing instrument maintenance before professional development has begun, and thankful silent nights as the last one to leave after school musical rehearsal. I knew the building would be empty, but this time was different.
I felt surprisingly uneasy, pausing before pulling the handle on the music wing door, and quickly covered my hand in my jacket sleeve. Hundreds of excited, happy, and loud music students would pull that handle each day in anticipation of their band, orchestra, choir, guitar, or music theory classes. Today, however, the whole building was shrouded in uncertain silence, save for the hum of the set of classroom speakers I had forgotten to unplug. There was an oppressive sadness in the building I hadn’t felt before, as if every corner of the half-darkened building was yearning to be filled again with sound, and knew it would not happen anytime soon. I filled the water tank quickly and set the humidifier to one of the lowest settings to ration its use, thankful that the turn for warmer weather would bring more humid air.
After turning out the lights and taking one final look back, I couldn’t help but think about the things that will change before we report to school “normally” again. We don’t know when we will be back, and we don’t know how learning will look between now and then. We don’t know whom we will lose; how many of my students would return knowing someone who had succumbed to the disease? With all that is happening, I’m fretting about a tank of water?
It’s a humidifier. They’re cellos. I’m just a music teacher. Public schools are scrambling to ensure students are fed, let alone educated. Healthcare workers are doing all they can to prepare for a surge of patients and terrible triage choices. People are dying. Was it pointless for me to go out to do this? In what universe could filling a water tank for a few cellos possibly matter during a time of pandemic?
I’ve wrestled with these thoughts and others since I returned home and washed my hands, wiped down my newly acquired Chromebook, then washed my hands again. I’ve been frustrated that the continuity of instruction in the arts for our students seems to have not been thought of by the decision-makers in a time when we are all turning to art to fill all of the time we suddenly have. Then again, I understand it all; the well-being of our students, physically and mentally, is more important than anything I think we can teach online in a time like this. But still, as teachers rushed into the building with the forty-five-minute limit ticking away, I was there for a tank of water.
I have determined that it is ridiculous, this filling of a humidifier in a time like this. But it is only for today. As we are confined, we see people around us turning to music to find connection and comfort in times of trial just as many before us have. While we are barred from gathering fifty students into my room to play, make music, and connect, we won’t be separated forever.
Someday we will go back to school. We will go back to packed hallways, loud voices, and to the sometimes bad hygiene that seems to come with the teenage years. We will stage musicals and plays where the audience isn’t sitting two chairs apart or watching through a screen. We will sit and collaborate face-to-face in a way that no distance learning can properly emulate or replace.
When we do, those cellos will be waiting for the music to resume.
Sign up for our monthly NewMusicBox newsletter
Rachel L. Sze is the Instrumental Music Director at Colonel Zadok A. Magruder High School, in Rockville, Maryland. She teaches band, orchestra, and AP Music Theory. In addition, she directs the Marching Colonels, Magruder’s Extra-Curricular Marching band. She also teaches with George N. Parks Drum Major Academy, and maintains an active euphonium studio.