"My dog, Bella (a Chinese crested powderpuff), howls when I play (at home), and it's really cute, but also kind of annoying," seventh-grade clarinetist Laney Peterfreund confessed with a giggle. "I think she just really wants to be part of the music."
As the COVID-19 pandemic curtailed — and in some cases, eliminated — opportunities for Dalton Middle School band members to play together at school during the past year, students and teachers have had to adjust to practicing more at home and lessons over Zoom. Dalton Public Schools closed buildings for the final two months of the 2019-20 academic year, numerous students are learning virtually this year, and others have had to be virtual learners — at least for brief periods — due to positive COVID-19 tests and/or quarantines for possible exposure.
"This year is definitely going to go down as one of the strangest and most challenging years, for sure," said Daisy Cardona-Kay, Dalton Middle School's band director. "We've had to adapt (to) the unique challenges that have presented themselves, (but are continuing) to provide our students with a creative outlet through music."
Though this year "has been so crazy, I can't wait for our (public performances) so everyone can see our perseverance," said seventh-grader Andrea Marsh. "We're going to sit and do what we love: play our instruments."
Students in grades seven and eight will present their spring concert in the school's gym Tuesday at 6 p.m., while students in grade six will perform at the same time in the same place May 13.
"It'll be fun to show what we've been working on," Peterfreund said. "I love (playing) in a group, how (music) can sound one way on its own, but sound really good all together."
Joshua Pena-Zaldivar is likewise "excited, because I can show off my efforts," said the seventh-grader. "I'm definitely looking forward" to those opportunities.
"There had been talk (of potential performances and/or competitions), but it seemed more of a rumor," Marsh said. When Cardona-Kay broke the news to students in late February that restrictions would be lifted, "I looked at my friends with those eyes like 'It's time.'"
"I'm very excited to be on stage again so people can see what we've accomplished," she added. "I know some people won't expect much (due to the circumstances of this year), but I hope we blow it out of the water, and I know we will."
Directors like Cardona-Kay are accustomed to "having our students every day," but as the middle school used a cohort model to limit possible transmission of COVID-19, "we only had them twice a week," she said. Daily band has returned this spring, but Wednesdays remain virtual days for all students in grades 6-12, so "we're still missing a day a week."
Cardona-Kay and assistant director Sara Webb also have to teach in-person students at the same time as online students, some of whom are full-time virtual learners, others of whom are doing so while home in quarantine.
"It's hard to teach online and in-person at the same time," Webb said. Consequently, they've split duties when possible, with one attending to in-person students and another working with virtual students.
"It's crazy, (as) I sit at my desk, and there's a computer screen full of kids, but I do think (everyone) will now appreciate being in an ensemble more, because they haven't had it," she said. "It's a privilege to play together."
Quarantines have been the worst part of band this year, both when a person is quarantined as well as when a fellow band member is quarantined, said Pena-Zaldivar, a trumpet player.
"It's hard when you're separated, and it kind of ruins the experience."
Zoom instruction for band is "limited," Webb acknowledged. For example, students can't play at the same time due to sound issues, so they have to play individually.
Band via Zoom is "surreal, because you can only hear yourself," said Marsh, who was a virtual student for the first six weeks of the school year due to parental concerns about COVID-19 before returning to in-person school in the seventh week. "There's something kind of lonely about it."
Playing and learning music via Zoom is ''hard, because you're not playing with everyone else, and you can't interact with the teachers as much" via Zoom as in a classroom, said Pena-Zaldivar, who was quarantined once this year. He also missed the camaraderie in the band room, as "everyone is like a family."
Marsh was grateful to return to in-person school because "at home all the time, that was it," she said. "It was where I worked, ate, slept," etc.
"I missed being with my friends and classmates, and I missed the routine," she said. "I even missed getting up early in the morning to come to school."
Zoom students receive playing assignments from Cardona-Kay and Webb, said the latter.
"We can give them individual feedback so they can continue to grow as musicians."
Cardona-Kay and Webb "are so supportive" of online students, Marsh said. "They give us assignments, and I loved getting critiques from them, (because) it showed how much they care."
The pandemic also took a bite out of band participation this year, especially among those in sixth grade, Cardona-Kay said.
"On average, we have about 200 sixth-graders, but this year, we're short of 100."
"It's a combination of the fact we weren't able to recruit last spring" as usual due to the pandemic, "parents not feeling safe about band, and the money side," she said. With COVID-19's damaging impact on the economy, "some parents weren't comfortable" paying to buy, rent or lease instruments.
To avoid losing a grade of students, Dalton Public Schools will offer beginner band in seventh grade next school year for the first time, she said.
"We've never had beginner band in (any grade) but six."
And concerns about the safety of band proved unfounded, as "we've had zero student-to-student (COVID-19) transmission in the band program," she said. "Of course, we've had students test positive," but contact tracing revealed the source was somewhere other than the band room.
Musicians must wear masks except while playing, Cardona-Kay said. They've also placed various coverings on instruments as a COVID-19 precaution, which "has been a small adjustment for students because it's one more piece of equipment they have to keep up with every day."
Even when students didn't know if they'd be able to have public performances, motivation wasn't a problem, Webb said.
"We have great kids, and we also did a day in class where we recorded them, then watched the videos, so we've been able to critique and hold them accountable."
It is "fun to go to competitions and (have) performances, but I wasn't less motivated, because (Cardona-Kay and Webb) got me excited," Peterfreund said. "They make it happy and really fun."
She's also self-motivated with her instrument.
"Clarinet is really fun, and I love playing," she said. "I keep playing because I enjoy it, and I want to get better."
Marsh is grateful for her time virtual learning, because it taught her "how to be self-sufficient," she said. "It made me stronger, because I learned how to be more responsible."
Marsh's father, a music teacher and musician, would take her to see school band performances when she was young, and she knew she wanted to be in band, too, she said. She enjoys the flute because "it adds so much to the band," making any number "seem so much lighter."
"It sounds angelic, and it looks fancy," she added with a giggle. "Maybe I'm just a fancy (girl)."