Music educators confront challenges brought on by pandemic

Acquiring masks for hundreds of students who participate in band, choral and string classes was a top priority last summer when “we started to hear, from around the country, that this was going to be the norm,” said James Popejoy, professor of music and director of bands at UND.

Dr. James Popejoy, director of bands and professor of music at UND, conducts the UND Wind Ensemble through a protective sheet of plexiglass in the age of COVID. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

For Dean Jilek, it’s all about the human face -- not being able to see his students’ faces is one of the toughest challenges to teaching music in these times of pandemic, according to the director of choral activities at UND.

“I miss not seeing my students smile. You see them smile with their eyes,” Jilek paused. “I often say, ‘I’m smiling right now.’ Because of their great work, I want them to see how full of gratitude I am for them singing for me.”

With everyone wearing a mask, it’s hard to convey appreciation, teacher and students, for one another.

“I wish they could see how happy and proud I am of them,” Jilek said.

To comply with UND and CDC public health guidelines, music teachers at every level of education have made adjustments to the way they teach. That involves adaptation at a level that challenges even the most experienced educators.


“I’ve told people this is my 40th year of teaching, but, in some ways, I feel like a first-year teacher again, because we’ve had to change and adapt to teach the same type of concepts and ideas we always have, but in a little bit different format,” said James Popejoy, professor of music and director of bands at UND.

Those changes include making sure students are six feet apart, that they wear masks and disinfect frequently touched surfaces. Plexiglas panels shield the director from the musicians; class length is limited to 30 minutes to allow ventilation systems to exchange the air.

Acquiring masks for hundreds of students who participate in band, choral and string classes was a top priority last summer when “we started to hear, from around the country, that this was going to be the norm,” Popejoy said.

Special masks

The UND music department hired local seamstresses to sew special masks for students who play musical instruments. The masks, which have a slit for the mouthpiece, reduce the spread of aerosols that are thought to carry the coronavirus. Bell covers also were needed for instruments -- such as the French horn, trombone, trumpet and tuba -- to cut down on aerosol emission.

For Jilek’s choral students, UND provided 100% cotton, washable “singers’ masks” with a commercial-grade, MERV13 filter. They are tightly woven so there’s no stretch in the material, he said.

One of the drawbacks to masks is that it’s more difficult to teach students how to sing a certain word or vowel, Jilek said.

“We have to describe rather than show," he said.

"The brilliance of the sound, the tone is probably dampened a little bit, but overall it was really surprising to me the amount of sound that I could still hear … I was very happy with the wonderful sounds that we can still create with the masks.”


Physical distancing in choral classes means that sometimes it’s harder to hear, especially singing, when standing farther apart from any singer, according to Jilek.

“It really teaches the students -- this is a positive -- teaches the student to be self-sufficient, to be independent apart, to practice on the outside. And it creates more confidence, then, in the end," he said.

Another cost of COVID is the fact that students are sometimes absent due to quarantine.

“Sometimes, I just miss kids in my rehearsal," said Jilek, noting that absent students use Zoom technology to participate. "With all the technology that UND has to offer us, it works."

Jilek credits the UND administration for a “fantastic job in containing the coronavirus,” he said.

“I am so full of gratitude for the University of North Dakota, because UND took steps immediately. I believe it was in May, we were in meetings and always discussing how we were going to handle things .... And here we are -- having concerts.”

Rehearsal for large groups

In Popejoy’s rehearsals with large bands, the seating of students, six feet apart, across the Chester Fritz Auditorium stage poses unique obstacles.

“The first challenge for me is to hear them, and for them even to see me,” said Popejoy, noting that he uses a headset microphone to “keep me from yelling in rehearsal,” which would add to the spread of aerosols.


The steps the music department has taken in response to COVID allowed “for the human interaction students desperately need,” said Popejoy, adding that for many of the students who play in UND ensembles, it is the only in-person class they attend.

He and other faculty members are intent on maintaining academic quality, despite the pandemic.

“We’re attempting to teach all of the same concepts that we normally do,” said Popejoy, noting that, though the situation “is not ideal,” maintaining study in the arts is worth the effort.

Rising to the challenge has helped students in “learning to adapt, learning to stay committed, learning to work together in multiple ways and not give up,” he said.

Grateful students

Because of the planning and measures taken, UND music directors have been able to hold in-person classes and perform in concert, with spectators -- and, more recently because of the rise in local COVID cases, via livestream technology.

“UND has really offered us (opportunities) that some universities are not getting,” Jilek said.

Katie Cermak, a sophomore who’s majoring in music performance, agrees.

“I think, despite all these precautions, I’m very glad to do it because I know, around the country and around the world, there are people who are not lucky enough to even be meeting for classes, period,” Cermak said. “So to be able to have this experience, I’m very grateful for that.”


For many of her fellow students, “whether they’re a music major or not, this is the most normal it gets for them,” she said. “They’re just grateful to be here to make something, even if it looks a little different.”

“When I go to choir, it makes me just feel, I want to say, free inside, and it just makes my happy and, like, the rest of the day I’m in a good attitude because I got to sing in choir," said Julia Fisher, a senior majoring in music education and elementary education, adding that she is thankful for in-person classes.

Katlynn Ellis, a senior in music education, noted that the changes wrought by COVID have changed the way instrumentalists perform as a group.

“One thing we’re struggling with is we have our tympanyist, who’s probably 20 feet on the other side of the stage,” Ellis said. “So we’re really focusing on what others are doing .… I have never found myself listening across as intently as I do now, and it’s really eye-opening, and I think I’ve really grown as a musician because of it.”

Passionate about music

“Making music is about building a community, and that’s what we’re really struggling to try to make sure we do ... because that is what feeds their soul," said Popejoy of the passion held by so many of UND's music students.

“People need each other, and people need music,” Jilek emphasized, recalling the moment when, after months of separation, his choirs reunited.

“When we came back together and sang again together -- even if it was a warm up -- wow, you could tell the students wanted to sing; I wanted to be in front of them. We need each other; we need to sing," he said.

And he’s ready for masks to become a thing of the past.


“I want to see my kids’ faces,” Jilek said. “God has created beautiful faces. The joy of seeing the complete face one day, I look forward to that again.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at or (701) 780-1107.
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