Music Activities in Schools in a Post Lockdown Covid World – Revised June 7th

Music Activities in Schools in a Post Lockdown Covid World

With schools in England opening piecemeal from June 1st ,  in Wales  reopening from 29 June to all age groups – but only a third of pupils will be in classes at any one time and schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland in August schools and councils are making their own decisions over managing the return.  

There is no specific guidance on how each subject might prepare to teach but there is a lot of concerned chatter on social media as to how music might be taught in the classroom and how instrumental and choral groups might once more begin to rehearse. There are similar concerns in the USA where the music curriculum is much more ensemble orientated than in the UK but there schools close for the summer in June.

This blog reviews  some of the articles and guidance which has been published throughout the world.  The starting point is a review of instrument cleanliness and leads into a review of the conditions to be considered before embarking on ensemble rehearsals. Also assessed are the considerations needed to teach music in the classroom. This blog does not consider how visiting teachers will be used. This will be explored in another article.

In the USA, the NAMM Foundation[1] has a batch of resources concerning instrument cleanliness.[2] “Instrument Cleaning: Guidelines and Information”, has been written with advice from the Centre for Disease Control. The full article gives a description of how various parts of instruments should be cleaned. How often is discretional but where instruments are shared then it should be noted that the virus can remain on surfaces as follows

Brass – Up to 5 Days

Wood – Up to 4 Days

Plastic – Up to 3 Days

Strings – Up to 3 Days

Cork – Up to 2 Days

There is more specific guidance for pianos from the Piano Technicians Guild [3] and for guitars and microphones[4].  

Each of these articles refers to the type of disinfectant to be used but they do refer to American products.

Andy Gleadhill[5] who is internationally acknowledged as an leading authority on teaching World Music comments on natural skinned instruments comments, “It is difficult to try to disinfect them as they are mainly goat skin and will react badly to strong chemicals. Also getting them wet is not a good idea as this will slacken the head and alter the tone. Sunlight is a good natural disinfectant particularly in hot weather. Other than this just good old fashioned soap and warm water and dry the heads straight away. A hairdryer is good for this and will tighten up the skin as well.”

However, there are general principles which cover both whole class instrumental teaching and general classroom creative work.

  • Avoid sharing as much as possible
  • Whenever possible provide individual mouthpieces or recorders for students.
  • Reeds are never to be shared, and do not require sanitizing. 
  • When mouthpieces must be shared, they should be disinfected

There have been reports of choral performances in the early days of the epidemic leading to choir members falling ill. This article[6] points out that these instances were before such things as lockdowns and social distancing came fully into place, but the production of aerosol and droplets is now the subject of research.

Several media reports (especially of choirs) have suggested that COVID-19 can be transmitted via aerosols (microscopic water droplets too light to be affected by gravity) from asymptomatic persons.  But infection can also be spread through droplets. These are heavier and drop to surfaces quicker but can be picked up by touching a surface.

This article explains the differences between droplets and aerosols well and there are a couple of interesting video clips to demonstrate the points embedded in the article.[7]

As reported by the Slipped Disc website [8] “Professor Christian Kähler and Dr Rainer Hain from the Military University in Munich have been conducting experiments with singers and orchestral musicians to determine whether their activities can spread the Coronavirus. The full report can be viewed here [9] and this is now further supported by a video[10]

The initial results from the Institute of Fluid Mechanics and Aerodynamics are encouraging.

Air was set in motion no more than ​​half a metre in front of the mouth, making virus spread beyond that ‘extremely unlikely’, according to the study leaders. Kähler nonetheless recommended a 1.5 metre safety cordon in a choir or church, as well as distancing between singers to prevent droplet infection.

For trumpet and trombone and euphonium, the air-motion was again half a metre. But clarinet, oboe and bassoon moved the air more than one metre and flutes reached an even greater range. The recommendation was that flutes should be played with a gauze over the outlet.”

There is also an interesting video from Nashville which demonstrates that air blown into an instrument becomes sound waves and does not cause movement in air.[11]

The broad conclusion here being that a 2-metre distance between players should be a minimum. Cleaning out condensation from instruments should not be done on to the floor but a container should be provided. Wind players should not blow through their instruments to clean them. The cleaning of wind instruments should, wherever possible, be done in a room separate to the teaching/music room.

As reported in the Wiener Zeitung [12] the seven Berlin Orchestras published research on seating arrangements for rehearsals and performances with the general conclusions being

  • Strings chairs should be 1.5 metres apart
  • Winds chairs should be spaced 2 metres
  • Brass are also to be shielded with plexiglass protection.
  • Conductor should be 1.5 metres away at concerts but because they speak during reaheals 2 metres is recommended

Further to this the College Band Directors National Association[13] in the USA noted that early Japanese research[14] suggested the virus was 20 times more likely to be passed on indoors rather than outdoors and recommended for rehearsals that:

  • To the extent possible, students should use their own music and own personal stand in rehearsals and concerts
  • In order to reduce possible transmission through the sharing of chairs, students (other than bassoons and tubas) should be encouraged to stand in rehearsals and performances. (It is a band article so probably the same for cellos, double basses and percussionists)
  • To the extent possible, students should not share instruments.

For those reading in the USA the High School Band Director’s National Association Official Recommendation for the Maintenance and Continuation of Band Education in Our Nation’s Schools During COVID-19:  A BLUEPRINT FOR VIABLE INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC INSTRUCTION FOR TEACHERS, DIRECTORS, ADMINISTRATORS AND SCHOOL SYSTEM[15] is a very fulsome document which covers the many scenarios that differing size schools and bands might face. For those readers in the UK I paraphrase.

Keeping classroom and ensemble music making relevant in the eyes of school administrations and community is critical in the COVID-19 era. Performances, whether in class or in the concert hall, are compelling factors for continued student musical study and involvement. Music programmes without public performance and exposure can easily be “out of sight, out of mind.” Even in distanced and virtual teaching situations, the performing ensemble can still exist and be a positive and contributing factor for our students and the local community. Many schools have compiled virtual performances, for instance Springwood High School in King’s Lynn have not only made a performance track of their current ensemble but have also created an alumni track.

Based on the above the US Army West Point Research Center has produced a document [16]detailing how large ensembles might mitigate risk and gives operational instructions. Whilst these are very militaristic they do provide general guidelines for rehearsal and performance under the following headings but RELATE TO US ARMY BANDS ONLY

Increase in airspace and time. Outdoor rehearsals and performances are best because they allow for rapid air exchange. One-hour rehearsal blocks that contain 40 minutes of playing and 20 minutes of rest is recommended.

Expand distance between musicians. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has recommended a six-foot distance for any gatherings of people.  

Use barriers between players. Plexiglass shielding normally used for acoustical purposes, can be used between musicians to further reduce the possibility of droplet transmission. High touch surfaces, such as music stands, must be disinfected following CDC protocols and every effort should be made to reduce touching surfaces which separate players.

There is a section on audiences but as performances are not permissible in the UK I am not including this.

The New Zealand Choral Federation [17] have published guidelines for choirs, I assume of the adult variety wishing to rehearse at the New Zealand Alert Level 2[18]

Stay home if you are unwell

Choir management should turn away any singer displaying signs of being unwell.

Contact tracing

Ensure there are sign-in forms at the door (singers should use their own pens) and contact lists are kept up to date.

Wash/sanitise hands

Ensure there is access to hand washing/hand sanitiser at the door to the rehearsal room and in the bathrooms.

Space out at rehearsals

2 metres between singers; the conductor should stand as far back from the choir as practicable. Don’t sing in a circle formation. All the singers should face forward.

Length of rehearsals

Limit to 2 hours to limit exposure to the virus.

Ventilation in rehearsal rooms

Ensure adequate ventilation, with a minimum room temperature of 18°C.

Snacks & drinks

No sharing of snacks or drinks before, during or after rehearsals.

Limit physical contact

Singers should not pass around music or folders. If music needs to be passed out it should be done by one or two people who use hand sanitiser before touching the copies to be handed out.

Whilst the above advice is aimed at community choirs it transfers well into school settings.

Further UK based advice comes from the Association of British Choral Directors[19] and there is an excellent hour plus long webinar.[20]

Much of the above and more has been collated and published by Music Mark. Their “Guidance for School Leaders on Musical Learning and COVID-19” [21] is an excellent overview and includes a comprehensive literature review[22] and in the Guidance for Providers a recommended Code of Practice for visiting teachers.[23]

For the day-to-day life of delivering the music curriculum in secondary music departments there are many factors to consider. Schools will make their own decisions as to how students will move around the building, if at all.  Social media shows pictures of wide corridors divided with tape and news items feature schools where up to ten minutes is allowed between lessons to ensure that one way systems work, in other schools students will remain in a classroom and the teachers will move and in this instance there will need to be creative thinking as to how composing and performing tasks might be carried out. This of course has implications for all subjects that use specialist equipment but assuming that students are allowed into the music room what then? Will Heads of Department be creating their own risk assessments and modii operandi for how students participate in effective, practical music lessons?

Some primary schools have specialised music rooms and similar considerations will apply, but in those primary schools where practical music making is limited to the resources available on the music trolley, then the trolley itself will need to be sanitised!

Regardless of what the school policy on sanitisation is given the sheer amount of both static and portable equipment in music rooms should additional sanitiser to be available and students “drilled” into the habit of sanitising before entering and leaving each area? Inevitably there will be late comers and so as not to shorten rehearsal time could an ensemble member be nominated as door monitor?

All guidance on use of instruments suggests that where there are multiple users, hands should be washed before touching an instrument and, in a classroom, where keyboards are used, they should be sanitised between use. This will minimise risk. However, for djembes and the like, whilst the wood could be cleaned the skins really cannot so the only advise is not to use them at all or quarantine the instruments for 3 – 4 days.  Plastic beater handles could be sanitised between lessons but not wooden sticks. 

In some music departments students carry instruments into smaller areas or practice rooms for group work. There are several issues here. Carrying instruments could allow the virus to be transmitted from clothing to the instrument and students would still need to socially distance while carrying and in the practice rooms. In reality, there are few practice rooms that could accommodate more than two people at any one time! So, group work becomes hard to manage.

Sound transfer has always been a problem in schools and it has been reported from music teachers working in schools with key worker and vulnerable children throughout the lockdown that school policy has been to prop doors open throughout the setting in order to reduce the amount of touching of door handles.  It therefore is obvious that a fully practical music lesson or rehearsal is bound to put more sound into the environment and therefore teachers in other subject areas will have to be more tolerant.

Music teaching demands close contact with students. Sometimes teachers need to get close, to demonstrate, to alter settings on keyboards, parameters on computer programmes. They need to sing!  

Whilst well – designed music rooms are larger than many rooms in a school  with an advisory minimum of 63m2 [24] but,  given all the equipment that is in the room, to ensure social distancing in classroom could mean realistically  teaching 10 students. However be to ease timetabling schools could seek to teach half classes of may be 15 because of whole school practicalities.

The need to ensure social distancing could impact on curriculum content. Students are unlikely to be able to work in pairs or groups. Working on their own they have no peers to discuss and somehow teachers will have to develop strategies to assist from 2m away.

Possible solutions are:

Choose tasks that are very scaffolded with baby steps all the way so there is no question about what to do next.

“What to do steps” can be put onto laminated (easy-wipe) cards so they have the instructions in front of them. Important for lower ability or those with working memory issues who can’t hold the information in their heads when looking at a board and down at their desk, back at the board, down at the desk.

Therefore, to ensure music lessons are practical, should music teachers consider the Government advice to the public to cover faces in enclosed spaces?[25]

  • People who use public transport or visit shops should consider covering their mouth and nose based on advice from SAGE
  • Face coverings are not a replacement for social distancing and regular handwashing which remain the most important actions, says Chief Medical Officer
  • Public urged not to buy medical grade masks so they can be saved for frontline health and care workers, and instead make their own face coverings at home

Viral load remains a big unknown. Professor Yardley of Bristol University and a member of the Government’s SAGE panel has warned that the greater amount of virus that a person comes in contact with increases the chances of becoming infected.[26] However there is as yet no definitive data on how much virus a child may transmit. It is known that children infected with the virus do on the whole experience mild symptoms. However a German study of people aged 1 – 100 as reported in the Guardian[27] found that regardless of age, people appeared to shed a similar level of virus, but noted that there had been no child specific research.

Whatever happens in our schools, readers of this article will be working with children and the jury is still out on the implications of this. Whilst the largest review of the evidence shows children and adolescents are half as likely to catch the coronavirus, theyalso appear less likely to spread the virus, but the team said there was still uncertainty on this.[28]

With secondary schools due to open in mid – June there are plans emerging that students will not be taught their full suite of GCSE Options with just the “Core” being taught. When our children return to school, they will need the arts, music, and physical education more than ever and perhaps music departments will

There are many caveats to consider. In the UK, the recommendation is to social distance at 2 metres on the Continent it varies from 1 to 1.5 metres; in the USA it is, “at least 6 ft” or just over 1.8 metres. Each country mentioned is on a different path to controlling the virus being at different stages of controlling the lockdown and some of the articles are to do with actions that can be taken by professional and adult ensembles. Government advice is constantly being updated and schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are the responsibility of the devolved administrations.

As I revise this on June 7th the BBC has started broadcasting live from the Wigmore Hall, Abbey Road Studios have opened and the Vienna Philharmonic has given what looks to be a chamber performance, so some professional life is beginning to return.

In writing this please note I am not a health or legal professional. Please do not consider any of the above as medical or legal advice, it is merely a collection of articles and news bulletins. A number of colleagues have also helped shape the article and I thank them for their professional expertise and enthusiasm. In particular I thank Becky Elderton, Head of Music at The Castle School in Thornbury, South Gloucestershire who has shaped the input on classroom activity.

I am not here to recommend. Schools will have to make their own judgments as to the risk they wish to apply to other practical subjects as well as music. Music teachers like all teachers have continued to work throughout the UK lockdown. They have not been doing nothing. For me the health and well-being of students, teachers and the wider community are of primary and critical importance and I hope that this presentation of some of the evidence which has not been done systematically but I believe is representative will help music teachers come to their own decisions as to how music might begin to return, or not to their schools.


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[24] Music accommodation in secondary schools – A Design Guide: RIBA (London) 2010





Published by askrichardarts

Recently retired (September 2019) after a 42 year career in Music and Arts Education I am an experienced arts educator specialising in school leadership and all aspects of arts education but with particular expertise in music and music education. From 2011 - 2019 I was Music and Arts Strategy Manager in South Gloucestershire leading the South Gloucestershire Music Hub, Arts Council England’s preferred provider of Music Hub activities in South Gloucestershire. Always regarded as a minor risk organisation it provided teaching and ensemble activities to over 4000 children a week and many ensembles achieved national recognition at the Music for Youth Proms and National Festival. From 2005 to 2011 I was National Specialist Coordinator for Performing Arts and Music at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust effectively a national adviser on arts education contributing to many national initiatives e.g. Music Manifesto, Musical Futures, Henley Review of Music Education, and Building Schools for the Future. I also provided curriculum support and professional development to over 600 schools in England and in 2010 gave a keynote speech on Music Education in the UK at Gifu University in Japan. The bulk of my teaching career was at Richmond School in North Yorkshire where I led a highly successful Music Department with over 300 students a week learning musical instruments and large classes at GCSE and A level. I commissioned a number of works for School Wind Band by composers such as Bill Connor, Adam Gorb and Philip Wilby and developed UK and Worldwide commissioning networks to commission works by Christopher Marshall and Marco Putz. As an adjudicator I have worked throughout the UK, in the Netherlands, Australia and the USA and Canada. In retirement I am a Trustee of the Music Education Council ,Independent Chair of the Music Hubs in Somerset and Torbay , and a doctoral student at the University of the West of England.

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