While Grand Island Public Schools will not be able to deck the halls this year for its Christmas concerts, they still will be held — virtually.
Charity LaBrie, GIPS fine arts director and Seedling Mile Elementary principal, said that due to the coronavirus pandemic, all of the district’s Christmas concerts will be prerecorded and broadcast at a later date.
LaBrie said that GIPS wanted its students to have the opportunity to perform, but since the concerts always are well-attended by hundreds of people — thousands for Grand Island Senior High concerts — the district decided to have virtual concerts as COVID-19 restrictions do not allow for large crowds.
“Every area (school) is recording their concerts,” she said. “Some of them are doing this through multiple practices because their songs are so lengthy. Then, we are sharing the YouTube links with the families. It is a secure site and families can share that with the people who are important to them.”
LaBrie said the day and time the recording link will be sent out varies by school. Since the Christmas concert dates were set before the pandemic, GIPS wanted to stay true to those dates and send out the links on the day that the in-person concerts would have been.
At Seedling Mile, she said, the concert was recorded Tuesday, with the recording link being sent out to families via email on Thursday. She said all of the concert links will be live until Dec. 27.
James Holys, music teacher at Seedling Mile and Wasmer elementaries, said the virtual Christmas concerts are “about the same length” as previous in-person concerts.
“Our hope is that some of our families who live too far away, and cannot come to a live concert, will have the opportunity to see their grandchild or niece or nephew,” LaBrie said. “My hope is that immediate families get a bowl of popcorn, sit down, watch their child perform together and just get to celebrate them.”
Holys said the virtual concerts are “unlike any I have ever done.” Since students sing with their masks on, the biggest challenge is getting them to feel confident singing while wearing masks.
He said social distancing also is a challenge.
“When students are closer to each other, their confidence is boosted,” Holys said. “When you spread them apart, that makes things a lot more challenging.”
He said at Seedling Mile, there are 11 kids in first grade and 12 kids in third grade, so the two grades normally are combined for the annual Christmas concert. This year, however, each grade is performing separately.
At Wasmer, Holys said, there are up to three different sections per grade, with up to 20 students in each section, meaning there typically would be about 60 students on stage for the concert. Each grade section will sing and record in the school’s gym, rather than doing this together.
“It is a little different, but we have really learned how to have more confidence in ourselves,” he said. “With less numbers, I don’t think you could have filled up the sound in the gym if you had us do that. So we have had to adapt, improvise and overcome, which is important.”
Since students cannot share instruments this year due to COVID-19, Holys said he has incorporated “body percussions,” where kids slap their knees, stomp their feet or clap their hands, into his Christmas concerts.
He said, prior to recording the Christmas concerts at both Seedling Mile and Wasmer, each class will practice and perform in front of a “pretend camera” to get them used to performing in front of a camera.
“It is just getting them used to being on camera, being poised, looking professional and doing their best. The kids really responded to that,” Holys said. “I tell them that even though there is no audience that we see in the gym right now, we do send the link out to everybody, so more people are going to watch that than the people who were at the Barr Middle School auditorium last year for our concert.”
He said “a side benefit” is that he can pause a recording, or redo it when he sees something that isn’t working. As a result of being able to prerecord the Christmas concerts, the performances are more polished.
“When it is live, I have to take the bad with the good. When you are recording it, it gives us an opportunity to do multiple takes,” Holys said. “With some classes, when they got done early, they recorded an opening where they said, ‘Welcome to our concert’ and ‘Thank you for coming.’”
LaBrie said GIPS hopes to return to in-person Christmas concerts next year.
Holys said he hopes to use what he learned from preparing students for a virtual concert again in the future.
“We (GIPS music teachers) have all been innovating like we have never innovated before,” he said. “As the pandemic ends, I am really looking forward to a day where we have some more normality, plus the innovation that we had to do. I really think it is going to be something phenomenal. Our music programs are going to be different than we ever thought, but more dynamic than we ever thought coming out of this.”