All-City Band wants brass, woodwind instruments back in Yukon schools

The All-City Band Society is pushing back against Yukon's ban on playing wind instruments at school, saying the restrictions could hurt music programs for years to come. The chief medical officer says they are working on guidelines for wind instruments, which they hope to release soon.

Yukon government says playing wind instruments among 'riskiest' activities, working on guidelines

Children try out the trumpet at a previous All-City Band "Squeek and Squawk" beginners night. That event is cancelled this year due to lack of interest. (All-City Band)

The All-City Band Society is pushing back against Yukon's ban on wind instruments at school, saying the restrictions will hurt local music programs and arguing it's possible to have safe rehearsals.

"We need to be playing instruments now," said co-director Toby Moisey, the band teacher at Porter Creek Secondary School. Moisey said his students are losing music skills by the day, while would-be beginners in Grade 8 are choosing not to start a band instrument.

"Every day that we delay or don't play, we're going to lose something."

Brass and woodwind instruments, as well as singing, are not allowed in Yukon schools this year. The chief medical officer's guidelines said playing and singing creates aerosols that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Moisey, who is also president of the Yukon Music Educators Association, argues there's a way to rehearse safely. He pointed to British Columbia and New Brunswick schools, where wind instruments are permitted with stricter safety protocols.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley responded at his COVID-19 update Wednesday, saying they have been working on guidelines for "lower-risk playing of wind instruments" and hope to have them out soon.

"As a musician myself ... I understand the frustration of not being able to play in a group," said Hanley, who is a clarinet player. "Hopefully players have been practicing at home and have been keeping their chops in shape."

Band teacher Toby Moisey says many of his students have not practiced since March and are losing their music skills. (Submitted by Toby Moisey)

The All-City Band Society runs three wind ensembles and a jazz band for high school students and community members in Whitehorse. It submitted a proposal to the chief medical officer in mid-July, suggesting they could rehearse in the Porter Creek Secondary School cafeteria with smaller numbers and distancing.

Yukon Government spokesperson Patricia Living told CBC on Friday they are "not in a position" to approve that request because they do not have guidelines for large bands.

"The playing of wind instruments is still one of the riskiest activities in terms of the spread of COVID-19," said Living in an email.

"We always look to what other jurisdictions have done as well as our local context in developing these guidelines. Unfortunately, there is not a lot out there to assist us in this task."

Kim Friedenberg, the president of the All-City Band Society, said the restrictions seem like a double standard considering contact sports are now permitted in Yukon. The society has begun an advocacy campaign for the return of wind instruments.

"The banning was a blindside," said Friedenberg, in a letter to the Yukon NDP. "None of us were consulted and only found out in a news release."

The All-City band cancelled its introductory "Squeak and Squawk" night this year due to lack of interest. Previous years have attracted around 100 new musicians, said Friedenberg in his letter.

In the meantime, the band will have virtual rehearsals over Zoom in preparation for a virtual holiday concert.

The Whitehorse Community Choir is also doing virtual rehearsals this year. The Big Band, a community jazz band in Whitehorse, is not rehearsing yet due to restrictions on using school space.

Trombone playing is no longer permitted at Yukon schools, due to the risk of spreading COVID-19. (All-City Band)

Guidelines from Canada's public health agency say wind or brass instruments may increase COVID-19 transmission because of infectious droplets, but "the risk is not fully understood at this time."

The federal guidelines say a school's choice to resume band should be based on "a thorough risk assessment and in consultation with their [public health agency]".

Guidelines for music educators in British Columbia say an outright ban on wind instruments and singing is not necessary, but rather to "control the environment, understand the risks, and rethink our class sizes and activities so that when we play and sing, it is done safely."

New Brunswick recently reversed its ban on wind instruments in schools. Meanwhile, guidance from the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto recommended cancelling choir and band practice for the immediate future. 

At F.H. Collins Secondary School, music teacher Alex James is trying to adapt by teaching his band students guitar.

While James, who is also a co-director of the All-City Band, understands the restrictions, he says he feels like "the Grinch who stole Christmas."

"I can read the disappointment on their face," said James.

However, Moisey, the band teacher at Porter Creek school, said they can't switch to guitars and ukuleles because the required sanitizing procedures are too harsh on the instruments. 

"It's going to take us a couple of years, maybe even up to four years, to really build the band back to what it was," said Moisey.