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San Juan College music students finally head back to class

'This is a great day,' instructor Teun Fetz says

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — San Juan College music professor Teun Fetz had taken only a few steps into his classroom on the afternoon of Aug. 24 when the dozen or so students who were present for his African drumming class broke into a long and sustained round of applause.

Fetz briefly stopped in his tracks and acknowledged the greeting, the crinkles around his eyes making it obvious he was grinning broadly under the mask that covered the bottom half of his face.

"I'm so happy to see you all," he said. "I want to give you a hug — a virtual hug."

It was, indeed, a day worth remembering for Fetz and his students, as it marked the first time they had sat in a classroom together since the middle of March, when the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought an end to all in-person learning at the college – and at educational institutions across America.

"For me, this is a great day," Fetz told his students.

San Juan College music professor Teun Fetz demonstrates a technique for student Madeline Martinez during his Aug. 24, 2020, African drumming class on the college campus in Farmington.

But there was no mistaking the fact that things were considerably different compared to the last time the class met in March. Everyone was wearing a face mask, and Fetz spent the first several minutes of class going over the safety procedures the college had put in place, and pointing out the cleaning and sanitizing products that were available for students to use.

More:African Drumming Ensemble concert planned at San Juan College

Additionally, students were positioned at least 6 feet apart in a circle while the class was being held in a room that was approximately the size of a basketball court.

Teun Fetz leads an in-person music class on the San Juan College campus in Farmington on Aug. 24, 2020, for the first time since March.

"My first priority is your safety and comfort," he said. "Number two is music."

Earlier in the day, Fetz had lamented the difficulty of trying to teach music classes by video conferencing, explaining that it simply is not an effective way of working with students in his discipline. But it was clear that wasn't the only reason he was looking forward to being back in the classroom.

San Juan College music professor Teun Fetz grins as he hands sheet music to student Charlie Higby on Aug. 24, 2020, during an African drumming class on the college campus in Farmington.

"It's hard not to get emotional," he said, describing how much music means to him, especially the experience of making music with other people.

"It's a huge boost to morale," he said. "Having that ability to play music together and have that sense of community, it's hard to overstate the impact it has. We can't play for a live audience, but can play for each other, and sometimes that's more important because people who play for each other understand that."

Aeon Lewis, front, Laura Ryan, Ginny Jones and Madeline Martinez pound djembes during an African drumming class at San Juan College in Farmington on Aug. 24, 2020.

Fetz said he and fellow San Juan College music instructors Virginia Nickels-Hircock and Delbert Anderson came up with the plan to resume in-person classes for some music students, but several people at the college worked to make it feasible. They ran their plan by humanities Dean John Boggs and Vice President for Learning Adrienne Forgette, while physical plant director Chris Harrelson, operations coordinator Susie Yocum, fine arts professor Don Ellis and Carol Summers of the construction and building services projects department all worked to implement the social distancing requirements that were necessary for the plan to gain the approval of President Dr. Toni Hopper Pendergrass.

"Those guys have been instrumental in making this happen," Fetz said.

In addition to his African drumming class, Fetz also is leading in-person classes this semester for small orchestra and symphony groups, while Anderson is teaching small, in-person jazz combo and big band groups. The students in all those classes will be expected to play in masks, and there will be no sharing of music stands.

Student Laura Ryan keeps the beat during an African drumming class at San Juan College on Aug. 24, 2020.

Fetz noted that not all his students were on board with the idea of returning to the classroom. He said several core members of his orchestra and symphony groups have opted out because they don't feel comfortable joining other people in the classroom. Fetz said he respects their decision, especially when there still isn't a vaccine for the virus.

But he believes the college has done everything it can for those who are choosing to participate.

"I think we have a good safety plan," he said, noting that there are two medical doctors who play in his community orchestra group, and they have opted to take part this semester.

"If they're willing to participate, I think that says a lot," he said.

While it's clear there will be no live performances for any of the music groups Fetz leads this fall, he is hopeful they will find another way to display their talent. He said it's possible a concert might be videotaped and streamed online or that it could be recorded and broadcast on KSJE-FM, the campus radio station.

Student Charlie Higby plays a djembe during an African drumming class on Aug. 24, 2020, on the San Juan College campus in Farmington.

"It's a goal, but it's a secondary goal," Fetz said of those prospects, adding that his focus remains on providing good instruction for and enjoying being with his students again.

On the first day of his African drumming class, Fetz was expecting his students to be more than a little rusty, given how long they had been away from the classroom. But he didn't sound terribly worried.

"If it's not perfect, it's OK," he told them before sitting down before a djembe, one of the instruments used in the class.

Fetz looked around the large circle of students and realized he would have to strain to make himself heard in the cavernous room, especially once everyone began playing.

"All right," he said, smiling. "I say we play the drums. Let's see if I remember how this thing works."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.