Kait Tappenden conducts St. Mary’s College music students, including the “Boomwhackers.” Photo courtesy Kait Tappenden

Boomwhackers help keep the music alive amid pandemic restrictions

  • April 11, 2021

St. Mary’s College in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., is keeping the melodies and harmonies alive, despite pandemic restrictions, with percussion music makers called Boomwhackers. 

COVID protocols have brought an end to students playing wind instruments at school, so music teacher Kait Tappenden had to find an alternative to keep student interest up and the program going.

“I thought really hard about what I could do with my program to make sure that it didn’t get forgotten about because of COVID,” said Tappenden, who has a passion for writing music.

She went in search of something that could still feel like a band arrangement and discovered Boomwhackers. Tappenden discovered the unique instrument through viral videos of a percussion ensemble called THUD from Harvard University who play popular songs on the tubes. 

The school purchased a few sets of the colourful plastic tubes which come in varying lengths to produce different pitches, notes and tones. With semesters shortened to 10-week cycles due to COVID, the colourful tubes provided an instrument that students could learn to play relatively quickly and safely while still learning how to read music and play ensemble arrangements.

After about a week of getting to know the new instruments, the Grade 9 class began rehearsing Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” and had it down in about a month. They’ve since released a Tappenden re-arranged version of the song on the Huron-Superior Catholic District School Board YouTube channel. 

“The students picked the music and I just figured out what was going to work best and did the arranging,” she said. “The kids were really the ones who were able to make it happen. I’m glad that they are still enjoying their music experience instead of feeling like they weren’t able to do what kids in the past have been able to.”

Tappenden separated the well-known bass line from the rest of the song. She also separated the melody from the vocals and other chords before working the entire song out on piano, arranging the parts and determining how many students were needed. 

“It was sort of like a puzzle that I had to fit together,” laughed Tappenden. 

Students have raved about the positive effects the music program has had on their mental health. With so many extra-curricular activities and programs taken away due to COVID the overall mental wellbeing of students has been a great area of focus. 

“Trust me, hitting some sticks on the ground is a great stress reliever,” said Tappenden, who has continued to teach guitar and piano throughout the pandemic. “I think as long as that is still going to be fun for them, I will continue to keep building my program and trying to think of what else I can do to make sure that even during these tough times that the kids are still having a good time while they’re learning about music.”

Principal Colleen Hannah celebrates the resiliency and fast adaption of students and staff who have continued to come up with fun and engaging activities throughout these challenging times.  

“We’re very proud of our students and certainly of the creativity of our teachers that have really done everything they can to keep providing students with opportunities,” said Hannah. “What they’re learning here at school (academically) is important to them, but it’s also those extras that build community. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to continue that with all the health and safety protocols.”

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