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Virtual concerts, adapted masks and reorganized ensembles: Music in the time of coronavirus

| Denise Olson

As the third week of classes gets underway, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and faculty are still adjusting to the many changes in how campus and instruction must operate this fall semester. Music students are particularly impacted by COVID-19-related restrictions, as the very nature of practicing and performing is considered to be "superspreader" activity. But have no fear — Blugolds are not letting the virus stop the talent of student and faculty musicians. 

Gretchen Peters

Dr. Gretchen Peters, chair of music and theatre arts and professor of music history

After months of careful planning and execution from faculty and students alike, Dr. Gretchen Peters, chair of the music and theatre arts department, is confident that Blugolds will make the best of challenging times. 

"Music activities have changed fundamentally across the department and curriculum. Very few things look the same, from the size of music ensembles, to the lack of live audiences, to access to instruction and practice spaces," Peters says. "But I am struck by the opportunities in these different experiences, at least as a temporary change. For example, many students often do not have the opportunity to perform in small chamber ensembles, but this semester all of our students in the concert band program will perform in a small chamber group which can demand greater accountability from the students. That's a valuable experience."

While tweaks to everything continue as modifications are needed, one thing is certain — there will be plenty of amazing music coming.

"One of our top priorities this fall is simply that we sing," says Dr. Frank Watkins, associate professor of choral music education and director of choral studies, about the adaptations in rehearsals and the move to virtual-only performances. "Although it will all be virtual and without live audience members, it is so important that we share our music." 

While the department has been offering livestreams of certain performances for several years, the shift to an online-only performance calendar is a major change. Along with the choirs, the Blugold bands, orchestra and all-instrument ensembles, as well as the Blugold Marching Band and faculty performers, will observe all recommended health and safety guidelines and conduct all performances in a virtual delivery. All music groups require the use of masks both indoors and outdoors; socially distant rehearsals; limited number of members per rehearsal; and shortened rehearsal times. In addition, all areas of campus will be utilized for distanced rehearsal space, including Davies Center, campus mall, Owen Park, Pablo Center at the Confluence and Haas Fine Arts Center building and green spaces. 

Changes in vocal performance

Dr. Ken Pereira, associate professor of vocal music, is proud of the way students and even music alumni have embraced the needed changes to instruction and performance, seeing some very positive new avenues opening up in the communities of vocal performers here and around the globe. 

"One of the silver linings is how this pandemic has made the music world feel closer," Pereira says. "So many tremendous artists have created wonderful online platforms for aspiring young artists to learn more about their craft and the industry. The Metropolitan Opera presented an online gala that took the viewers into the homes of the leading operatic artists of today where they performed beloved arias of the operatic repertoire."

Pereira finds that it has broadened his own teaching methods and opportunities. 

"I recently presented in an online master class working with singers in Germany, France, Oregon and Arizona, all in the same hour and a half," says Pereira, who has reconnected recently with UW-Eau Claire music alumni across the country who want to study with him again.

Kathryn Flynn, vocal performance major

Kathryn Flynn, vocal performance major, will be livestreaming her senior recital later this fall from a performing arts venue in her hometown of West Bend. (Photo credit: Measha Lea Photography, February 2020)

Finding the silver linings also has been a positive outcome for vocal students like senior Kathryn Flynn, a vocal performance major who transferred from UW-Milwaukee as a sophomore. At this time of trepidation about live shows and the ability to earn an income through ticket sales, preparing for a vocal performance career doesn't come without a fear factor, Flynn admits. However, she is choosing to focus some of her time during this pandemic on learning the technologies that make virtual music sharing a possibility. 

"Technology is never going away, so why not take the time we have in this moment to better understand the tools available to us now and into the future," Flynn says. "I'm currently applying to graduate school programs to pursue a master's degree in vocal performance next fall; hopefully in-person auditions will be possible by then, but learning to self-record auditions will always be a valuable skill, along with working with colleagues over platforms like Zoom and Facetime." 

Flynn also is taking advantage of technology to complete her much-anticipated senior recital, set to be livestreamed in December from a historic performance hall in her hometown of West Bend. 

"My recital will be livestreamed out of "The Bend" theater so that students, faculty, friends and family in Eau Claire can view it without having to leave campus," she says. "The hall is allowing a live audience to attend, capping attendance at 85 people, with social distancing and masks required. I'm grateful to our faculty in accommodating this idea I proposed — having my family present is paramount to me. Plus, if campus were to shut down again, I would still have the opportunity to complete my capstone recital."

Strange times for strings

Due to building construction in Haas and a delay in getting started, orchestra director Nobuyoshi Yasuda, professor of music, was uncertain on the first day of classes just how the season would unfold for string players, but the basic practice and rehearsal configurations already are well underway. 

"Our challenge is playing music in an ensemble with social distancing. We have never done this before, so we need to explore how we can hear and communicate with each other to make music," Yasuda says, alluding to the fact that the basic "U" shape of an orchestra or symphony staging allows musicians to hear each other and read body language. "We will not use wind and brass instruments, and we divided the string section into two groups to rehearse with smaller numbers. As rehearsals and new small chamber groups get further into a routine, we will see how our student musicians adapt to the new circumstances."

While he still is uncertain of the music repertoire that will best suit these major changes in how the orchestra will play, Yasuda is preparing for livestream and/or prerecorded online concerts for the fall semester. He says more details will become clear as the semester moves forward and that "all of us just started this walk into unknown territory."

Emma Campbell, a junior violin performance major from Edgerton, is getting used to the new smaller chamber groups for the strings, but is missing the fall recruitment tour to high schools around the state that fills much of a normal fall performance schedule for these students. 

Emma Campbell, a junior violin performance major

Emma Campbell, a junior violin performance major, says that despite the new rehearsal layout more closely resembling a "battleship" than an orchestra, Blugolds are making it work and learning creative new ways to work and learn together during COVID-19.

As an administrative assistant for orchestra, a large part of Campbell's job for two years has been to set up the fall tours, contacting all the high schools and setting up visits with high schoolers. With that major component on hold for now, she is taking advantage of the additional practice time and the ability to invest a bit more in her individual art. 

"I've been able to have Zoom contacts with professional musicians, attend online lessons with them, and we're all just learning so much about how to possibly incorporate virtual working and performing into the future of this field," Campbell says. "Actually, I ended up investing in a really nice microphone which I never planned on doing at this point, but is now a necessity."

Like so many Blugolds across campus, music students are learning the need for flexibility in planning and in the execution of those plans — an asset for any future goal or pursuit. 

"Our department took a huge hit from COVID-19 — we can do almost nothing we normally would, and it's still changing all the time," she says. "Yet there have been no complaints, truly there haven't. We're all just trying to follow the protocols to be able to keep doing what we love to do."  

Big changes for university bands

Like the other areas of music, university band students, including Blugold Marching Band and the jazz bands, are quickly adjusting to major disruptions in how, where and when they are able to play. 

Dr. John Stewart, associate professor and director of concert bands, said little about any of the bands remains the same, except for the talent and work ethic of students and faculty. 

"In concert band, we've taken 55 students and divided them up into five conducted groups and some other nonconducted groups, and we've spread out into seven different rehearsal spaces both on and off campus," Stewart says, adding that masking, bell covers, physical distancing and shorter rehearsal time recommendations by national music associations all are being followed.  

"As we phase into recording and streaming performances, it will be a nice opportunity to showcase some of the beautiful spaces on campus like the Alumni and Council Oak rooms in Davies Center, along with spaces at Pablo Center like the incredible Jamf Theatre." 

In addition to incorporating unique performance spaces, the students enrolled in the recording arts certificate program will have tremendous opportunities to record ensembles and solo artists. 

"Under the expert instruction of our professional sound engineer Lena Suttor, these students will gain really valuable experience in the technology of remote recording — an option becoming all too necessary and familiar to musicians these days," Stewart says.

Angela Klinkner, senior music education major

Senior music education major Angela Klinkner is happy to see her fellow music students so eager to comply with all necessary accommodations for the virus, and finds the support students and faculty are all offering one another to be truly heartwarming.

Angela Klinkner, a senior music education major from Cashton, knows that these changes are temporary and is keeping her eye on the goal of getting back to "normal" again.

"We are lucky to live in a world with so much technology that allows us to share music so easily," Klinkner says. "Even with digital ways to share out music, it is hard to match the energy and emotion of being able to communicate to a live audience through music — we all look forward to the time when it will be safe to attend concerts and perform to an audience."

The BMB marches on

Even in the most "normal" of times, a 415-piece marching band is a behemoth logistical undertaking. Maintaining the health and safety protocol set by COVID-19 has made it an even more complex task. Luckily, UW-Eau Claire has Dr. Randy Dickerson, Blugold Marching Band director and professor of music, a man who has spent years building the largest marching band in the Midwest. 

BMB is still operating and creating great music, but in a very different way. The band is now divided into five performing groups, all of which meet and practice separately. Everyone is masked, with special adapted masks that include an opening for the instrument mouthpiece, conforming to standards put forth by a College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) study conducted this summer. Additionally, all horns have bell covers; all meetings and performances will be held outside; and all formations use at least 6-foot spacing on all four sides in all formations.

"Since there are no football or band exhibitions this year, we are concentrating on producing a video project to increase our online image," Dickerson says. "Last week during camp we made videos of all five groups performing one song each, which are being posted one at a time on the BMB Facebook page. WQOW-TV 18 reached out to us yesterday and offered to produce the combined video, and recording will take place in October. At this point we don’t foresee any live performances. This is not because we can't perform together, but because we don’t want to attract a crowd that may or may not observe masking and social distancing."

A big thanks to faculty

"What really stands out right now is witnessing the support that students and faculty all have for each other through all this," Klinkner said. "My clarinet professor Dr. Jennifer Fraley has committed to sewing masks for musicians, and also created a Facebook group for community member and students to get the needed equipment to play safely."

Joe McClausland

Joe McCausland, music education and mathematics double major from Waupaca, will be prerecording and streaming his senior recital at a later date (2019 UWEC band portrait).

Senior Joe McCausland, a percussion student, echoes Klinkner's focus on the efforts of faculty to make this semester of music instruction even a possibility.

"For months now, faculty have been hard at work to restructure their courses," McCausland says. "Most students know what it is like to take a class online by now, but a completely new dimension is added when learning a new instrument, conducting a chamber group, performing for others or teaching students."

McCausland, a music education and mathematics double major, plans to prerecord his senior recital to be viewed online later by his professors, family and friends. He currently is busy learning the basics of capturing high-quality video and sound. 

"Ultimately, the only reason any of this is a possibility is because of the work faculty have put in and their ability to adapt to circumstances beyond any of our control," McCausland says. "After only a couple weeks of classes, I feel much more positive about the educational output I'm going to get from this semester, despite the requirements the campus and music department have to deal with." 

Their turn to perform: Faculty recitals

A major part of the music calendar each semester is the wide array of recitals and concerts performed by music faculty members, and that will not change this fall.

The tradition of faculty recitals on campus switches to a "from campus" model this year as Dr. Phillip Ostrander, professor of trombone, kicks off the recital series Sept. 18 with a prerecorded, livestreamed performance.

"The music department has been streaming events from Gantner and Phillips Concert Halls in the Haas Fine Arts Center for some time now, so it’s not entirely new for us," Ostrander says. "Prerecording is indeed a new approach for all of us, so I’m looking forward to having a new vehicle to present music to our university and area community."

Dr. Nicholas Phillips, professor of piano, coordinates the First Fridays series featuring Blugold faculty, a series from Pablo Center at the Confluence that will be streamed on the first Friday of every month. The kickoff performance was on Sept. 4 with a recital by Dr. Brian Allred, lecturer of flute. 

"We are excited to be able to continue to present the First Fridays concerts. With multiple camera angles, audiences will enjoy a more enriching online experience than the one stationary camera angle they have seen in Gantner/Phillips livestreamed concerts," Phillips says. "Some events will be truly livestreamed, like Brian's was as he played solo, unaccompanied flute, and mine will be solo piano. The others will be prerecorded so that we can perform safely and let air recirculate. We worked to provide really thoughtful, themed concerts for the series and hope audiences enjoy them."  

The remaining First Fridays performances will be:

  • Oct. 2: “Mendelssohn and Schubert,” piano by Dr. Nicholas Phillips.
  • Nov. 6: “British Music from Byrd to Britten,” solo and chamber music.
  • Dec. 4: “Beethoven @250,” performances of music for voice, piano and violin.

There will be a nominal $2.50 fee for the livestream links for these shows, which can be paid to the Pablo ticket website.

To keep track of all upcoming virtual music events, see the music feed of the campus master calendar.

Top photo caption: The small group band rehearsal caught practicing on the UW-Eau Claire campus mall shows how safety protocols like masks, bell covers, physical distance and use of outdoor space are all helping to make music education possible for Blugolds.