For junior Franklin Borre, who plays trombone, music has always been a way to relax and connect with others, and that remains true during the pandemic. And with some adjustments for COVID-19, Borre has been able to continue playing in UR's jazz band and wind ensemble this year.
Like the rest of campus, the University of Richmond's music department and music-oriented student organizations have had to implement COVID-19 policies this year. Access to practice spaces and rehearsal possibilities have been limited, and opportunities for performance and camaraderie reduced. But, many faculty- and student-led musical groups have managed to remain positive.
UR's jazz band and wind ensemble are both half-unit courses available every semester, and Borre has enrolled in both ensembles each of his semesters so far, he said.
Playing wind instruments in a pandemic is challenging because doing so requires blowing air, and that often involves some spit, Borre said. Pre-pandemic, Borre was used to cleaning any spit off the mouthpiece of his trombone casually, but now uses a towel very carefully, he said.
UR also provided special masks for students playing wind instruments that are designed with a diagonal slit to allow the instrument mouthpiece to slide through while trapping breath, Borre said. Coverings for the openings on the other side of the instruments were provided as well, he said.
COVID-19 guidelines have also limited the extent to which ensemble members can interact, Borre said.
Under normal circumstances, the wind ensemble relies on community musicians to help fill out all the instrument parts because there usually aren't enough students who play each instrument in the class, Borre said. Since that has not been possible this year due to COVID-19 guidelines, the ensemble is missing several parts, he said.
Although the jazz band has been practicing in larger spaces, such as Camp Concert Hall in the Booker Hall of Music to accommodate social distancing guidelines, its members often have to rehearse in smaller groups, he said.
“One of the things that normally is really cool in rehearsal is you can sort of see how your part fits into the other parts,” Borre said. “But between having to sit further away from everybody and not having all of the parts, it's harder to see how your part fits into the larger piece of music.”
Students enrolled in the wind ensemble have been learning and playing music mostly for the fun of it, he said. Once community members are allowed on campus again, they will likely prepare the pieces they are learning now for a concert, he said. Although the jazz band could not hold a concert last semester, they are working toward one for this April, Borre said.
The co-ed choir Schola Cantorum, a half-unit course with about 25 to 30 members, has similarly had to move its rehearsals from its normal classroom in North Court to Camp Concert Hall for social distancing, senior Nathan Burns said.
Burns, who has sung in Schola every semester since he came to UR, said this year had been very different because of COVID-19 guidelines. Standing further apart and wearing masks has made it harder to hear other choir members and using visual cues, such as seeing someone opening their mouth, is not possible with masks, he said.
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“Singing with masks is not ideal because so much of choir requires relying on other voice parts, and other members of the group to know when to come in, and to know when to breathe and when to stop singing altogether,” Burns said. “So, finding our rhythm has been a bit difficult.”
UR also provided Schola members with specialty singing masks that sit further off the face and look kind of like duckbills, Burns said. The masks are helpful so that singers aren't pulling the fabric into their mouths when they breathe, he said.
Schola recorded some of its pieces last semester in Camp Concert Hall and will likely do the same this semester, Burns said.
Kevin Harding, professor of music, has tried to stay engaged and keep students engaged despite the limited opportunities to perform, he said. Among other music practice courses, Harding directs the Brazilian and guitar ensembles.
Zoom is not very practical for live musical rehearsal but can be useful for planning purposes, such as when picking songs to learn, Harding said.
The biggest difference for music students during COVID-19 is the loss of an opportunity to perform live, Harding said. Instead of the usual end-of-semester concert, his ensemble students will make an audio recording as a group that they can play for family and friends, he said.
“But it’s not quite the same as playing a show,” he said. “When you play a concert, you rely on the people who are there and your peers onstage to give you a sense of how successful you were. A lot of the purpose of music is to express common bonds, and you kind of lose that when you just make a recording.”
Most musical groups on campus have replaced concerts with recordings, including student-led groups.
India Henderson, senior and president of the a cappella group Choeur du Roi, said the group was able to record several songs last semester, and even participated in a Christmas concert hosted by another a cappella group, the Sirens. The concert, which includes their recording as well as others submitted by UR a cappella groups, is available on YouTube, and Henderson is planning for the group to make an end-of-year video this semester, she said.
Rehearsing has been more complicated this semester than last because of the strictness of the Enhanced Red Phase and the amount of time UR had spent in that stage, Henderson said. Some members living off campus were not able to meet in person for the first few weeks of the semester, and practicing in smaller groups while standing further apart has made harmonizing harder, she said.
As president, Henderson has worked to keep morale up, and does not want anyone to feel like singing is an obligation because it is supposed to be fun, she said. Everyone has been very supportive of one another, and Choeur du Roi (colloquially "Chords") members have been good about coming to rehearsals and Zoom meetings, she said.
“I definitely do think it was difficult for a lot of people to really commit their time to Chords even though it's less time than it’s been in the past,” Henderson said. “This is a really difficult endeavor during COVID, and to say that we accomplished even just one thing is very, very exciting for me.”
Henderson emphasized the importance of community in a capella.
“This is really a community of people," she said. "And I guess we sing together. But that's because we all love singing and we all appreciate being around each other, and I’m so happy that this could still be a creative outlet for people.”
Henderson was not alone in expressing the importance of community. Although the opportunity to perform for a live audience is something most campus music groups seem to be sorely missing, Borre, Burns and Harding also said they had been glad that they could still share the experience of music with their respective groups.
As Harding said, “That’s what it’s all about.”
Contact features writer Grace Kiernan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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