Clark Musicians During COVID: Part One

Will Talbot, Scarlet Staff

While the pandemic has given me plenty of time to relax and listen to music, rediscovering old favorites and expanding my tastes to find awesome new songs, the pandemic also has been very hard for me as a musician. It is very hard to make music, especially live music, when a serious airborne disease is spreading. The pandemic has been devastating for live music, with many artists unfortunately having to give up their dreams because of the current lack of financial prospects for professional musicians.

It is especially hard during this crisis for horn players, including trumpet players like me, as to maintain proper safety precautions we are in most instances unable to play in-person. As an E-board member of the Clark Jazz Band, an active member of the Clark Concert Band, and a member of a student-run combo/band called Bass Floot, which all had a lot of momentum in early March; the inevitable disruptions brought by campus’ closure were very disappointing for me. With the exception of practicing for private lessons over Zoom and recording several pieces for virtual concerts, I did not have much motivation to play while isolated from fellow musicians this summer. Things have been better after my return to campus this fall, with rhythm sections and even (double-masked and distanced) concert band horn players meeting in person, and jazz workshop and combo horns meeting every week via Zoom, but they still are not as exciting as they were pre-COVID. This hybrid model for these music groups has allowed many Clark musicians who are away from campus this semester to stay involved. 

I interviewed a few of my fellow Clark student musicians, who are currently on-campus this semester, to see how they have navigated playing during the Pandemic. Adam Liebell-McLean (‘22) a violin player, Aidan Griffith (‘23) a trumpet player, Jeremy Francoeur (‘22) a singer, producer, and pianist, and Will McKeon (‘22) a drummer, bassist, and guitarist. This article is the first of a series of three articles: next week, I will be interviewing Clark music professors, and the following week, I will be interviewing Clark musicians who are playing remotely this semester. 

If you were at Clark last year, how were you involved in music before campus’ closure in March?

Adam (‘22): Last year at Clark I was involved in music through Music 018, the private music lessons program, and Sinfonia, an orchestral group. 

Aidan (‘23): Before the pandemic, I was a member of Clark’s concert band, jazz workshop, and pit orchestra. I was on trumpet in each group. I also took a music history course and Music Theory I. Furthermore, I was an active member of Clark Music Society last semester before the closing of Clark.

Jeremy (‘22): I wasn’t very involved in the music scene here at Clark much last year. I did choir for a while and am very involved in the academic side of music, but I wasn’t very active in the actual social component of music here at Clark much. 

Will (‘22): I was the drummer for the band Bass Floot, I was part of organizing for CMS [Clark Music Society] events, and I was in the process of learning guitar/bass from Youtube.

How did the Pandemic impact your ability to make music?

Adam (‘22): The pandemic impacted how I practiced and with whom I played music. Before the pandemic began, I practiced in two ways. First, every week I had a violin lesson with Peter Sulski. Second, I went to the practice rooms in Estabrook Hall. However, when the pandemic began, it was challenging to recreate these experiences at home. To continue lessons, Professor Sulski had students record themselves practicing a piece at home and then gave them feedback about what they could change or what they should practice. This was a new experience for me because I was not used to recording myself playing and I found it more difficult to play without being conscious of a camera watching me. My unease about the camera was also exacerbated by the fact that in the Estabrook Hall practice rooms nobody watches me which means that I feel more free to make mistakes. The pandemic also changed with whom I played music. On campus, Sinfonia was a group of around 25-35 people playing music together. There was no way to do that at home. For me, that was hard because I lost the social experience which accompanied the music. Additionally, before joining Sinfonia, I was not always most comfortable playing in a group. But Sinfonia gives me a chance to work on playing with a group. I really value the social part of Sinfonia and the skills it gives me. 

Aidan (‘23):: After being sent home, I wasn’t able to play with any other musicians outside of the capacity of recording our parts individually to be stitched together later. 

Jeremy (‘22): The pandemic had a sort of mixed response on my music making. I’ve been writing much more frequently since the pandemic started, but am finishing my work a lot less often. I write as a stress response, but actually editing and finalizing my work takes a lot of focus I don’t have at the moment. Per album, I usually have about 25 or so songs that become about 12 final products; my “pandemic album,” so to speak, has probably had at least 50 songs written for it and I’ve only finished 8 of them so far. 

Will (‘22): When the pandemic initially hit, I didn’t even try to play with other musicians. I just wrote that off as an impossibility for the time being. Now that I’m back on campus I am able to distance practice with Bass Floot, but even then I can’t play with everyone in the band because we can’t work directly with the horns/our singer can’t sing. 

Did the changing situation cause you to explore new ways to make music by yourself and/or with others? 

Adam (‘22): Yes and no. On the one hand, the pandemic pushed me to record myself practicing. That was very new for me. I would not say that I explored different ways to record myself because in general it made me anxious and self-conscious. If anything, I resisted recording myself. However, at home, I did try out music that I might otherwise not have tried. First, I tried playing this Bach piece for solo violin. It’s incredibly complicated and difficult to play, but I love it and I wanted to challenge myself. Additionally, for a time I considered trying to learn a duet with my father who plays piano. These hopes never came to fruition because I had to complete the semester and then over the summer both my father and I had projects we were working on. 

Aidan (‘23):: On my own, I spent a lot more time improvising without backing music and as I was communicating with people online at a much higher incidence and didn’t have to worry about thin walls, I used my trumpet occasionally as a prop to add comedy and entertainment to conversations where people could not see me. I also learned some basic tunes I would not have otherwise bothered to look up or transcribe without these conditions. 

Jeremy (‘22): It’s funny, I was thinking about collaborating with people more right before the pandemic happened. I’m very independent in my music making process but want to learn to change that. The pandemic kind of scared me off from reaching out to people, but I think that it’s also sort of normalized asynchronous workflows and online communication, which will make it a lot easier for me to collaborate with others going forward. I’m excited. Will: It did! Over the quarantine I really focused on my own instruments and my own songwriting. I got to the point where I was even able to put out a solo album of instrumental guitar/bass tracks that I’m pretty proud of. I didn’t play at all with others, like I said, but I really felt like I improved my own musicianship. 

Will (‘22): It did! Over the quarantine I really focused on my own instruments and my own songwriting. I got to the point where I was even able to put out a solo album of instrumental guitar/bass tracks that I’m pretty proud of. I didn’t play at all with others, like I said, but I really felt like I improved my own musicianship.

How has your experience with music been so far on-campus this semester? How could it be improved?

Adam (‘22): I have been on campus this semester and my experience has been amazing so far. For one, I’m glad to be on campus with my friends and that affects everything in my life. In terms of music, I am so impressed with Clark. I’m able to take lessons again and I really enjoy that experience of playing music while thinking about how to improve my playing. More importantly, being able to play music with Sinfonia again is wonderful. After my first rehearsal this semester it was like a light was reignited inside me. Also, as I often tell friends, I live in a dingle (a traditional double with only one occupant) and while I appreciate having more space, it can get lonely. Having Sinfonia on a weekly basis helps me socialize and feel more part of a group which I missed during my time at home 

Aidan (‘23): I have been excited about being able to play as part of a band again. Clark has approved a way that wind players, such as myself, can meet together to rehearse in limited numbers. The situation has also opened the opportunity for me to try percussion in band, which I have been trying to do for years now. The way we are currently meeting in person, as wind players, leaves a lot to be desired. We have to wear special masks that get in the way of playing our instruments and need instrument bags or bell covers which make it more difficult to play and or put down the instruments. 

Jeremy (‘22): I’m on campus this semester, and so far it’s been difficult in some ways and easier in others. Now that most of the music goings-on are online, I’ve found it easier to jump into the different communities. I haven’t managed to collaborate with anyone yet, but the bar feels a lot easier to pass now that being involved is so simple. It’s more difficult in that it’s hard to sing at all with people, due to how easily the virus transmits when singing. It’s also harder to utilize practice rooms due to the fact they have to be scheduled out, but I totally understand why that’s the case; it’s the best option in a hard situation. I guess it feels easier to be involved on the surface level, but actively doing music is more of a challenge. I think Clark is doing as much as they can in this scenario. It’s a give-and-take. 

Will (‘22): When it comes to music on campus, I feel that for me, right now things are as good as they’re gonna be. If there was a safe way to play with horns that would be amazing, but I understand that right now that’s not possible to do safely. I think the main improvement that I would want would be to have more music-playing events, which as a member of CMS E-board I am talking about. Hopefully we will do a Zoom open mic at least.