Clark Musicians During COVID Part Two

Will Talbot, Scarlet Staff

This is the second part of a three-part series of interviews with musicians in the Clark community in which I discuss with them how they have adapted to the changing situations caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. Last week, I interviewed Clark student musicians who are currently on campus. This week, I interviewed three Clark music professors; Professor Cailin Marcel Manson, Professor Samantha McGill, and Professor Jerry Sabatini. Next 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? 

Professor Manson: [I am the] director of Choral Activities and Music Performance. I manage all music performance activities in the Music Program at Clark, as well as the performance concentration for music majors and minors.

Before campus closed this past March, we were in the homestretch — within a week — of our first large choral concert for the Spring Semester. We were all just back from March break, and ready to make some magic happen. Not having that performance, among so many others — canceled recitals, workshops, events, other ensemble’s performances — was disappointing, but I think we all understood in hindsight why the shutdown was necessary.

Professor McGill: I am the Director of the Concert Band at Clark University. 

Professor Sabatini: I was directing the Jazz Workshop ensemble (20 students) and coaching (only when necessary) two Jazz Combo (6 students each) performance ensembles.

How did the Pandemic impact your ability to make music? 

Professor Manson: The pandemic essentially shut down the performing arts industry worldwide. Many of my colleagues in the field have lost a year’s worth of work, with no certainty yet of when those opportunities will return. I went for months without the ability to make music with others. Some countries have had returns to music performance and rehearsal, and some states in the US as well, but the impact is ongoing. My sense is that we’re far from the end of this.

Professor McGill: The Pandemic has had a huge impact on music on a local and global scale. As a band director, the pandemic drastically altered what a band is all about, playing together in a group. While nothing can replace the feeling of playing together in person, we can still play together in separate spaces. The essence of group playing is still there if the members of the group are willing to try, which our band is willing to do. We still create wonderful music together, just in a very different way from before. As long as the desire to make music together exists, we can overcome the challenges the pandemic presents us with creativity, determination, and a helping hand from technology to bridge the distance.

Professor Sabatini: The Pandemic completely eliminated our ability to rehearse and perform our music live. In addition, due to technological complications and limitations, our ability to play together synchronously, in any aspect, including online, was also eliminated.

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

 Professor Manson: I think everyone is trying to find the best ways they can to keep the candle lit for their musical passions during this time. The shutdown provided opportunities to reconnect with colleagues in the profession across the globe. We worked together not just to create collaborative opportunities for us to make music, but also to make some real strides in advancing the cause of equity and inclusion in the field of classical music, particularly for Black classical musicians. I sat on Zoom panels with professional opera companies, worked with organizations to examine their business and artistic practices, and planned with the boards of the community-based music organizations I lead to keep those constituencies both engaged and nurtured as we leaned into the Fall.

 Some projects resulted — like Social Distance Opera, where I collaborated with dear friends, singers, and pianists around the world to record operas in their entirety as a way of keeping our artistic abilities sharp and as a testament to the staying power of musical art. I performed with Barn Opera in Vermont for some of the first live (outdoor) performances of opera in that state since the shutdown — but doing so required being in a restricted bubble — a quaranteam — for a whole week away from home. Was it inconvenient? Somewhat. Would I do it again if asked? Absolutely!

 Professor McGill: Yes, this entire situation has caused me to explore new ways to have the Concert Band make music. With the sudden shift to an online format in the spring, we took the first step with continuing Concert Band in a completely virtual set up using click tracks and video. Throughout the summer, we worked through what worked and didn’t in the spring to best address the variety of scenarios that could happen in the Fall. Even during the Fall semester, we continue to change the way rehearsals are run based on what we learn so that the best experience can be had by all participants.

Professor Sabatini: Indeed it did! The Jazz Workshop class transferred to individual learning whereby each student would submit an improvisational musical recording of up to one minute in length that represented a personal expression of any kind, ranging from a feeling, a thought, an experience to even an academic method of practice. This project was called a “Jazz Journal”.

How has your experience with music been so far on-campus this semester? How could it be improved? Do you think Clark has done a good enough job at providing opportunities to musicians who are remote?

Professor Manson: I think the campus experience for music-making is as good as can be expected. I feel that everyone — myself included — wishes that things could be more “normal” and less restricted, and all things have some risk involved, but safety is still paramount.

Music rehearsal and performance is exceptionally hands-on — it’s the nature of the beast. The work relies heavily on being in the same space and the active-reactive balance among performers, but — the spaces must be safe. The environments must meet certain standards. Best practices and distancing must be meticulously maintained — as much as we can do so. Performing and recording with a mask, especially as a singer or actor, is far from ideal — but it can be done, done well, and we are doing it!

I’m especially proud of the performance and rehearsal efforts of the students. I watched the rehearsals of CMT for Little Women in the Zen Garden and I started to tear up. Everyone is stepping up.

Remote music-making has its difficulties because — as I experienced collaborating with musicians oceans away — those capabilities are completely dependent on what the musician has available where they are, and the environmental variables present in each of those spaces. I recognize that resources are not infinite, and we do the best with what we know we can do. This is the crucible where, in my lived experience, innovation happens.

My hope is that we all come out of this time with a renewed value for togetherness and a fervor for what music, and the ability to make it together, brings to our lives.

Professor McGill: We have been hard at work to make performing music safely on campus possible. With research into how instruments and singing can spread COVID and other viruses that spread via aerosol droplets still in their preliminary phases, we have to take the students’ safety as our number one priority and use creativity and technology to make music.

So far this semester with the Concert Band, we have been trying different ways of making music within the guidelines of safety. This has brought us from completely remote options where we attempted to leverage real-time virtual rehearsal software, to our current hybrid model where a small portion of the band can perform with face and instrument masks in person outside with appropriate spacing simultaneously with a small group of percussionists inside, and the rest of the wind and brass players performing from remote locations concurrently during our 6-8 pm rehearsal block. I am constantly looking for ways to improve our music-making as the term goes on, with the safety of the musicians and the ability for all students (remote and on-campus) to participate as the top priorities.

I have been extremely impressed with the willingness of all the band musicians to try out these non-traditional rehearsal methods and to face the challenges of making music in these circumstances head-on. Everyone has really risen to the occasion and we are making some great music!

From the Concert Band’s perspective, we have been trying to provide a fulfilling musical experience for our remote members. I took what we learned from the impromptu virtual spring band and used the feedback on what worked and didn’t work to make a better remote experience for our students. Everyone should be able to participate in our band regardless of where they are physically located.

Professor Sabatini: My own experience has improved purely by the fact that I am able to meet at least a portion of my Jazz Workshop ensemble in person. That portion being those students who play non-wind instruments.

The only improvement would be for EVERYONE to be able to meet in person, even if appropriately distanced. However, I do understand that this is impossible at this time.

For wind instrument musicians, there seems to me to be no difference between being on campus versus being remote. In both cases, wind instrument musicians MUST still be isolated.