Orchestral and vocal performers adapt to campus mandates

A pre-pandemic orchestra concert. Courtesy of Michael Nelson.

Six months ago, music would consistently flood Skinner Hall. On any given day, the sound of students practicing floated out of open windows while ensembles gathered in the recital hall to share their passion for performing. However, Skinner fell silent after classes shifted online and many students moved back home. With the in-person fall semester now in motion, larger music ensembles have had to adapt to the parameters of the new semester, working hard to revive the musical experience.

Many of the instrumental and vocal ensembles at Vassar, including the Vassar College Orchestra, the Vassar College and Community Wind Ensemble and the Vassar College Choir, contain dozens of students. Ever since the college shut down in March, music directors have been planning for the fall semester, figuring out how they can safely reunite the musicians.

Rehearsals are right around the corner for Orchestral students. However, students will be separated into smaller groups, with string players rehearsing in the Villard Room and wind players meeting in Skinner Hall, as Director of Orchestral Activities Eduardo Navega explained in an email interview. This new arrangement will be an adjustment from pre-pandemic rehearsals on the grand stage of Skinner’s recital hall, where strings, winds, and brass players all practiced together.

Some ensembles have already started rehearsing. Students of the Wind Ensemble have reunited in small groups of less than 10 underneath a tent on Commencement Hill, enjoying the view of Sunset Lake while diving into new pieces. However, despite the familiarity of playing with one another, these rehearsals look a lot different from those of previous semesters; when not playing, musicians wear masks and maintain at least a twelve foot distance from each other. 

“It will be a challenging semester with our large ensembles being unable to rehearse as one big unit, and we will have to get used to playing far apart from our fellow musicians, but I think that we will appreciate being together next year more than ever,” Director of the Jazz and Wind Ensembles James Osborn shared in an email correspondence.

The Wind Ensemble consists of a combination of student, faculty and community musicians, but with the Vassar campus closed to visitors, the ensemble finds itself missing a vital portion of its members. 

“I am hopeful that most of our student musicians will continue to play throughout their adult lives and I believe that seeing our community wind ensemble members do that will inspire them to do the same,” Osborn added. “Unfortunately, the community members will be unable to participate until the pandemic ends, but they are practicing their parts at home while we wait for that to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Vassar College Choir is using Zoom as a platform for rehearsals. 

“The general gist is that we are rehearsing over Zoom on mute, and then each singing our individual part,” explained Madi Donat ’23 [Note: Donat is a Columnist at The Miscellany News], who is involved in various faculty-run choirs on campus. “Once Phase Two starts, we are going to start meeting in small groups like quartets or groups of 10 or fewer.”

Directors and students have worked hard to revive the ensemble experience this semester in one form or another, but the students miss the social aspect of meeting in person.

 “A lot of my friends are in choir, and yeah, I see them over Zoom, but it’s something really special to be in a room and to be singing and making music with people,” Donat shared. “I like singing on my own, but I don’t love it. I love the sound of a choir and I love being a part of making that sound.”

Although these groups have found creative, safe ways to reassemble and rehearse, ensembles will not be able to perform for live audiences this semester. “The absence of live performances is difficult for our ensembles, as the pressure of a performance usually inspires musicians to intensify their efforts to learn difficult music and come together as a cohesive team,” Osborn commented. 

While the possibility of virtual performances stands, the exhilaration that comes from performing in front of a group of people is irreplaceable. “One of the main driving forces in a music ensemble is the excitement of playing for an audience,” Navega said. “It has been a challenge to keep the students engaged to play in our ensembles even though we might not be performing live concerts anytime soon.”

With students returning to individual practice rooms, the sound music is slowly starting to awaken within Skinner Hall once again—but things will not be completely normal for a while. 

“In times like these, we are forced to remember that music provides essential nourishment to the human soul. It is the most universal language, and not being able to make music with others, really [makes] us realize how important music is in our lives,” Navega said. “We are all doing what we can, but we are really looking forward to the day when we can perform on stage in front of an enthusiastic audience.”

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