The UB Music Department continues to rehearse in-person during COVID
Through social distancing, specialty covers and live-streaming, UB musicians work hard to create music together while staying safe.
Sarah Gawlak, a senior biochemistry major, has played the trumpet in the UB Concert Band since her freshman year. But this semester introduced new challenges that even this long-time musician never experienced before.
This semester, a large portion of UB’s Music Department returned to in-person classes, and the department has incorporated various new rules and regulations to make sure students and faculty remain safe. The band has been split up into two sections: one is mostly woodwind players, and the other, mostly brass. Instead of rehearsing in Baird Hall, the band has moved to the Slee Recital Hall, which gives them more room to practice social distancing. The band members must wear masks except for when they’re playing their instruments; during rehearsal, they use fabric covers depending on which instrument they play.
Jon Nelson, band conductor and associate professor, started researching the covers last spring. At the time, fabric covers were reserved mostly for marching bands; now, due to COVID, they run about $5 a piece—even when they’re embossed with the UB logo on them. Some instruments, like flutes, cannot use covers, so the department bought “wind defenders,” which clip onto the flute and block any aerosols from coming in and out. The new regulations also require brass players to empty their instruments’ spit valves onto paper towels.
Even with all the changes and stressful new routines, Gawlak’s passion and dedication to music has only continued to grow.
“It is disappointing that we only get to play with half of our usual group, but I have been able to form closer bonds with the individuals in my group,” Gawlak said. “That’s one thing that the pandemic could never change: the passion, dedication and positivity that everyone brings to rehearsal. All of which feels more present this semester than any previous semester.”
According to the Music Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies Eric Huebner who is also an associate professor and the director of the Music Department’s concert committee, about 40% of the courses in the Music Department are in-person. Performances are now live streamed from the concert hall—all are free and available on the UB Department of Music’s YouTube and Facebook page.
“The advantage of [streaming] is that, for some of our students, they’ll be able to share, with their families that are maybe in another country, their performance as it’s happening,” Huebner said. “I think we were long overdue to kind of incorporate streaming technology as part of our concert programming.”
When UB switched to remote learning in March, music faculty had to quickly think of alternative ways for students to receive credit for the cancelled music activities including ensemble concerts, student recitals and visiting artists concerts.
“[We had to give] students, who were set to graduate, credit for a final recital that they couldn’t play. We had to come up with various ways of doing that [like] having them submit recordings that they made on their phone,” Huebner said. “That’s obviously not a great situation. One has to make compromises, of course, for the safety of everyone and the community.”
Gawlak says the entire music department is in a better situation this semester because they are able to make music again.
“I couldn’t be more grateful that I still have an opportunity to play in band this semester. Band has always been an outlet for me — something that I enjoy and can use as a distraction.” Gawlak said. “This semester, distractions are not only needed for me, but necessary. If I didn’t have band, I wouldn’t be coping as well with the hardships of the semester. It certainly hasn’t been easy trying to adjust to all of the new protocols in place as well as navigating new techniques to improve sound quality, but I think we’ve done a great job trying to make the most of it.”
Since COVID can spread via aerosols — liquid droplets flying from our mouths through the air — the safety of performing with wind instruments and in choirs has become a primary concern for the Music Department.
“The whole concern over aerosols and aerosol transmission is a huge issue when you’re talking about musicians who are not only talking in a room together, let’s say in context of a lesson, but they’re playing their instruments and a lot of those instruments are wind instruments,” Huebner said. “[Also,] one of the more active areas of our department is the vocal area with chorus, choir and all of that. So we came up with a number of creative solutions.”
Huebner has an advantage because the piano is not an aerosol transmitting instrument, and his courses can easily be taught one-on-one in a large studio space. But the other ensemble groups had to figure out how to remain safe. Department Chair Jonathan Golove, who is an associate professor, cellist and composer, spent the entire summer planning the proper precautions.
“What we’re doing is basically only ensembles were essentially forced to divide themselves in half and sometimes more than half in cases like the orchestra.” Huebner said. “The choir and chorus are rehearsing outside [with masks] The other thing is that our entire rehearsals and classroom scheduling has been changed. Courses that would meet in smaller classrooms are now meeting in our large rehearsal rooms.”
Gawlak says she has never questioned her safety during rehearsals and the only downside is the covers muffle the sound quality, which the band has learned new techniques to account for. Even with the new precautions, in-person rehearsals and new courses are a positive addition to the current semester, according to Nelson.
“I think that the students who are [in-person], at least the ones I deal with, are very serious about their studies, and music is important to them,” Nelson said. “The students obviously feel that they need it. They want to do it because my students are spending 10 to 12 hours a day on a computer, and that, to me, is gonna cause permanent brain damage. Music might be the thing that keeps you from going over the edge.”
Anastasia Wilds is an assistant arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @AnastasiaWilds