Finding Harmony Amidst Discord

April 25th, 2021 - 8:25am

Since mid-March 2020, performing arts industries worldwide have been hit hard by the pandemic, cancelling performances and dismantling production companies. Innovative instructors in College of Marin’s (COM) Performing Arts programs have found ways to artfully maneuver around these limitations. They continued to teach remotely, finding unique and creative ways for students to gain experience performing.

Finding Harmony Amidst Discord 

Music has always been a means of bringing people together, but in the age of COVID-19 and virtual learning environments, how can orchestras, choirs, jazz bands, and ensembles continue to thrive?

Ask COM’s Music program, which has married technology with instruction to figure out just that.

Pre-pandemic, it would have been unheard of to try and hold a performance over a video conferencing platform. Then again, no one saw COVID-19 and its global repercussions coming. Music professors and instructors in the department, like everyone else, were caught off-guard and were forced to rethink the fundamentals of teaching music, and to do it fast.

“That was certainly the toughest time for all of us when we had to turn on a dime. It really was,” said Jim Stopher, chair of the Music program and orchestra instructor. “It was literally one week that we had. We were giving midterms as late as Friday of the week before spring break. Then spring break happened, and then, we were suddenly remote. We had to make a quick turnaround. But I think since then, the trajectory has been quite steep, and we've been improving quite rapidly since then.”

Stopher said the work to create a virtual learning environment was “at least twice the amount of work” compared to normal in-person instruction, and credits the faculty, instructors, and students who have stuck it out through virtual learning.

“(Virtual learning) is something we hope will be over soon-ish, but we're trying to make the best of it in the meantime,” said Stopher.

Community Overture

Once COVID-19 hit, the educators in the Performing Arts Department agreed: the initial goal with the onset of social distancing was to keep students engaged, encouraged and supported. 

Enrollment is often the benchmark colleges use to determine their perception in the community and the perceived quality of education. Student retention is a key metric indicator of the value current students believe they are getting out of their studies -- so the Music program must be doing something right. Enrollment has dipped somewhat, but by-and-large, about 70 percent of students have stayed on.

The Music program has remained an educational experience for its students, but it has also become a social channel during distance learning for many of its students. Stopher said this period, while very challenging in many ways, has helped him and other instructors really prioritize certain parts of the curriculum that they may not have in a face-to-face environment, including encouraging students to socialize with one another.

“I think that shows the importance of community because so many of our students are understandably feeling isolated. Sometimes when we're in person we forget,” Stopher said. “We found that the social aspect of having folks seeing other folks and chatting with them for 10 minutes before everything starts is probably one of the main drivers of people sticking with the group. And it’s even better that we can do fun musical activities on top of it.”

Ella Steinberg, COM’s interim director of the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, said 2020 and remote teaching was truly an exercise in trial-and-error. Although she and the other instructors were able to figure out ways to make instruction work, it also focused their attention on how to make their lessons meaningful to their students. For example, Steinberg tried using Zoom to create smaller chamber groups, but the Zoom environment did not provide the social aspect so many of her students needed at that time.

“We tried it once,” Steinberg said of the smaller chamber groups. “And my students said, ‘No, I think it's that sense of community we want.’ It was obvious what they really needed: to come together once a week in one place, even if it's just so they can see each other on screen that is really valuable.”

One example: a common Christmas-time tradition is to perform Handel’s Messiah. Choral Director Boyd Jarrell, thought it would be fun to have a virtual event. Called “Sing It, Play It, Drink It’, he had a previously recorded live COM performance of Messiah playing while those from COM’s 100-voice chorus, Marin Oratorio, and orchestra sang and played together remotely on mute.

“And a lot of the orchestra played their instruments, a lot of people sang and some people just sat at their dinner table and drank wine. It was exactly what I had hoped for – visiting,” said Jarrell. “There was an intermission where people visited, and people visited afterward. It was just a really nice party. None of us left our houses. But again, it's just trying to make lemonade, right?”

While the COM Music program sought to support its students through the trying and isolating year, the students, faculty, and instructors also wanted to share that sense of community with others beyond the College who were struggling. The desire to perform was very real, too.

For musical performances, group internet recordings are not feasible, because internet time-lag issues keep the timing off. To get around this, instructors had their ensemble, choir, and jazz band students each record their individual part of a particular song and submit them to instructors, who overlaid each student’s piece to create a group performance.

“And we watched this together (over Zoom) and just we treated it like a virtual concert,” Steinberg said.  “And our whole point was to bring the community together, not just for our class, but the larger community from the College, and we're in it together.”

The virtual concerts were far from the real thing, but they were meaningful and necessary.

Stay tuned for our last segment in COM’s performing arts series on how music instructors use technology to combat internet latency and bring new opportunities to their students.

Become part of COM’s contemporary Music program or show your support by donating. All donations go directly to the program and are tax-deductible.