Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way: Music Studies in the Age of COVID-19

Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way: Music Studies in the Age of COVID-19

Performing music has never been more of a feat of teamwork and physical maneuvering, at least initially for sophomore Haylee Meissner, who is minoring in trumpet performance. As the semester began virtually in late August, Meissner was having trouble recording her trumpet performances to submit electronically as part of the course requirement. 

If she plays her trumpet comfortably next to her computer, the computer’s internal audio can’t capture the instrument at such a close range without distorting the sound. Her solution? Having her sister press the record button on her computer while she starts playing from outside her bedroom door. 

“It took forever,” Meissner said. 

Stories like Meissner’s aren’t unique among students in the School of Music. As a discipline, music students are constantly on-the-go with their tightly-packed schedules. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended these structures and given rise to a myriad of questions, confusion, and challenges. 

Yet students and faculty in the School of Music prevail in the face of unprecedented obstacles. Meissner was able to overcome her recording problem when given a microphone from the School to use. 

“I can plug it in my computer, I can control the audio, and I can sit here [at my desk] and play. That was a huge improvement for me,” Meissner said.

According to audio engineer and senior music student majoring in percussion instrument Abbey Mellado, the School of Music initially rented out USB microphones to students due to limited supply but has since purchased more to give to students to keep. She estimates that there are now at least 130 students in the School to have received these microphones. The School also purchased a music production software called Pro Tools, which costs $599 and up, for audio engineers like Mellado.

“The School of Music’s decision to purchase that software for us was a really generous and kind thing. [The software] is the industry standard so it’s really useful to have after college,” Mellado said. “During college, obviously, it’s a great way to become familiar with editing audio so that’s definitely some new technology that I’m excited about.”

The software is helping Mellado edit together video submissions of performances from other students, with each student playing along a click track, into a music video for the percussion studio.  

“It’s definitely never been done before in the percussion studio. It’s a first and it’s exciting,” Mellado said. 

Likewise, Meissner’s symphonic band purchased student subscriptions for an online website called Smart Music, where the instructor presses play and students can play along with each other, albeit individually muted. 

Another particular point of excitement comes from the preparation of a virtual Feast of Lights taking place in December, according to sophomore Piano Performance major Hanako Duffie. Feast of Lights is an annual event of the University featuring musical performances from students to celebrate the Christmas season. What makes this year’s Feast different, besides from being virtual, the director of Choral Studies Nicholle Andrews, who is in charge of Feast, will be filming herself conducting to the pianist’s track so that students can play along with her movements in their submissions. 

“It feels like live music,” Duffie said. 

“Virtual ensembles” or “online concerts” as they are known in the School of Music, like those described above, are a unique feature brought about by this semester’s remote instructions. This elicits mixed reactions from the students. 

For Mellado, not being in-person constitutes an interpersonal difficulty. 

“I feel like so much of making music is bringing an emotional presence as a group together, [when] everyone is feeling and interpreting a piece of music together at the moment. Not having that same emotional connection is just a bit different. It’s something to get used to.” she said. 

Meanwhile, Meissner explained her impartiality towards having to submit video recordings of her performances, citing the pros and cons of the format. According to her, on one hand, live performances are an experience in itself, but there is only one chance to get it right. On the other hand, in video recordings, you can repeat the process until satisfied, but at the cost of having to perform by yourself. 

“I was pleasantly surprised by how [the School of Music] was approaching this [challenge] and how we’re getting it done,” Meissner said. 

She notes that at the beginning, she was confused about how these online concerts were going to be done, but consistent communication from the School of Music has helped her alleviate some of the anxiety. She especially enjoys the additional factor from the fact that the director of the School of Music Dr. Joseph Modica made his announcement communicating expectations for the Fall semester in a video rather than an email. 

Duffie and freshman majoring in Music Education and Clarinet Performance, David Johnson, told The Redlands Bulldog this:

“The School of Music is doing a phenomenal job of still embodying that sense of community and collaboration even though we’re not there physically and creating an interactive curriculum so I’m grateful for that. And all of our faculty and staff is just really amazing,” said Duffie. 

“They’re going pretty well, better than I expected … it’s a pretty good system,” Johnson said. 

Beyond the technological difficulty, everyday life also presents challenging obstacles to music students. Duffie recounts how she has to maneuver her schedule to find a time to record that doesn’t interfere with her family’s schedule and her own class time. Meanwhile, music student Ramiro Tapia takes a different approach by taking liberty with his recording time, “with no regards to the other neighbors,” he laughed.  

Despite the adversity, there are silver linings. Mellado said that the online structure gives her more time to work on her assignments, as she is usually very busy having to go from one place to another. For Tapia, it’s even better because he doesn’t have to pay for room and board. 

Meanwhile, junior majoring in Composition and Voice, Jamison Stevens, feels that online instructions allow classes to have guest speakers from all over the country or even the world “that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to invite because everyone’s busy.”

Furthermore, he enjoys being able to contact people faster and more conveniently. “Chances are, the person you’re reaching is sitting at home,” Stevens laughed. 

Most importantly, Stevens stresses the importance of staying positive about whatever good things that come. 

“We’re all in a situation that we don’t prefer, but I think we’re all trying to get through it, one step at a time … Obviously, there are some things that are more challenging than others, but I like to think of every challenge as a blessing in disguise … We’re making the best of it … And [the faculty] know it, and we know it … this sort of mutual cooperation and team effort to make things as good as we can,” Stevens said.

Photo by William Vasta.