College Music Students Meet Crisis with Creativity

College music students are meeting the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis with creativity.

by Ashley Eady

With their conservatories, colleges and universities closed and classes moved online, college music students have found the disruption posing interesting challenges. So much of music-making involves physical contact and in-person communication. Think about rehearsals, performances, side gigs, posture corrections to prevent repetitive motion injury, and much more. Music students are also used to spending huge amounts of time in soundproof practice rooms; making use of their schools’ cutting edge technology; and performing in clubs, churches, at events, etc. that offer much-needed income streams.

“Musicians dream of having surplus time to practice. Being home has led to some major breakthroughs in my playing but has also deepened my appreciation to be fortunate enough to attend college,” said sophomore bass player David Richards, who’s majoring in Jazz Studies at Butler University School of Music. “Not being able to be on campus shows you just how special college is at creating that nurturing environment for you to learn and grow and also reveals sometimes how much we can take it for granted.”

Cool discoveries

Despite all the limitations, music students are finding creative ways to adapt while distancing and away from their schools. They are utilizing available technology wherever they’re sheltering to connect and make music with their peers. From virtual choirs, to quartet rehearsals via Zoom, to solo “duets,” here are some ways music students are managing to survive—and even thrive—during these frightening and uncertain times.

• Abby Ferri, a senior flute major at Ithaca College School of Music, has weekly virtual dinners with her flute studio. “It’s been really fun, we talk, we play games and just laugh together! Having that community has definitely been helpful.”

• Tommy Dainko, a student at the Lamont School of Music at the University of Denver, has missed access to instruments and equipment. “I’m a percussionist and so lots of the instruments I use were only available to me at school,” he said.

Dainko was fortunate enough to be able to bring home some of the school instruments. But then he encountered a new challenge: fitting them all into the small two-bedroom townhouse he shares with his mom and sister. “Right now, I have a marimba taking up a whole chunk of our living room and a bunch of drums and a pair of cymbals in my bedroom,” he admitted. He has also had to work his practice sessions around the work schedules of his mother and his neighbors.

“I have to make sure I get most of my practicing done during the normal daytime hours so not to upset the neighbors we share a wall with,” he said. “We did check in with them to let them know that this was all going to be happening and they were surprisingly supportive with it all!”

• Ella Hebrard, a freshman bassoon major at University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music, has found an innovative way to perform with her peers. “The bassoon quartet I’m playing in is working on a way to combine individual recordings so we can still ‘perform’ our quartet together,” she explained.

“We’ve been doing Zoom meetings and talking in our group chat to decide the best way to go about that. Our first trial (and consequent meetings) have gone pretty well! We put all our recordings on a track and listened to it together while in a meeting, then talked about what else we could do to make it better. We think we’ve got enough of a handle on it to move on to the repertoire we were rehearsing when we could meet in person and [start] piecing it together.”

• Cameron Roberts, a senior Music Performance student at Northwestern University Bienen School of Music who is double majoring in Computer Science, is collaborating on a piece with a composer friend.

• David Richards, the Butler bass player, has found a creative way to keep up his practice schedule. In addition to creating a corner of the basement for music only (no tv, no computers, no phone), he said, “What I did was make ‘extra classes’ in my day. So from 9-10 am I have a ‘warm-up and scales class.’ Then I have a small break and practice some of my repertoire for 30 minutes or an hour if need be. Then I have regular online classes. And from 5-6 pm I have a ‘play whatever I want’ class. This gives me creative freedom and allows me to have a stress-free fun time with my bass. After that if there is anything remaining for me to accomplish or needs some more focused practicing, I have the free time that night to do some more acute practicing.”

Richards and other jazz majors stay connected through a game they created called ‘hear a lick, play a lick.’ He explained, “You record yourself playing a really cool lick or solo idea and tag your friends in it. Once they hear your lick then they have to record their own and nominate others.”

• Arturo Garcia, a sophomore Music Education major at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music, uses an app on his phone to perform with his colleagues. “One thing I have done myself is create online collaborations with my peers, usually on the app Acapella, available in the IOS App Store,” he said. “I have set up duets with many peers, which is a fun way to stay in touch with your musical colleagues.”

• Maya Davis, a senior clarinetist and Music Education major at Butler University School of Music, is student teaching this semester. She is working hard to help music feel like a welcome break from the online overload students have had to cope with. “My cooperating teacher and I have been working together in brainstorming different activities for each grade level,” she said. “We try to give a variety of activities to choose from—listening to a podcast or watching a video and answering questions, practicing a song we learned in class, exploring your house for things to make music with.

“My favorite activities involve singing to or with a family member—I think what we do in music class is really important to share with families. I think this is a great opportunity to encourage that sharing and bonding, so we’re hopefully creating musical experiences for people beyond just our students!”

• Shelbie Rassler, a senior composition major at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, took things even further by organizing a virtual choir. Rassler was initially feeling devastated by being unable to spend her last semester of college on campus. So she decided to come up with a way to bring her musician colleagues together. She arranged and put together a virtual performance and video of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” The video includes dozens of students singing, playing instruments, and dancing to the song. It has amassed 1.6 million views on YouTube and caught the attention of NPR.

“The biggest takeaway that I personally gained from putting this project together is the power of community in getting through dark times together,” said Rassler. “While the individuals in the video have expressed how much it meant to them to be part of this project, I have also received thousands of messages in the last few days from people all around the world, explaining that the video brought them a sense of comfort and hope. It has been an unbelievable experience and I could not be more thrilled that the video is spreading positivity and even a temporary distraction from the uncertainty of our new reality. I would love to make something like this video again in the near future!”

As many aspects of daily life remain uncertain, one thing remains clear: in hard times, music brings people together. These students and many others have found creative ways to connect with each other despite the physical separation, and bring meaning and joy into a world that needs it.


Also See:

What the World Needs Now is Love – arr. by Shelbie Rassler

Ashley Eady is a music journalist based in the Nashville area. She studied Clarinet Performance at Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt University and Arts Journalism at University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Photo Credit: Shelbie Rassler

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