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The news from campuses this past fall was anything but uplifting. Libraries, sports fields and campus centers were empty, and college just didn’t feel right without lots of classroom engagement with professors and other students.

My students at the University of Scranton were, like many across the country, also prevented by the pandemic from playing a woodwind or brass instrument in a band or singing in the choir this fall. We had all learned a new word -- aerosolization -- the spread of tiny droplets of our breath, which has been shown to increase significantly when playing wind instruments or singing. We offer no major in music, so we decided it just did not make sense to do things that increased risk -- especially since playing such instruments or singing was not part of those students’ formal curriculum nor, most likely, their future livelihood. Still, I wanted to help find a way they could make music together, because it's such an important outlet and means of expression for so many of them.

We did try doing remote sectionals early on for singers and winds, as well as “virtual choir” projects. We arranged for those students to safely use our small practice rooms individually by equipping each with its own free-standing air filter system, using UV light towers to sanitize spaces and UV light wands to sanitize piano keyboards, and leaving time for the space to be cleaned and cleared between uses. But those efforts still left us all feeling unsatisfied, since we weren’t actually making music with each other in person that way.

The pandemic did not limit opportunities for every musician on our campus. Those who played string and percussion instruments could be fully masked, and we were able to continue those ensembles, although in separate and smaller sections to enable safe setup and social distancing. So we asked ourselves: What if our wind musicians and singers pivoted and learned to make music another way? And we began offering choir members and woodwind and brass players the opportunity to learn to play a string or percussion instrument.

In doing so, we had to confront some challenges. For starters, we do not have a string teacher on our staff. I conduct the string orchestra and ensembles, but those musicians are all experienced players. That meant that I, a woodwind player, had to spend the summer really working on developing some solid basic violin, viola and cello chops to be able to teach those instruments to beginners. Fortunately, my colleague Janelle Decker is a percussion specialist and was delighted to start beginner percussion ensembles and bucket drumming groups, as well as to introduce interested students to our new steel drums.

It also became clear quickly that we needed a way to teach these instruments to adult beginners who were already musicians, a way that moved a little faster by building upon the knowledge and skills they had developed through their other musical pursuits. It had to be one that didn’t involve too much playing of children’s songs, which would risk boring them by progressing too slowly, but would effectively build necessary basic technique.

So we created our own methods. We added Zoom master classes with guest artists and friends of our program from places like the Boston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Juilliard School. I also began an intermittent online webcast called “Scranton Isolation Informances,” in which a changing panel of student, staff and alumni guest hosts discussed interdisciplinary topics with a number of acclaimed musicians we have had the privilege of making music with in past semesters.

The support we received in this undertaking was vital and came not only from within the institution but also from our alumni. Knowing how important making music together was to them while they were students, they responded with generous donations that allowed us to purchase dozens of string instruments, additional percussion equipment and steel drums from Trinidad and Tobago.

For the Love of Music

I recommend to other ensemble program directors that they consider pursuing experiments like ours. We’ve already seen the benefits and have had numerous positive responses from students.

Senior Abigail Buck, who has been playing trombone since fifth grade, is learning to play the cello and commented, “It's been fun and quite challenging to learn a completely new instrument.” Junior Peter Amicucci, a trumpet and euphonium player, is learning violin: “This shows how resilient we are as a music community and how passionate people are about music. It is honestly a blessing that I can still have music as an escape from what is happening in the world.”

Similarly, Michael Deutsch, a junior, said he can don a mask and pick up a cello or a set of drumsticks and express himself musically while getting away from academics and the stress of a pandemic. And senior Sara Pellegrino told me, “Music is one of my favorite things to do on campus; I don't do much else outside of my academics. So it's the one saving grace, I think, of this upcoming semester to still be able at some level to do what I love.”

One section of bucket drummers is made up mostly of members of the band’s low brass section. They are entertaining and amusing everyone with their enthusiasm, and have really shown an aptitude for the newly arrived steel drums.

Altogether, about 140 student musicians are participating in the COVID ensembles, including percussion groups, strings groups and the virtual choir project. We don’t have the number of students coming through that we would have in a normal semester. In a way that’s good, because doing nine smaller sections of 10 in place of rehearsing one 90-piece group takes much more work, especially considering all of the extra safety protocols and preparations.

There are some important things we should consider when creating and adapting opportunities for music making on short notice during these challenging times, and it is important to have a structure of support in place during normal times that can be mobilized quickly to meet special challenges. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

  • Stay mission-focused. Focus first on the goals and objectives of the programming you are creating and imagine it in a way that meets your ideal standards and supports your departmental and institutional mission. Only then consider ways to best find financial support for it.
  • Develop long-term relationships with students and your community audience members so that when you need those networks, they will already be in place. For example, many of our medical alumni who are former student musicians were invaluable resources, educating us on medical and scientific information as it developed and helping us to apply it in formulating our plan. Then alumni, representing 40 years of student musicians, contributed amounts ranging from $5 to $1,000 to fund what we needed, including dozens of new orchestral string instruments, an extra set of large percussion equipment and a full set of steel drums.
  • Marshal resources through partnerships with administrators and guest artists. Explain what you are doing, ask for their help and provide them with regular updates -- try to make those interesting so people look forward to them and want to know more. Remember when collaborating with colleagues from other disciplines that we are not just teaching students but also educating others of the significance of our programming.
  • Always be a musician. Continue to make music in a way that challenges you and maintain a modicum of skill on something in each musical family, whether or not you think you will ever be teaching it. Though I conduct orchestras, I hadn’t taught a string instrument in more than four decades and was saved by the fact that I had kept up at least a very basic solid beginner technique on violin that I was then able to build on.

In addition, I found I owed a strange debt of gratitude to my battle with head and neck cancer, since as a woodwind player, I had to start truly from scratch when I was again allowed to try to play my main instruments. This humbling process, along with developing my skills on other instruments during the time I was unable to play in order to express myself musically, made me intensely experience exactly what I ask students to do on a daily basis. It helped me develop a new appreciation for the challenges and pitfalls in materials, processes and timelines of traditional beginner instrumental approaches when used for adult learners who are already musically experienced in another instrument or voice.

When the time comes that we are able to safely resume all of our usual performance music offerings, our hope is that the students will come back to the bands and choirs having further developed their aural and rhythmic skills from their adventures in orchestral strings and percussion. Many have already stated their intention to continue on with their new instrument, in addition to resuming their membership in the bands or choirs.

Meanwhile, as an at-risk person -- an elderly overweight cancer survivor -- I am incredibly grateful that the students have been so focused, diligent and considerate about following our new COVID rules so that we can continue making music together. While we do not offer a music major at Scranton, we nonetheless have hundreds of students who rehearse and perform simply for the love of making music and sharing it with others. I’m so glad we could continue to allow them to express that love during this difficult time.

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