Making music in the time of COVID

When George Mason University students returned for the fall semester in late August, things looked a little different, but the excitement of a new semester was the same. Students in John Aler’s opera class were happy to be back on campus, especially now that their classroom was in the Center for the Arts.

“We haven’t been able to perform,” said Aler, an opera singer and an associate professor in George Mason University’s Sid and Reva Dewberry Family School of Music. “So the students were just excited to be live and in person.”

The 15 students in the class were spaced out around the Concert Hall. Aler and his colleague, Joseph Walsh, were on stage along with the accompanying pianist Eunae Ko Han. Everyone was masked except for the voice student who was singing at the time.

The faculty and staff of the Dewberry Family School of Music have spent the summer planning for this. Linda Apple Monson, the school’s director, said they have been working with the National Association of Schools of Music and researching best practices to make this return to campus safe for students and faculty.

These measures included analyzing the air flow in the ventilation systems of the de Laski Performing Arts Building, where several groups—including the Wind Symphony and the Percussion Ensemble—are making music in person as well as virtually. Information about the ventilation system was used to plan the spaces and movements of the musicians, who would be playing behind Plexiglas shields within their distanced areas.

Normally, the Wind Symphony has about 70 players, said John Kilkenny, associate director of concert bands and director of percussion studies at the school. The musical groups are smaller in size than they normally would be, with Wind Symphony having 63 participants registered this fall, 42 of them who are coming to campus. These musicians are being put into even smaller groups working on different pieces of music on different days of the week.

“Normally our students would play in more than one group, but we are trying to reduce contact between students and limit time on campus,” Kilkenny said.

He said they are trying to turn these limits into opportunities by performing repertoire written for smaller ensembles, pieces of music the larger symphony would not normally tackle.

Those conducting—Kilkenny and doctoral music student Samantha Clarke—are masked and elevated so musicians can see them despite the barriers. Clarke, a flutist who is working on a doctor of musical arts degree, was eager to work with the Wind Symphony.

“For conducting, you really need to be in front of the group to hone that skill,” said Clarke, who added that she hasn’t been on the podium since February. “I’m excited to jump back into it.”

Kilkenny also said that Mark Camphouse, the school’s director of concert bands, will be working with the musicians virtually and offering master classes. They also plan to bring in guest artists virtually for these master classes, which might cover performance tips or career advice.

The school is also offering virtual ensembles and groups.

“What we are doing is providing options,” said Monson, who is also a University Distinguished Service Professor, “so that for those students who are international students or local and just not comfortable coming on campus, they are able to proceed with their degree with everything done virtually. And they will have a first-class education.”

She added: “I'd like to think that what we have is the best of all worlds in this situation that we've been given with the restrictions we have due to COVID and with all the social distancing in place.”