Shepherd University School of Music Adapts and Succeeds
The Music School at Shepherd University makes a point to be a highly personalized experience for its students. In contrast to many programs at larger institutions, Shepherd is focused on undergraduates and emphasizes the opportunities for its students to study directly with faculty. Unfortunately, the very adjectives that one would use to describe music programs in general and Shepherd’s program specifically — intimate, group, performance, together — also describe the activities the health department advises against during the pandemic health crisis.
Can We Do This?
Kurtis Adams, Director of the School of Music, recalled the experience of the spring and summer: “April is our big time in the School, with our ensembles performing their final concerts. We pretty much lost all of that when we cancelled everything just two weeks before the performances would have begun.” After pulling together what they could for the spring, the faculty dove into full time planning mode over the summer. Dr. Adams described the team: “Of our eight dedicated faculty, we have four members who focus on the performance programs — Dr. Scott Hippensteel who oversees the band programs, Dr. Rachel Carlson who oversees the choir groups, Dr. Robert Tudor who oversees the contemporary music ensemble; I oversee the jazz ensembles.” The first question the group asked: “Is it even possible to do group performance”?
Following the lead of how the entire University approached the public health situation, “we researched safety protocols, connected with professional organizations, and attended webinars,” Dr. Adams described. “The University of Colorado and the University of Maryland in particular were good resources — their music schools collaborated with their medical schools on real-time academic research to understand how to perform safely. We would read the first iterations of their research, then tweak our plans as their guidance was updated. We found hardware for the instruments that would function as masks to capture moisture. It was an absolute focus on making practice and group performance possible.”
Timing the Music
The planning even extended to the specific music performed by each program. Dr. Adams remarked, “you have to consider what you can achieve in a shortened period of practice time. The logistics of planning around rehearsal windows also limited what we would be able to perform and how we would be able to focus on the various parts. In a typical year an ensemble will have six weeks on a repertoire. This year we have two weeks to learn, practice and play. For students, this translates into a lot more practice on their own with focused preparation for rehearsal. Interestingly, this more closely mimics the experience of a professional musician, where having more than one rehearsal before a show is a luxury. Especially for the jazz musicians, it’s good practice to be able to walk into a performance and sight read the music.”
How to Practice
Each group was able to take a different approach to practice. Dr. Adams described the technology the vocal groups use to practice online: “We use the Jamulus platform, which provides a low latency environment. We also have the ability to upload accompaniment tracks for students to practice against.” With the football season postponed to the spring, the band ensembles revised the semester curriculum to focus on small group repertoire.
For all of the small ensemble groups, “we’re able to do a lot of practice outside,” Dr. Adams said, “but we also needed to work through protocols to practice inside the Frank Center so we can continue into the fall. With the size of that space we can maintain a lot of distance [see the accompanying photo of the choir practicing together] and we can open up all of the side doors for good ventilation. We work for 30 minutes, take a 15 minute break to allow the air to clear and then follow with another 30 minutes, then we’re done for the day.”
For performance, Dr. Adams expects all of the groups will do live recordings with no audience. “We’ve already had some experience with this and it is interesting how it changes the concert dynamic. You don’t get to mingle with the audience after the concert, but because the performers are also watching for the first time when we broadcast for the audience, they have the opportunity to chat with each other during the ‘performance’ and also see the audience reaction in real time. We can also reach a wider audience online — distant family members and people who can’t make the evening concert schedule.”
Asked about whether he would consider continuing with the new formats beyond the pandemic, Dr. Adams noted, “we might evolve these efforts into something we continue as part of the program or as a stand-alone project for students. But really, we would rather be performing for a live audience.”Steve Pearson