SHEPHERDSTOWN – Part of the joy in making music is artists coming together to create something wonderful. When COVID-19 hit, those musicians in the Shepherd School of Music, like all around the world, lost they love for a time, with concerts canceled, ensembles called off and in-person classes halted.
Since that time, the Shepherd music department has been doing everything in its power to help cultivate a way to regain as much normalcy as possible, the staff researching and brainstorming much of the summer. Because of that work, the music students are now able go through the school year as close to normal as possible, the staff putting plenty of measures in place as everyone involved finds a sense of excitement and comfort in being together yet again.
“This is a really interesting time to be a musician or a performer of any kind,” said Kurtis Adams, director of the School of Music. “It’s almost been surreal. We’re all used to living these busy lives with performing schedules and teaching schedules. We spent six months, basically, not even getting to make music with people. I can’t even point to a time in my life where that happened before. I’ve been playing music since I was 9.”
While they couldn’t be together to create, the directors collaborated virtually and figured out what to do once August came, the hope being education would be back in person. Adams said the group normally takes summers off to work on their professional music careers and break away from the classroom for a time, but, with the abrupt ending to last year, the group was focused on providing the best they could for students, overcoming any challenge that presented itself.
Because of the nature of ensembles – larger groups of musicians coming together to collaborate – most time is spent outside when possible to provide that distancing desired during the pandemic. Those who are playing string or percussion instruments where masks while playing, while those with brass or woodwinds use bell covers on the end of their instruments, what Adams described as “masks for instruments.” There are also plastic shields utilized to help mitigate any spread.
With precautions in place, music students and educators were welcomed back to campus late in the summer with a new energy, eager to reconnect with fellow artists and return to the programs they love. Until that time, music was mainly being made through personal practices or virtual sessions.
“Excited barely covers it,” Adams laughed. “It’s so much better when we’re together.”
Adams was a part of one of the first Salon Series performances this year for the school, playing with nearly decade-long friends. Describing the comfort and buzz in performing again, the happiness in his voice was obvious.
“We just had a good time,” he said.
While guidelines were in place for those using instruments, for those whose voices are their instrument, more obstacles were presented. After doing research on the best way to conduct, choral and singing work continues to be virtual, though Dr. Rachel Carlson, director of choral activities, diligently sought the best platform possible, now using Jamulus, a video chat program like Zoom created for musicians that has less of a lag than other platforms.
“It’s an art form dependent upon timing,” Adams explained. “They’ve managed to do it and have really, really productive rehearsals.”
Though students are back in the classroom in some capacity, and rehearsals are taking place in some shape, learning music itself is different in current times. Instead of the frequent rehearsal times and the constant collaboration, there’s much more responsibility placed in the individual to come prepared come performance time, something more reminiscent of a professional, real-world experience rather than college.
“It’s a little bit different than the old days,” Adams said. “They’re getting the same content, but it’s being learned differently. They’re actually getting more of (the real-world) experience now. They’re rising to the occasion quite well. That’s a silver lining in a way.”
The excitement surrounding the return to music hasn’t dwindled since the summer, Adams laughing and recalling how quickly students responded to him in the summer when he asked if they would prefer to do the program intended originally for spring when music directors decided there would be performance experience of some sort this semester no matter what.
“It was a very quick email turnaround for the summertime,” he said.
Some programs will be using the music already learned, working to now knock off the rust and find perfection, while others are using the events of this summer to inspire the music selection: working to showcase the art of black composers and musicians, as well as women and other minorities.
“It’s really wonderful. Music is often seen as a unifying force, something that can bring hope or comfort,” Adams said. “It can also help spread a message. It’s a great thing we’re all trying to do.”
In an interview with program assistant Christina Smith, Carlson said she typically works to highlight those artists sometimes overlooked, but this year, shining a light on them is more important than ever, her focus being on using the work of artists that create outside of genres they are generally thought to be in, such as black composers in gospel music.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Adams said about crafting the performance lists. “There’s so much music in the world. It’s only right it all can be shared. There are a lot of music that what one would typically expect– like gospel – that’s by black composers and women composers. It’s very important (to share those pieces).”
While the ensemble performances are not prepared just yet, musicians in the program are already getting back in the swing of making music together as part of the yearly Salon Series, which features the talent of the faculty and guest performers in normal years. Adams thanked Jefferson Security Bank for its longtime support of the program, support that helped allow the program to go on this year in on a virtual platform. Salon Series performances are shared on YouTube in light of the virus pandemic, donations accepted virtually to support the School of Music in lieu of the usual tickets purchased.
“The Salon Series is really special,” Adams said. “It’s an opportunity for all our teachers to get a chance to perform. That Salon Series is consistently a great opportunity for the students to hear (their teachers perform).”
Adams said the students don’t necessarily get to hear their professors perform to their full potential in a classroom setting, that atmosphere focused on the development of the young artists. But the Salon Series provides that experience, one that can be inspiring for the students.
Because of COVID-19, there won’t be any guest performers this go-around; however, that doesn’t mean there’s any lack of talent to showcase.
“We’re taking the opportunity to feature the faculty,” Adams said. “We have a treasure trove of talent. It’s never hard to fill those Salon Series dates.”