Taking the Ensembles Digital: Performance Program Directors Adapt to a Remote Environment

Screenshot of the Women's Ensemble in a remote recorded performance


By Daniel Meyers (Originally published May 11, 2020; Updated November 23, 2020)

When faculty and instructors began preparing for a move to online instruction in the spring of 2020, it was clear that while there would be a steep learning curve, the task was generally possible. There was a bounty of resources on the internet (almost an overwhelming amount), and although this would be the first time teaching online for many of the Music Department faculty, it was not an altogether novel mode of instruction.

The prospect was much more challenging for the Department’s Performance Program and its ensemble directors and instructors. How do you teach an instrument or singing online? Could the new technology everyone was suddenly learning about and championing even support that? And what about large ensembles like the Symphony Orchestra and University Chorus? Video conferencing is already difficult enough when you have multiple people simply trying to talk—How could you possibly do it with dozens of students playing and singing at the same time?

It quickly became evident that simply holding ensemble rehearsals and teaching via Zoom the same way as it is done in person would be impossible. But as one might expect from musicians and performers, the ensemble directors got creative, developing unique ways of keeping students engaged in performance remotely

Fostering Collaboration from Afar

Even though ensembles haven’t been able to make music together in the traditional sense, program directors have found unique ways for their musicians to collaborate. Some groups, such as the South Asian Music Ensemble led by Minu Pasupathi, have adapted pre-pandemic practices for a new style of remote collaboration.

When they were still meeting in person, Bertie Kibreah, an ethnomusicologist specializing in South Asian music, would regularly record backing tracks for the South Asian Music Ensemble in GarageBand (a built-in music recording software for Apple computers and mobile devices), which the ensemble could then use to practice outside of rehearsal.


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Guitarist and cellist Roberto Cohen (first year in the College double majoring in Physics and Math) uses Adobe Premier to create a montage video performance for the South Asian Music Ensemble’s virtual spring showcase concert. The entire ensemble includes vocalists, sitar, guitar, slide guitar, flute, bamboo flute, harmonium, fretless bass, harp, violin, and a number of percussionists. You can watch the concert here.

In the new remote environment, Kibreah extended that practice one step further. After receiving the typical backing track, members of the ensemble recorded their own parts individually and added them to the base, eventually resulting in a complete piece. Though the technology was once new to many of the musicians, they leaned-into the learning curve, eventually producing an entire recital showcase that was streamed on Facebook at the end of the spring quarter.

The Middle East Music Ensemble and its director Wanees Zarour are using similar methods this fall to create a recording of a piece titled “Picture” by Armenian-Turkish-American composer Ara Dinkjian. Zarour created his own arrangement of the piece to fit the size of his ensemble, and he then created a backing track that 40 of the ensemble members are using to record their parts individually. In addition to recording the work, the ensemble met with the composer via Zoom to learn more about his style, the piece, and his inspirations. Zarour hopes to release the final recording in early December.

Other instructors have made use of popular apps that allow the combination of multiple performance videos into one. The Afro-Cuban Folkloric Ensemble, used the app to create a virtual performance with his ensemble. Each of the students in the ensemble contributed their parts as collaborators.

The Percussion Ensemble, led by John Corkill, worked in collaboration with Clare Longendyke and the Chamber Music Program to do something similar. Together, students and performance program directors recorded the world premiere of a new piece by UChicago Ph.D. composer Andrew Stock. “We spent time over Zoom ‘rehearsing’ the soundworld that fit Andrew’s piece, discussing the deeper meaning behind the work… and understanding Andrew’s unique approach to notation,” explained Longendyke. After discussing balance, tone production, and other elements that would usually be addressed in person, each member of the ensemble recorded their part remotely before everything was put together digitally.

The University Wind Ensemble and director Nicholas Carlson took part in an even bigger collaboration. The Wind Ensemble joined with a consortium of 27 university and high school music ensembles to collaboratively realize a new piece commissioned from composer Ryan Williams. Members from the Wind Ensemble participated by preparing their parts individually and then recording themselves playing the entire piece in one take. They were provided with a click track that also contained a MIDI version of the piece, which provided participants a starting point for intonation and musical interpretation. After each member felt they had adequately prepared, they made a video recording of themselves playing their part while listening to the click/MIDI file on headphones.

A Re-focus on Fundamentals

Like many who are dealing with this extraordinarily unusual and challenging set of circumstances, the performance program directors are finding silver-linings to a very un-ideal situation. With a compressed quarterly academic calendar at the University, the Performance Program ensembles often don’t have the time to delve deeply into the history and context of a piece and to explore its many nuances and particulars. Now, however, with live performances on hold, ensemble and program directors have been able to engage their students in that sort of deep exploration, which the musicians will then be able to bring back into rehearsal when in-person activities are able to resume.

Ensembles like the University Symphony Orchestra, University Chamber Orchestra, and the Early Music Ensemble have delved deeply into their respective repertoires, engaging in collective score-study and exploring music history and performance practice. In their remote meetings, they’ve investigated the printed music, analyzed harmony and forms, and discussed varying approaches reflected in different recordings of the same piece. University Symphony Orchestra musicians, for example, have studied the symphonies of Alexander Glazunov, Allan Petersson, Franz Schmidt, Kurt Atterberg, Joseph-Guy Ropartz, and Ahmed Adnan Saygun, as well as more familiar orchestral masterpieces by Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Dvořák, Debussy, Ravel, and Bartók, all under the guidance of long-time Music Director Barbara Schubert.  The Chamber Orchestra players, under the direction of Matthew Sheppard, have investigated works such as Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, Respighi's Trittico Botticelliano, Schubert's Symphony No. 4, Still's Danzas de Panama, and more.  The Early Music Ensemble, guided by Craig Trompeter, has explored the well known madrigals of Monteverdi, mass settings by 16th century English composer William Byrd, and the music of Josquin des Prez and his contemporaries. Along with the USO, the various instrumental ensembles have explored an array of supplemental topics in their weekly meetings: from theory and orchestration to historical performance practice, from principles of conducting and latitude in interpretation to Alexander technique, injury prevention, and efficient practice habits — all subjects they rarely have the opportunity to investigate during in-person rehearsals. 

Wanees Zarour, director of the Middle East Music Ensemble, used rehearsal time in the spring to develop ensemble members’ theoretical knowledge of Middle Eastern music. Unique from European music and what many children learn in elementary music classes and lessons, Middle Eastern music relies on a series of modes, or maqamat, that include intricacies such as microtones and improvised ornamentation, which are not found in European music. Without performances to prepare for, Zarour was able to focus on those unique characteristics of the music and deepen his musicians’ knowledge of how those elements work together. When the ensemble returns in person to the Logan Center, Zarour hopes this will only strengthen the group’s understanding of the music and its performances.

The new digital environment has also offered unique opportunities for students and program directors to engage with musicians from outside of Chicago. The Early Music Ensemble has presented workshops by Sarah Mead, the Director of the Early Music Collegium at Brandeis University, and soprano Winifred Brown.  Mollie Stone, who leads the University Chorus and Women’s Ensemble, has invited guest artists from around the world – including South Africa, the Republic of Georgia, Bulgaria, Nigeria, Ukraine, Iran, Madagascar, Cuba, Quebec, Bosnia, Corsica, and Appalachia – to share vocal exercises and characteristic folk songs that her choir members are able to practice individually. The guests have also shared their approaches to specific musical challenges in their repertoires, which the ensemble then discusses together as a group.  James Kallembach, director of the Motet Choir and Rockefeller Chapel Choir, has likewise engaged outside groups such as Roomful of Teeth and the Concertmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society of Boston to talk about non-Western techniques, musical appropriation, and historical performance practice respectively.  This fall the Rockefeller Chapel Choir has been recording a series of short podcast performances by groups of two to four singers – masked and socially distanced, of course!

Directors and Artists-in-Residence are also offering small-group and one-on-one instruction remotely. Teaching lessons and coaching small ensembles virtually still poses its challenges, but through creative solutions, students and teachers have been able to find success in these meetings. Cello Artist-in-Residence Seth Parker Woods, for instance, has invited students to send him recordings of themselves playing a piece they are learning; then, in virtual meetings, Woods offers feedback and discusses techniques for improvement with the students. Eugenia Jeong, the Director of Piano Studies, hosts a weekly “Performance Class” in which students share pre-recorded videos of themselves playing, which are then discussed with the class. In another case, vocal instructor Jeffrey Ray and Patrice Michaels have students sing along to pre-recorded accompaniment tracks. Not only have these creative strategies allowed one-on-one instructors to overcome some unique challenges, they have offered an opportunity similar to the virtual large ensemble meetings: a chance to re-focus on music fundamentals.

Seth Parker Woods Coaches students on Maurice Ravel's Duo for Violin and Cello

A Social Opportunity

Perhaps most importantly, the ensembles and programs in the Music Department have continued to offer opportunities for social and creative release. This is a key objective of the Performance Program in normal times, in addition to developing participants’ skills and fostering a lifelong relationship with music, and it has become doubly important in a time when live performances have all but ceased and opportunities to make music together have been limited.

With regular meetings at the same time each week, students and community members have been able to see each other’s faces and take a break from the regular irregularity of work and school during a pandemic. Performance Program members have also broadened their circles, getting to know colleagues whom they had perhaps previously seen only in rehearsals, and meeting professional guest artists who, thanks to a virtual environment, have been able to join ensemble meetings from all around the world.

The creativity of the Performance Program directors shines through on this front as well. In addition to creating opportunities to make music and practice their skills remotely, Directors have devised unique ways to inject a little fun and get ensemble and program members to share a bit about themselves. In the Chamber Music Program, director Clare Longendyke has asked students to create personal playlists of music that matches their unique idea of “home,” and James Kallembach, who directs the Motet and Rockefeller Chapel Choirs, has started a podcast that features a different student’s solo performance on each episode. University Wind Ensemble director Nicholas Carlson created an electro-acoustic composition project that he calls "Sound Teams" in which students in a group share short sound recordings that they then develop into larger works. Even though students aren't able to play together in person, they are still able to make music with others in a collaborative and social way. 

What the Performance Programs continue to offer at this time are opportunities for students and community members to socialize and engage creatively together on a regular basis. Though the modes of engagement are different, Performance Program members have been able to stay connected with each other and with music at a time when perhaps they need it most.