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

Screenshot of Adobe Premiere project by the South Asian Music Ensemble

By Daniel Meyers

When faculty and instructors began preparing for a move to online instruction for the 2020 Spring Quarter, 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 have gotten creative, developing unique ways of keeping students engaged in performance remotely.

Fostering Collaboration from Afar

Even though ensembles aren’t able to make music together in the traditional sense, program directors are finding unique ways for their musicians to collaborate. Some, like South Asian Music Ensemble co-directors Bertie Kibreah (PhD ’19) and Minu Pasupathi, are adapting pre-pandemic practices for a new style of remote collaboration.

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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 upcoming virtual concert, to be streamed during finals week. The entire ensemble includes vocalists, sitar, guitar, slide guitar, flute, bamboo flute, harmonium, fretless bass, harp, violin, and a number of percussionists. More information about the concert forthcoming.

When they were still meeting in person, Kibreah, an ethnomusicologist specializing in South Asian music, would regularly record backing tracks 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.

Now, in the new remote environment, Kibreah is extending that practice one step further. After he sends out his typical backing track, members of the ensemble record their own parts individually and add them to his, eventually resulting in a complete piece. Though the technology is new to many of the musicians, they’ve leaned-into the learning curve, and they are now working on a full video “collage” recording to share in a virtual concert at the end of the quarter.

Other instructors are going a similar route, making use of popular apps that allow the combination of multiple performance videos into one. Jean-Christophe Leroy, who leads the Department’s newest ensemble, the Afro-Cuban Folkloric Ensemble, used the app to create a virtual performance with his ensemble.

Members of the Afro-Cuban Folkloric Ensemble perform a song of praise for the deity Ellegua of the Santeria, accompanied by a rhythm called Bembe.

Leroy began by recording his part as a foundation for the performance. Then he invited each of the students in his ensemble to contribute their parts as collaborators. The Percussion Ensemble, led by John Corkill, is doing something similar with John Cage’s Child of Tree and Living Room Music, and they are collaborating the Clare Longendyke and the Chamber Music Program to record a piece by UChicago PhD composer Andrew Stock. The Jazz X-tet, headed by Mwata Bowden, has a similar project in the works, and other small ensembles are planning to follow suit.

The University Wind Ensemble and director Nicholas Carlson are working on something even bigger. The Wind Ensemble has joined a consortium of collegiate music ensembles to collaboratively realize a new piece composed by Ryan Williams for the current situation. This work was commissioned by a consortium of 27 universities and high schools. Members from the Wind Ensemble participated by preparing their individual parts 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 gave all the 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 are able to engage their students in that sort of deep exploration, which the musicians can then bring back with them into rehearsal when live performances are able to resume.

Ensembles like the University Symphony Orchestra, University Chorus, Chamber Orchestra, and the Early Music Ensemble are delving deep into the repertoire, engaging in collective score-study and exploring music history and performance practice. In remote meetings, they discuss the varying approaches heard in different recordings of the same piece. USO musicians, for example, have studied symphonies by Allan Petersson, Franz Schmidt, and Kurt Atterberg as well as more familiar masterpieces by Beethoven, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov. Ensembles are also conversing on a wide variety of topics in these meetings, from orchestration to conducting – something they are rarely be able to do in their in-person rehearsals.

Wanees Zarour, director of the Middle East Music Ensemble, is using rehearsal time now to develop his 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. Without performances to prepare for at the moment, Zarour is able to focus on these unique characteristics of the music and deepen his musicians’ knowledge of how these 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 also offers unique opportunities for students and program directors to engage with musicians from outside of Chicago. Mollie Stone, who leads the University Chorus and Women’s Ensemble, is inviting guest artists from around the world to share vocal exercises that her choir members are able to practice individually. The guests also share their approaches to specific challenges in the repertoire, and together the ensemble discusses these as a group. The Chamber Music Program continues to hold its weekly studio classes where they discuss approaches to chamber music from different periods and by different composers, and program Director Clare Longendyke has created a weekly “Chamber Music Chats” series featuring guest artists in conversation with students in the program.

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 that the group can delve into together. In another case, vocal instructor Jeffrey Ray has students sing along to pre-recorded accompaniment tracks, and Vocal Studies Director Patrice Michaels is leading an ambitious interactive project on the music of J.S. Bach. Not only do these creative strategies allow one-on-one instructors to overcome some unique challenges, they offer an opportunity similar to the large ensemble meetings: a 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 continue 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 are 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 are also broadening 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, are able to join ensemble meetings from all around the world.

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 are able to stay connected with each other and with music at a time when perhaps they need it most.