In the midst of the pandemic, music departments at universities across the state have either drastically cut down on live performances this fall or eliminated them altogether. Accessible technology, however, has allowed many schools to at least record rehearsals to post online to fulfill at least some of the performance aspects of music curriculum.
This marks an improvement from the spring, when because of the pandemic, scheduled performances during the spring semester never happened.
“What a lot of the performing groups did was they had already had a concert, so we let that kind of stand as the semester,” said Anthony Falcone, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s associate director of bands and the director of the Cornhusker Marching Band. “The performing ensembles by and large didn’t do much remote work once we redid the schedule after spring break.”
During the latter half of the spring and early in the summer, music departments across the state faced uncertainty heading into the fall. Kurt Runestad, Ph.D., the director of choral and vocal activities at Doane University in Crete, said staff members within the music department wondered if there would be any music making at all this semester.
Ultimately, those worries were for naught, as music departments are back in action this fall. Many safety protocols are in effect across the board, including wearing masks, practicing social distancing, cutting classroom capacities and rehearsal times in half and disinfecting surfaces touched by students or instructors.
Most bands are putting bell covers on instruments. Additionally, many music departments have focused on ways to increase air circulation in rooms. This includes upgrading HVAC systems, adding fans at the doorways and adding extra air filters.
According to Duane Bierman, Ph.D., an associate professor of music and the director of bands at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, an unexpected challenge to the fall semester is picking the right kind of music to rehearse.
“I couldn’t really pick band music anymore because I didn’t know who was going to audition, and we had some students not show up,” he said. “I had to pick music that’s called flex instrumentation, meaning it’s just four or five-part music that’s just transposed out to the different instruments. It’s a very different sound and approach, but it’s working.”
Largely, music departments across the state agree on what safety protocols to enact amid the pandemic. Where they differ, though, is in what should be done about performances, a very large chunk of the curriculum.
According to Runestad, the Doane music department as a whole holds anywhere from 50 to 70 performances a year. That number is down to only a handful this fall, and choirs that would usually tour largely on the generosity of host churches aren’t able to do so this semester.
Doane has an outdoor concert scheduled for the second weekend of October, but no audience members are allowed. However, the event will be livestreamed — perhaps on Facebook Live, though nothing has been decided yet.
Runestad also said there are tentative plans to walk over to Crete High School and sing with the music students there in addition to potentially go Christmas caroling in late November. Generally, though, nearly every performance outside of the October concert is either canceled or in limbo.
“Two recent choir releases have both gotten over 150,000 views and over 2,000 shares each, so the sound is still getting out,” said Kurt von Kampen, Ph.D., the chair of the Concordia University music department and director of choral activities.
To make up for the lack of live performances, Concordia University recorded performances and released the videos on Facebook.
With no live performances this fall, the school’s annual Christmas at Concordia concert is canceled. However, they did plan a large video and audio project to replace the live concert, with recording scheduled to occur the first week in November and the video itself being released in December.
At Nebraska Wesleyan, a planned video recording on Nov. 1 will take the place of live performances.
The school elected to release a video rather than livestream because of the opportunity to edit out pauses between pieces after the fact, according to choir director Tom Trenney.
For UNO, rehearsal recordings will be released on their YouTube channel to fulfill the performance aspect for the semester, according to director of bands Karen Fannin, Ph.D.
“We thought about livestreaming, but the problem is for every piece of music, the students are sitting in a different place,” she said. “For the flow of a concert, normally you play a piece and then people get up and move, then you play another piece. We have to vent the room so that people aren’t coming in to where someone else was playing. It’s the safest way to go about it, which is our main concern.”
At Creighton, choral ensembles will have no performances of any kind this semester. However, Barron Breland, Ph.D., the chair of the fine and performing arts department, said groups are still rehearsing anyway.
The choir moved from its usual room to either St. John’s Parish, a Catholic church on campus, or in the school of business, both of which are much larger than the choir room.
According to Breland, the choirs considered recording rehearsals to release online but decided wearing masks inhibits the audio quality.
“It’s a really boomy, acoustic church with six or seven seconds of reverb, which sounds very cool live but in recording can kind of sound like just a big wash of sound,” he said. “I would love to do it, but it’s not entirely representative of what we actually sound like, and we can’t get permission from our university people to unmask for something like that because there’s so many people in a single space.”
While the choir won’t have performances of any kind this semester, Breland said the band and orchestra are both looking at releasing recordings from rehearsals online.
“They’re just going through all the final stages right now, just being sure that it’s all kosher with rights and copyright and all that stuff,” he said.
At UNL, Falcone said most of the performances will be held in different venues without live audiences, instead opting to record videos and release those.
The marching band lost its usual band camp exhibition because there was no band camp this fall. Additionally, there won’t be the traditional highlights concert at the Lied Center because there’s no live audience and the band won’t be able to fit everyone on stage while still following safety protocols.
Before the Big Ten Conference’s recent announcement that it will reboot its season in late October, the marching band began working on four songs it’s learning independent of any potential halftime shows with the goal of releasing a video presentation.
However, the Big 10 will not sell tickets to the general public this fall, meaning attendance could be strictly limited to families of players and staff members if anyone is allowed into the stadium at all.
“We still don’t know what our future is with the rebooted football season, but what we do know is if they call upon us and they want the band at football, we’ll be there ready to go,” Falcone said.
While UNK’s two wind ensemble concerts remain on the schedule, they will be much shorter with different music choices than normal.
“In a normal year, we’d have as many people in the seats as we could get to come,” Bierman said. “This time around, we taped off seats in the auditorium. We can fit probably about 50 people in the audience, separated out with masks and clear entrances and exits, so we will be able to have a few people live with us for our concerts.”
For those not in the 50-person audience, the school still plans to stream the performances on its website, Bierman said.
Also impacting the department’s scheduling plans is the university’s semester schedule itself. Instead of condensing the schedule to allow the semester to end at Thanksgiving like some other schools are doing, UNK will bring students back after the break.
According to Bierman, each individual teacher has been given the choice to either come back and finish the semester in person, go remote after the break or a mixture of the two.
Because the music department will still have performances at the end of the semester — including juries, which serves as a sort of final performance exam for the semester — they are planning on finishing the semester in person.
However, Bierman cautioned that such a decision may cause trouble for non-music majors who participate in ensembles. Such students could be forced to come back and live on campus to close out the semester with the ensemble while the rest of their classes are online.
“It’s really not a decision I agree with, but I didn’t get to make that call,” he said.