How the F&M Orchestra has Adapted to Continue Making Music During COVID-19

By Darij Kulchyckyj || Contributing Writer

Clearly, nothing has been the same since the WHO announced the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Music, something that we like to turn to for therapy, concentration, and/or generally vibing, seems to be one of the constants that hasn’t yet been impacted by COVID-19 – not considering live music, of course. But I know that my Spotify playlists have helped me keep my sanity. 

Dr. Brian Norcross, the Director of Music at F&M, has made a spectacular effort for students to continue playing music with one another. I asked him a couple of questions to fully describe what the switch and adjustments he’s crafted for the musicians have been like. When asked what the main differences are, he listed four:

  1. “Instead of having two orchestras, with 80 and 30 players respectively, and a 50 member Symphonic Wind Ensemble, I am conducting 13 ensembles with four to eleven performers. That is a completely different situation, requiring a completely different repertoire and set of techniques.”
  2. “We have dramatically reduced the amount and duration of rehearsals. The norm at F&M is two 90-minute rehearsals a week for every performing group. Presently, we have one 30-minute rehearsal face-to-face and one Zoom meeting, which in essence is not a rehearsal but an opportunity to talk about the music and sometimes even meet the composers. Shifting from 180 minutes of rehearsal a week to 30 is a considerable difference in how I manage the time, the amount, and difficulty of our repertoire and what we can accomplish.”  
  3. “Working with remote performers as an ensemble is almost impossible. After a couple of attempts that didn’t work very well, we settled on a process where I write short pieces each week for the groups’ specific instrumentation; we rehearse with everyone muted and listening to computer-generated recordings; I have a quartet record their parts put together virtually, and then the ensemble rehearses, still muted, with the recording of the live musicians. We also rehearse in real-time using an audio application called CleanFeed, which is still not perfect. Finally, the ensemble uploads individual recordings, which I put together virtually at the end of each week. All of the above takes about two to three times the energy and time that work during a normal semester would present.  
  4. “The module schedule, with the expanded academic schedule, has damaged enrollment in the ensembles. Our registrar has done a miraculous job of keeping everything functioning and moving ahead, but there are still significant enrollment losses due to course conflicts as well as incredible complications for some individuals.” 

When asked about what, if any, positive outcomes the pandemic provides, Norcross said, “Several composer friends of F&M write music for the odd instrumentation pods that we are using. As a result, almost everyone in instrumental music is presenting the world premiere of a piece in this module.” Because of the limited practicing capabilities, Norcross added that he has been able to lead  “Zoom presentations on composers like JS Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and William Boyce. This has given the performers a chance to know their composer in a more substantial way.” 

Norcross is putting in a great effort for the students to have a fulfilling experience. I know that learning about Mozart’s spoiled upbringing shifted my opinion of his greatness. Norcross is also very enthusiastic about the importance of frequent, careful practice. He says “[because] there is so little rehearsal time, practicing is mandatory to survive, and that is a positive outcome.”

When asked about the ensembles’ overall sound, Norcross reflected, “I am exceptionally pleased with how all of the pods have developed. Some of the pods sound absolutely sensational. Others are doing well, but not amazing. At least not yet. With everyone essentially being their own section, anyone who is a less developed or experienced performer is put on display, which can be uncomfortable for everyone. Generally, though, everyone has risen to the occasion, and I think that when we present our Module 1 virtual concert, people are going to be quite surprised and impressed.” 

Adapting and overcoming is crucial for us to survive and live life to the fullest during this pandemic. It is clear that Dr. Norcross’s effort and enthusiasm are truly appreciated. The amount of work he puts into this job is an example all professors should follow. Look forward to hearing the virtual concert that will be coming up soon!

First-year Darij Kulchyckyj is a Contributing Writer. His email is dkulchyc@fandm.edu.

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