Gabriel Smith, Campus Carrier asst. arts & living editor
As Berry works to reopen this fall, its faculty has faced the challenge of operating a close-knit residential college that prides itself on up-close, hands-on instruction in an era where up-close interaction can be deadly. Vast swaths of college policy and teaching methodologies have been reworked in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The challenge is even greater for those teaching and learning the performing arts, where close contact with others and the use of one’s mouth for activities like singing and playing an instrument are often considered critical to instruction. However, according to Paul Neal, chair of the music department, there are several strategies available to mitigate the risk of spreading disease while allowing the performing arts to continue.
This coming semester, Neal said, Berry’s music and performing arts faculty will be, in addition to following the schoolwide coronavirus guidelines issued by the Berry administration, guided by a study of aerosols generated in performing arts activities from the University of Colorado Boulder. It provides a number of recommendations, including that rehearsals should be held outdoors, indoor rehearsals should be limited to 30 minutes at a time, wind instrument players should wear surgical masks with a mouthpiece slit in addition to a bell cover or flute sock on their instrument and plexiglass partitions between musicians should not be used because they impede air circulation.
“That is our number one priority, is to keep our musicians safe,” Neal said. “We are still having performances, for Cultural Events and for students here on campus, for our Berry community. They are going to look a little bit different this fall, being that we’ll have some outside concerts, some mini concerts where they’re going to be socially distanced outside. We’ll also be doing some virtual performances that people can sign on and watch virtually. Berry still is going have some great arts to be offered to our community, it’s just going to look a little bit different than it has in the past.”
Like their professors, Berry’s student musicians have also had to adapt over the past months. Senior Matthew Wall, a recital hall manager, expressed worries about attendance and engagement with the arts this semester. He said that while the recital hall hasn’t changed, its audience capacity has been reduced from 300 people to about 50, and that seating arrangements have had to be reworked for certain rehearsals and groups. For instance, while the wind ensemble typically has about 55 students, only 37 can now be safely seated on the stage, so the others will be seated adjacent to the stage. For choirs rehearsing in the hall, the conductor will be on the stage, and singers will be in the audience. Wall said that with these changes, his only concern is whether performing groups will be able to attract the same number of audience members as they have in the past, especially with virtual concerts.
Another student, senior Ben Sinatra, music business major, plays in his own band, the Amiiopps, alongside his sister. He said that since he has music equipment at his home, and his band mainly focuses on releasing prerecorded tracks rather than live performance, his work hasn’t been severely affected by the pandemic. However, he said, he feels concerned for the live music community, where many performing groups depend on crowds and atmosphere for their success. Many in this community are only able to use livestreams and other video technology to emulate the experience of a live event, and even when an in-person performance is possible, social distancing and reduced venue capacity continue to dampen the ‘crowd energy’ that many associate with live music.
“It’s still happening, it’s just there’s no crowds; it’s just not the same. A lot of bands feed off of that crowd energy,” Sinatra said.
Senior Clay Moore, also a music business major, said that the pandemic has significantly reduced his ability to play gigs and to collaborate with other musicians. He said that while musicians can still record music and send the file to others, the lag time on Zoom and other video platforms makes them impractical for real-time collaboration. Nonetheless, he said, he has been able to play one gig during the pandemic, while wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. It marked an improvement over prior months where the pandemic precluded effectively all live music but can’t erase the effect of such a lockdown. Overall, Moore said one of the strangest aspects of the pandemic has been the unstable productivity it’s brought about for him.
“For like a month straight, I’d be able to go in my music app, Logic, and produce a track, if it was good or bad, I’d just put one out every day, and then there’d be a month where I just had no creative or productive juices in me,” Moore said.