Music & Theater Department Forced to Adapt to Virtual Environment

Overview of Virtual Performances

In Barcelona this July, a string quartet performed to an audience of plants, while the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” was released for streaming in July. In this period of disruption due to the pandemic, directors of music and theater all over the world have heeded the call to hold performances while ensuring the safety of patrons and performers in widely different ways. Swarthmore’s Music and Theater Departments are no exception. This fall, the Music and Theater departments will continue to offer classes and give performances, be they in a hybrid or virtual model.

Music Performances

The Music department has modified its annual guest artist series to be presented virtually. Fall 2020 guest artists will perform over Zoom as part of a series aptly titled “Zoom Tunes”, which began September 27 and will recur every Sunday at 1 p.m. EST until November 15. Highlights include Branford Marsalis and the Jasper String Quartet. 

Jenny Honig, the performance coordinator for the Music and Dance departments, said that the virtual format has two major benefits. First, since performances will be streamed on YouTube, anyone in the world can watch them. Second, this format has allowed the Music and Dance departments to engage with artists who are otherwise difficult to work with due to location or scheduling. 

While planning “Zoom Tunes,” Honig took the realities of virtual performing and virtual life into consideration. 

“We wanted to keep the performances short and concise, so that students wouldn’t feel too overwhelmed. We put the series on Sundays, so that … the students wouldn’t already be online necessarily, for much of the day with their courses,” Honig said. 

Student performances have also been reimagined in a variety of ways for the Fall semester. James Murphy, director of the Performing Arts Center, stated that the departments’ first concern is safety.

“Our focus has been how do we do a safe gathering … What’s the number of people we can actually do that with? … It’s fairly limited right now because we’re going to err on the side of safety,” Murphy said.

The Theater Department plans to perform two virtual productions over the J-Term. The Senior Company will perform one virtual performance at the end of the fall semester.

Andrew Hauze, director of both the wind ensemble and orchestra, says that both groups will record a performance to be presented virtually on YouTube. Each performer will record their parts separately so the entire piece can be edited together in post-processing, creating one performance. 

According to Joseph Gregorio, adjunct professor and part-time associate in performance, choral singing at Swarthmore looks very different due to the cancellation of almost all in-person music-making. 

“My sense is that safety concerns have been paramount in guiding the Department’s decision-making; I am in full agreement with this perspective,” Gregorio said. 

Even though the Music Department’s decisions were made with full consideration of students and faculty safety, attendance has diminished compared to previous years. 

“Fewer singers are participating this year than have participated in each of my previous seven years teaching here,” says Gregorio. “I suspect that this is in part because of the change to a virtual format; the idea of participating in a virtual ensemble doesn’t hold the same appeal for many as does participating in a live group.” 

Additionally, the added pressure of being in a virtual ensemble may be too much for students to handle alongside virtual classes. 

“I’ve also heard from several students that they simply can’t handle the added stress of being part of a virtual ensemble at the moment,” continues Gregorio. “I certainly sympathize with that. It’s a stressful time for everyone.”

Jennifer Paige ‘22, a member of the wind ensemble, also mentioned that participation is down from semesters past.

“Unfortunately, the wind ensemble based here doesn’t have that many upperclassmen and it is pretty significantly reduced in terms of size,” said Paige.

Hauze, Murphy, and Gregorio believe that one issue with virtual practices and performances is due to delays in sound transmission on platforms like Zoom. While this problem can be circumvented in the case of performances by individually recording each part, it severely impedes practices. Students cannot play simultaneously on Zoom because their sound outputs will not synchronize correctly. 

Despite the drawbacks of virtual practices and performances, there are bright spots. For example, Hauze has been able to meet with students individually more often. 

According to Hauze, during group practices, each student has to stay muted, otherwise it becomes hard to distinguish the different parts. Thus, group practices become more like tutorials where Hauze helps the students understand the way that the music works.

“[Virtual practice] gives us an opportunity to delve a bit more deeply into the musical structure and the cultural context of the music, and to work on sight reading in a way that we haven’t done as much before,” Hauze said. 

Paige, who participates in the wind ensemble from home, says that practices are now almost like a private lesson with the professor. Despite the difficulties, she is happy to have the chance to perform in musical ensembles this semester. 

“I’m just very thankful that they opened it up to students who are off campus,” Paige remarked.

Although most private lessons and ensembles are virtual, some performing groups meet in person, one of which is the Gamelan ensemble, directed by Professor Tom Whitman ’82. Gamelan is an Indonesian music ensemble based on unique percussion instruments. Unlike singers or most string musicians, nobody in the gamelan ensemble has access to their instruments — bronze-keyed xylophones and suspended gongs — in their dorms or at home. Normally, fifteen to twenty-two students meet in a Lang practice room. Now, the nine on-campus members meet in the concert hall in the Lang Music Building, standing six feet apart with masks on.

Remote Gamelan ensemble members are not able to play the instruments because most members do not own them. Professor Whitman said these students are still engaging in music despite the lack of instruments.

“They are doing much more of a kind of an academic study — readings, listening to audio, making transcriptions of audio, watching videos — and they’re going to do individualized projects based on things that are particularly interesting for them,” Whitman explained. 

In addition to concentrating on the academic side of music, Professor Whitman introduced a virtual gamelan created by a student from Bucknell University, but Whitman and the ensemble members decided not to use it.

Unfortunately, even with a virtual gamelan, coordinating synchronous rehearsals is not possible. 

“[The virtual gamelan] still wouldn’t permit us to have the experience of playing together because of the synchronization problems,” Whitman concluded. “As long as learning is happening, I’m very happy.”

7 Days to Kill Your Husband & Drama Performances

In addition to the efforts of the Music and Theater Departments, students Marie Inniss ’23, Pablo Famodou ’23, and Simon Herz ’23 are working on “7 Days to Kill Your Husband,” an in-person production in association with the Drama Board. “7 Days to Kill Your Husband” is a collection of fifteen or more short plays written and performed by students. In mid-September, the producers were looking for students who were interested in contributing to the compilation of 15 or more plays that will be put on for small audiences from Nov. 6 to Nov. 8. 

With the excitement, however, come many challenges of putting on an in-person production during the COVID-19 pandemic. At one point, Inniss considered making the production virtual like the freshman orientation play that was conducted entirely through Zoom.

“I considered making it completely or partially virtual, but I really wanted to be able to do something on campus, especially with freshmen,” Inniss said. “I wanted to draw new freshmen into the theater community during these hard times.” 

She also added that another challenge in coordinating 7 Days to Kill Your Husband was garnering interest in writing for the play. 

“A lot of people are concerned that they are not good enough writers or that they are not really into theater,” Inniss said. “I want to encourage as many people as possible to try their hand at writing, especially people who haven’t done it before.”

The auditioning process is also different this year. Auditions were held virtually from Sept. 21 to Sept. 28 and participants were given a monologue to read aloud and experiment with. Unlike an in-person audition, actors cannot directly engage with their audience when auditioning over Zoom.

“I have done a little bit of Zoom acting over the last six months and it is weird. You can’t interact with people as well. It’s hard to act like you’re actually talking to someone who’s in the room with you when they’re not,” said Inniss. 

Thus, those auditioning will not be judged on how well they can respond to notes made by those judging. In the end, absolute perfection is not the focal point of the music and theater experience this semester, according to Whitman. These hybrid and virtual opportunities aim to make learning while building community a possibility for everyone.

Whitman is grateful for the time he is able to spend with on-campus ensemble members. 

“It is just such a great joy for me to be in the same space, physically making music again, with other people,” said Whitman.

Editor’s note: Marie Inniss ’23 has contributed to The Phoenix, but she was not involved in the writing or editing process for this article. 

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