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Playing through a pandemic creates challenges and community for Duke's student ensembles

<p>A Duke University Chorale practice.</p>

A Duke University Chorale practice.

Despite the challenges posed by this school year, student ensembles at Duke have persevered and found ways to continue making the music they love.

For instance, student string quartets within the chamber music program, as well as the Duke University Chorale, have continued to rehearse in person and indoors by implementing social distancing protocols. The larger Duke University Wind Symphony and Duke Symphony Orchestra have combined forces and continued to play together over Zoom, allowing members to still play their instruments—if not fully together.

“I think the music department has done a pretty good job of keeping it relatively similar to what it would be before COVID,” said first-year and string quartet member Allen Zhang. Zhang’s quartet practices twice a week in person, once by itself and once with a chamber coach and music professor present.

“We have rehearsals in person because it’s pretty much impossible to play chamber music through Zoom because of the delay and the feedback,” Zhang said. 

Even so, the use of masks and social distancing changes the group dynamic and affects how students listen to each other as they play.

Quartet performances during the pandemic have been quite limited in attendance, whereas in a normal year friends and family could come to enjoy the music. “Pretty much just only the people that are in other chamber ensembles are there to listen,” Zhang said.

Zhang expressed gratitude at still being able to play in person at all since the other three members of his quartet are other first-years living on campus or in Durham.

“I know some groups, last semester at least, they had members of their chamber ensemble that were remote, so they weren’t really able to play as much,” Zhang said. “It’s definitely one of the highlights of the week, since it’s one of the only things I do have in person—it’s kinda refreshing.”

Director of Chamber Music Caroline Stinson expressed a similar sentiment. “I felt like we were in a really privileged position to even be in person this year,” Stinson said. 

Although studying scores, listening to recordings and analyzing pieces over Zoom is feasible, actually playing music virtually is far more difficult. 

“Even with hardwired internet, even a split second of lag in internet means that we think we’re playing together and we’re not,” Stinson explained.

She elaborated on the goals of the music department and how some of them simply cannot be accomplished virtually. “Our goal is this unity of ensembles and character ideals with extremely flexible time, ultimately, and those things just don’t work over the internet,” Stinson said.

This makes the in-person opportunities that are possible even more valuable, reflected by the number of string players who opted for chamber music this year over the larger, virtual ensembles. “Hearing sound in a space and having your body physically experience that, we really crave it, and I think we are all really missing it,” Stinson said.

“Our goal was really to continue making music and bringing the members of the ensemble together,” said Wind Symphony Director Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant.

In order to try to practically accomplish this, the wind symphony has been playing over Zoom along with the Duke Symphony Orchestra twice a week, with students playing along to a recording. 

“Everyone is muted so you can’t hear each other, but we feel that it still creates this sense of community seeing each other play,” Mösenbichler-Bryant said.

The ensembles have made the most of this by exploring both new music and old favorites. “We introduce the students to new works and works they may have played in the past before, just some really iconic pieces that we feel the students should know and have a chance to play,” Mösenbichler-Bryant said.

The drawbacks go beyond just not getting to play with others live. Students get to hone their own skills, but the ensemble as a whole is mostly unable to do so, since the directors can’t actually hear anyone and can’t generate feedback.

Despite all this, there are still joys to be had from experiencing music as a group.

“First of all, we get to play a lot of exciting repertoire,” Mösenbichler-Bryant said. 

For some pieces, the composer will visit with student musicians via Zoom, which gives the students a chance to ask the questions that they want.

First-year Chorale member Olivia Fan is “very grateful” that the group is able to rehearse twice a week, once virtually and once live in Baldwin Auditorium.

“Having in-person rehearsals once a week is very helpful,” Fan said.

With online classes and extracurriculars, it has been difficult for Fan to meet people during the pandemic. But through having in-person music rehearsals, she has been able to meet some of her closest friends.

“We just really bonded over making music together,” Fan said. “It’s just really nice to kind of get away from the pandemic, the stress and everything.”

“Anyone who’s a musician knows that Zoom rehearsal is a pretty big drag,” said fellow Chorale member Tess Redman, a first-year. “We were really grateful to be able to transition to doing Tuesday rehearsals in Baldwin.”

Although the Chorale has not been able to perform for live audiences since the pandemic began, it has regularly made recordings for others to listen to and has even had a few virtual performances.

“We did a family weekend concert and a Christmas concert, both virtual, both live-streamed,” Redman said.

She has been “pleasantly surprised” to be able to sing together at all, whether in-person or not. “It still feels like a real choir rehearsal, even over Zoom,” Redman said.

After spending a long, quarantined summer without much musical engagement, arriving in Baldwin to sing with the Chorale last fall made an impression on Redman.

“The first time we were in person singing together, I almost cried. It was so great,” Redman said. “That was a really magical experience for me.”


Parker Harris

Parker Harris is a Trinity junior and the local & national news editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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