Like most things in the era of COVID-19, musical performances, including the annual performances St. Thomas hosted for high school musicians, have adapted and moved online.
These band, choir and orchestra festivals would bring hundreds of high school students to campus, but the experience has been reinvented in 2021 as a virtual Music Preview Day on March 15.
“We’d always prefer to have music making happen in person, but bringing all these students on to campus just wasn’t safe this year,” Donna Matuszewski, recruiting and event producer for the Music Department, said. “We are trying something a little different.”
Rather than a day of practice that culminates in a concert, Matuszewski said participants instead will get a snapshot of what participating in music at the collegiate level is really like. The students will spend an afternoon meeting and asking questions of faculty and current students, learning about ensembles they could participate in if they attended St. Thomas, and perhaps, most enjoyable, get the chance to play music together in virtual breakout sessions and lessons.
“There are a lot of losses [because of COVID-19], but what stands out most of all is that the students are so incredibly grateful to make music,” Matuszewski said. “It is a form of expression, a form a therapy to be able to make music together.”
The preview day event and music at St. Thomas are open to anyone and, Matuszewski said, is a place to find community.
All of St. Thomas’ 20 ensembles are open to any enrolled student by audition – participants don’t need to be a music major or minor. Even among peer liberal arts institutions that can be uncommon, Matuszewski said. Ensemble enrollment is about 500 students each semester, and by the time they graduate, about 15% of St. Thomas students have participated in an ensemble.
“Music is such a melting pot because we have engineering majors, psychology majors, business and education majors all with something in common,” Matuszewski said. “That’s the beauty of the liberal arts and music: This is a place where you can find common ground, and it’s a place where you can be filled up again.”
That’s the hope for this event too. While the festivals were invite only, Matuszewski said going virtual opens the experience to more participants and could draw from a wider geographic pool. In January, she said the department’s BrassChix community event was more successful than ever in a virtual format. The event had higher participation than in years past from people who didn’t need to travel to attend online.
“We want future Tommies to know that the arts are alive and well,” Matuszewski said. “We want them to know that we’re taking every effort to protect their health.”
While large gatherings with travel like festivals of years prior weren’t safe, the Music Department has found ways to safely make music in person, on campus. Matuszewski said meticulously designed and choreographed rehearsals, lessons and ensembles following the advice of experts made socially distanced options feasible. The experts studied and offered advice on everything from mitigation of risk to different instruments to how far vapor could travel.
Ensembles started meeting in fall 2020, but performances still had to be virtual. Each instrument and choir has its own kind of masks. Sanitizers were placed in rehearsal halls. Ensembles practiced outside when possible and faculty and staff redesigned indoor rehearsals.
“There is definitely a choreography for approaching the auditorium – everyone files in one door and sets up and files out the other door just to keep everyone safe,” Matuszewski said. “We have the group work for no more than a half-hour, then we split into sectionals in different rooms while the air in the auditorium cycles, then we come back to the group work again.”
With such separation over the last year, making music with modifications was a way to be connected again. Matuszewski said for high school students who may have had to go without, this preview day will show there’s a way to bring it back in.
“We’re trying to show students that they don’t have to give up this part of their life,” Matuszewski said. “We want them to be reassured that music is definitely happening at St. Thomas.”