Performing in a Pandemic

Students and faculty find new ways to shine

COVID recital


During the pandemic, when we are cautioned to stay far apart from each other, avoid gatherings, wear masks, you might think that music performances would be entirely off limits for the duration of the pandemic. 

But professors at Portland State University’s School of Music & Theater have found ways for their students to continue performing. Through innovation, flexibility and persistence, they have created opportunities for students to practice with each other, receive critical feedback and training from their professors, and share their art with audiences. 

These “performances” look different from traditional concerts, but they provide critical learning experiences for students and even give them a chance to gain new skills.

Ethan Sperry, Director of Choral Activities at PSU, quickly understood the dangers of singing together while a deadly virus is spreading through the population particularly through aerosols. A study at University of Colorado Boulder, commissioned by the American Choral Directors Association and other musical organizations, suggested that in-person choral singing without any mitigating measures can create super-spreader events, but that the risk varies according to the style of music, the location, the number of singers, the type of mask being worn, and other factors. The study made it clear that with careful planning, precautions can be taken to minimize the risk. 

Meanwhile, Sperry, who leads the PSU Chamber Choir, Rose and Thorn Choirs and other choral groups, watched his fellow choral conductors turn to virtual choirs, where each student records their part and all the pieces are stitched together in post-production. But, he wasn’t convinced.

“I really resisted,” he says. ”It can sound like a choir in an illusionary form, but it removes the community. You’re missing the actual physical sensation of being in a room with other people.”

He used a variety of teaching methods to keep his students engaged and learning, including music appreciation classes, sight-reading practice, one-on-one voice assessments and group voice lessons. But it just wasn’t the same as singing together.

To recreate the experience of communal singing, at the start of Fall term he broke the Chamber Choir into smaller groups and had them rehearse in outdoor settings on and off campus, standing at least 6 feet apart and wearing heavy-duty masks. Using the data provided by the Performing Arts Aerosol Study, Sperry rehearsed these small groups in St. Philip Neri Church in Southeast Portland, in 30-minute blocks, with time in between for the HVA system to circulate the air out.

With live performances still off limits, Sperry filmed some of these rehearsals and created virtual concerts, including “Still We Rise,”  Part 1 and Part 2, which premiered on PSU’s YouTube channel earlier this month. A holiday-themed concert with the Chamber Choir, Rose Choir and Thorn Choir, “Christmas with the Portland State Choirs,” premieres December 22. 

Sperry hopes to be able to have the whole choir perform in front of an audience sometime in the next year. 

“I'll keep the same precautions in place until my students are vaccinated,” he says, until the level of risk has dropped to safe levels. Until then, he plans to keep innovating and finding new ways to provide his students with experiences that come as close as possible to real performance.

Opera online

Opera students face a similar challenge. Last spring, as the pandemic began to take hold, the PSU Opera’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” had to be canceled, and the possibility of producing live operas seemed out of reach. 

Opera students rehearse
Opera students rehearse socially distanced and while wearing masks. Photo by Bruce Bradbury

But this year, Christine Meadows, director of the PSU Opera program, has joined with Chuck Dillard of PSU’s Queer Opera to present an innovative virtual production of Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief” in spring 2020. The singers will be pre-recorded, mixed with an electronic orchestral underscore and edited into a virtual environment, so they will appear to be performing together in the same space. The performances will be broadcast on Vimeo, so audiences will be able to watch from the safety of their homes.

The virtual nature of rehearsals and vocal coaching presents a particular issue. 

“The students are working on learning the music, but it has been really challenging for them without one-on-one coaching in person,” Meadows says. “Chuck Dillard, our musical director, has made recordings of the accompaniment on keyboard and he has sent those to them for them to rehearse with. The students are learning their music with this recording, and they're sending a video of themselves singing with it to Chuck so that he can give them some comments.” 

“I’m doing Zoom meetings with the students, and they’re singing through and we’re talking about their roles and what they’re doing and how they’re singing,” Meadows says. 

Playing piano
Photo by Bruce Bradbury

“Because it was just so difficult to do rehearsals this way, we are actually now doing a very few rehearsals in a very large room, with triple social distancing and masks, and we’re only in that room for a short amount of time,” following the guidelines offered by the University of Colorado Boulder study, she says.

Once the students learn the music, they will start working virtually with the stage director, who will be rehearsing with them individually. 

“In some ways, it's more intimate than working with a bunch of people in the room, but one of the problems is that on the theater stage, when you have other characters, you’re reacting to each other,” Meadows says. In this case, “we’re encouraging the students as they’re making the tapes to send them to each other so they can see what the other person is going to do.”

“The audience element is missing,” she acknowledges, but COVID-19 has shaken things up in the opera world. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be the same as it’s been for hundreds of years,” she says. “I think our singers need to be versatile and able to do lots of different things, singing in different styles and in different mediums. So it’s a valuable experience for the students.”

The “Brady Bunch” Effect

Joel Bluestone, the percussion area coordinator in the School of Music & Theater, started in spring 2020 with the “Brady Bunch” style of presenting student ensembles, where students recorded their musical parts and submitted a video of them performing, and then the audio was mixed and synced with the video. 

By Fall term, he and fellow faculty member Christopher Whyte had a new strategy. They divided up his students into trios and quartets and had them practice in large rooms, wearing masks and positioned eight feet apart. Next, they asked the students to turn in videos of themselves doing their musical exercises, and in the process, found that students “practice more when they’re on video.” 

This led to the next idea: to have the trios and quartets shoot and edit their own performance videos. The assignment inspired a range of creative videos, from a piece featuring four separate screens to a video of a student using every room in his parents’ house, with a different instrument in each room. Other groups took a more avant-garde approach, creating vignettes in and around Lincoln Hall. 

“All the videos are nice, but we realized that after they work so hard to get the videos just right, they would now be ready for a real recital,” Bluestone says. “So now what we're requiring for the kids is they have to do a complete video for the recital two weeks before, then do a dress rehearsal.” 

A side benefit of making the videos is that the students are getting professional marketing experience, he notes. “Once they have the video, they have everything for Twitter, Snapchat — all this stuff to market with,” which is part of developing a professional career.

Regardless of the pandemic’s limitations, the students still need the experience of playing live. 

“So next quarter, for the percussion ensemble, they’ll record their pieces, and then we're going to make them do a live stream where they're going to have to play it live like a concert,” Bluestone says.

One thing is clear: Professors and students throughout the music programs at Portland State are eager to return to practicing and performing with each other and live audiences, but they will continue to innovate and adapt their teaching strategies — with all the inherent struggles and happy accidents — in order to give students the best possible learning experience until it is safe to return to in-person teaching.