School of Music Goes Virtual

Story and photo by Michael Piwowarski

While Central Michigan University has no spring break this year, last year’s was “not restful.”

That’s how Marybeth Minnis, assistant director of the CMU School of Music, describes last year’s switch to remote learning amid the start of a global pandemic.

“It was a shock of course; some of us weren’t quite prepared,” Minnis said. “We made adjustments very quickly, and the faculty were great.”

Over the course of the 2020 spring semester, the program had to find ways to go online only, even with a subject as hands-on as playing an instrument.

“We had to learn settings on Zoom, and WebEx, and Teams so that we could hear our students play,” Minnis said.

With the music building closed down, performance events switched from the concert hall to Facebook Live. The “Live from Staples” concert series is still hosting virtual events on Facebook every week, featuring performances by students and faculty.

“It’s been a great way for us to feed our community some music because we all miss it and also it’s a great place for our students to perform,” Minnis said.

Although the School of Music has done live streamed events before, they have not hosted nearly as many before March 2020 as they have post-pandemic.

“It’s been great,” Minnis said. “We’ve had good Facebook attendance and people from all over the country; some alone, some family. I think we’re reaching a different audience that we might carry with us. People always hoped we would have more concerts online so they could hear them.”

Jazz Weekend, an annual event hosted by the School of Music, has also gone virtual. In past years, up to 60 high schools came to CMU to compete. Student groups and headline performers were featured in concerts as well.

This year, the Virtual Jazz Weekend XLVIII has already hosted virtual concerts, including the Faculty Jazz Ensemble Feb. 4, and as well as a performance by students in Jazz Lab 1 on Feb. 5.

Virtual Jazz Weekend will be taking video submissions from high school bands later in the spring, which will be judged by the school of music faculty.

Kristin Pagels, director of music events, says the reason for the delay in taking high school submissions is that high schools had been online only since November when the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services suspended in-person learning for high schools.

“Even if we could bring [high schools] to campus, a lot of them haven’t had the time to practice as a group and actually rehearse and be ready to compete at that level,” Pagels said.

The silver lining of going virtual has become evident because of the new flexibility. Participant Rob Bosma, who is an alumnus of the School of Music, is director of instrumental music at Spruce Creek High School in Port Orange, Florida.

“Jazz Weekend, for a lot of alumni, is a big part of our memory at CMU, so he’s never really been able to take his band to participate in Jazz Weekend because he can’t fly a band from Florida to Michigan for a day,” Pagels said.

Now, Spruce Creek High School has become the first out-of-state high school to participate in Jazz Weekend.

With CMU reopened to limited in-person learning as of fall 2020, use of the music building has resumed. The HyFlex learning format has been used for the school’s lecture classes, and social distancing protocols have been enforced for practices and performances.

Minnis says that ensembles started to rehearse outdoors, then had to move indoors when the weather got too cold. Now practices are held in larger rooms to accommodate for social distancing, with downtime included for air exchange.

“We were able to adapt based on what other studies had discovered with musicians,” Minnis said. “They rehearse in the concert hall, and they are actually in the audience, so they can be spread apart but play together.”

Practice rooms have also been made available for students, who are required to practice in their own bubbles. Measures such as security codes are in place to ensure that only students from the School of Music can use the practice facility.

With a return to normalcy on the horizon – as distant as it may seem to be – Minnis is confident that the School of Music will be able to adapt to the changing times, based on how the faculty and ensemble directors have been able to make it work during the past year.

“We had to get real creative, but it worked,” Minnis said.