Colby Ensembles Ready for Virtual Performance

By Gerry Boyle '78
December 11, 2020

String members could rehearse masked, divided into small groups and socially distanced. The winds couldn’t make music in the same space at all. The same went for the Collegium. And yet, for the Department of Music, the show—ensembles concerts typically scheduled for live performances on campus post-Thanksgiving—must go on.

“We wanted to make sure the students had some kind of performing experience this semester,” said Yuri Lily Funahashi, associate professor of music and department co-chair. “This is why these students sign up for these ensembles—because they love performing and they want to share the music. We wanted to make those opportunities possible.”

So the department did, contracting with, a music production company. Click tracks, the equivalent of digital metronomes, set the tempo. Accompanying music was heard through earbuds. Colby Symphony Orchestra Director Jinwood Park supplied musicians with a video of himself conducting the selected pieces—Bizet, Dvorak, Schubert, Respighi.

From early morning to late into the night, musicians practiced and recorded their parts alone in practice studios in Given Auditorium, or in their dorm rooms or homes. A jazz bass player who graduated last year took part because she could, long distance. One singer rehearsed in her car.

“I ended up recording in a practice room, where I still ended up wearing a mask,” said violinist Jackie Legutko’24. “I could have played in my dorm room, but I didn’t want to wake anyone up.”

For many students, accustomed to recording music on laptops, it was natural. For others, including musicians from the community, it took some adjustment. The process did put a spotlight on the camaraderie between musicians prepping for a performance. “One person put it beautifully,” Jazz Band and Wind Ensemble Director Eric Thomas said. “He said, ‘You know what I miss? I miss the chaos at the beginning of the rehearsal.’”

In the end, participation was as robust as ever, with pandemic boundaries virtually erased. Some found it easier to take part on their own schedule rather than being locked into a scheduled rehearsal time. And musicians practiced at least as hard and often harder as in a more typical year, knowing that their recorded solo performances would be just that.

“In wind ensemble, there is someone else playing your part,” said Thomas, “so you can kind of do a group attack of all the problems that are coming up. That group is just gone. Now all of a sudden they can hear every note.”

Thomas and the other directors could, too, and they were ultimately pleased with the result—produced by the equivalent of dozens of separate studio musicians. Virtual Choir assembled the individual parts into the music an audience would hear if they were at the customary live performance in Given Auditorium or Lorimer Chapel. In fact, Thomas said there are elements of the experience he may incorporate into his teaching when things return to normal. “That recording studio skill, that’s something everyone should be exposed to,” he said.

Legutko, the violinist, looked forward to seeing the visual representation of the performance, which she called, “sort of another art form.” And as someone who has played for an audience since preschool, she said she also was looking forward to another variation: family members gathering to watch her play—with Legutko, home on break in Lexington, Mass., in their midst.

“A little concert setup,” she said, “some popcorn. You can’t do that live.”