Department of Music makes changes to combat COVID-19

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Photo Courtesy of Erin Colwitz

Rayna Sherbinow

Students in the University Choir and the Arts Chorale wear face masks while singing. The wind sections of NMU’s many bands now cover the ends of their instruments. The NMU Orchestra has eliminated wind instruments altogether. These changes were strange, but the Department of Music has found ways to adapt to COVID-19 and continue to provide music instruction as well as entertain the community. 

The University Choir and the Arts Chorale are still following their usual schedules. They meet in Reynolds Recital Hall for rehearsals. Members wear singer’s masks that extend out from the face and provide room for deep breathing and a wider range of movements of the mouth and jaw necessary for singing. Precautions are also taken to keep singers at a safe distance from one another.

“We spread out, we have all the seats marked,” Director of Choirs and Associate Professor of Music Erin Colwitz said. “They can only sit in certain seats.” 

Reynolds Recital Hall is equipped with high-efficiency particulate air filters, which circulate air every 15 minutes, she said. 

“We are doing everything in our power to make sure that students are safe,” Colwitz said.

For groups that don’t sing, such as the Wildcat Marching Band, airborne spread of the virus is still an issue. Special covers are used to cover the ends of musical instruments and help prevent the virus from spreading when the instruments are played. Musicians who don’t blow on their instruments, such as drummers, wear masks the entire time they are playing.

To maintain distance between members the marching band now frequently rehearses in block formation, which keeps people about 7 feet 6 inches apart from each other, said Professor of Low Brass and Director of Bands Stephen Grugin.

Grugin looks forward to entertaining the campus community and continuing rehearsals this semester. The band recently held a performance outside of Spalding Hall. With no football games at which to perform, playing for the dorms is one way for the band to stay involved.

“We may bring the band down for another performance for all the dorms close to Homecoming,” Grugin said. “And so if any of the students are in their dorms and they hear the marching band we hope they’ll come out and will give us a listen.”

NMU’s music groups now need to find ways to communicate with their audiences over greater distances. Caitlin Palomaki is a junior and a music education major with a choral concentration. She hopes to one day perform in front of an audience again.

“I’m really excited to have audiences for both choir concerts and theatre performances and getting to share the love of music within our community,” Palomaki said 

Palomaki said COVID-19 is challenging people’s ability to stay connected via music and performing arts. Many guidelines are encouraging outdoor performances to reduce contact and therefore minimize the risk of spreading the virus. However, with cold, snowy weather just around the corner in the Upper Peninsula, outdoor concerts won’t always be a viable option for long, said Colwitz

“My colleagues in California are all singing in parking garages, you know,” Colwitz said. “But they can do that for the whole year. We can’t do that so we have to sing indoors.” 

Indoors is one option, and online is another. Colwitz said some of her groups will be posting their performances on YouTube. 

As for the marching band, Grugin, who also directs the Marquette City Band, live streaming offers another venue. Thousands of people, some from as far away as Finland and Turkey, tuned in to watch livestreams of the city band performing.

“I think one of our performances we ended up having about 10,000 people that watched the video,” Grugin said. 

Grugin said he is interested in holding video performances with both the Marquette City Band and the Wildcat Marching Band. The orchestra is also considering virtual performances with 360 degree video.

“I really enjoyed the couple of performances that I saw on virtual reality,” Orchestra Conductor Barbara Rhyneer said. 

She hopes to work with one of the multimedia production classes to produce an interactive 360-degree video of the orchestra that can be rotated to view musicians on all sides.

The interactivity and connection technology offers can’t make up for everything that was lost with the changes. Colwitz and Palomaki were both looking forward to a trip to Italy this past May for a choir tour, but it was canceled. Despite this, Palomaki said she is thankful to still be able to sing and do what she loves because some people no longer have that opportunity. She encourages everyone to do their part in helping to stop the spread of the virus.

“If we all follow the rules maybe they’ll get a vaccination and we can end this,” Palomaki said. “But that’s not going to happen unless everyone is a part of it and everyone’s working together.”

For more information on NMU’s Department of Music, visit https://www.nmu.edu/music/.