It was a fall, for students and people most everywhere, that lacked the usual rhythms of life. The COVID-19 pandemic caused separation and disrupted the day-to-day beat of individual worlds.
Rhythm, however, once lost can be rediscovered. And this fall, the student musicians at University of Wisconsin-Stout slowly but surely found it and celebrated their success with a semester finale that raised spirits during a challenging time.
On Dec. 19 the university’s virtual commencement ceremony featured two songs recorded by the Symphonic Band and Blue Devil Jazz Orchestra to replace their usual in-person performances. A total of 33 band members recorded the recessional “With Tower High” while 28 orchestra students recorded “Pomp and Circumstance.”
The recordings represent a special effort by the students and their director, Professor Aaron Durst.
“I’m proud to have been part of band this semester because, as hard as it has been on all of us, we were all there creating music together,” said Katie Killian, a senior from Arcadia who plays flute and piccolo and has been in the band four years. She is majoring in criminal justice and rehabilitation.
“I’m glad we were able to provide some sort of video for the graduating students and their families,” she said.
The audio was captured by student assistants using four strategically placed microphones. University photographer and videographer Chris Cooper filmed the performances using a drone and other video equipment.
Durst said he was “very happy” with how the music turned out.
Killian agreed. “With the circumstances, I believe the music turned out better than expected,” she said. “I think we all had to listen closer and watch Dr. Durst more because sometimes keeping tempo was hard.”
Senior Noah Jordan, of Eau Claire, who plays tenor saxophone, said it was an adjustment performing in an empty room instead of a packed Johnson Fieldhouse for commencement.
“This semester, however, we got to experience the recording side of music. It was great to see the camera (and drone) work that went into making a video,” said Jordan, who is majoring in construction with a minor in business administration.
The band and orchestra usually have a busy schedule with two concerts in addition to playing for two commencement ceremonies and special events, but this fall’s performances were boiled down to recording the two songs.
Still, it was challenge enough and, ultimately, a fulfilling experience after the musicians’ skills were tested.
“Being distanced, everyone feels like they are playing by themselves, and it takes time to build up the confidence in your part and really play out,” Durst said. “There is a delay in what you are hearing from across the room affecting blend and balance. This slowed down our ability to put music together as an ensemble.”
Students wore special masks with openings for their instrument mouthpieces.
“It was a little more difficult to hear all the parts, and the acoustics are a little different, so playing together took some time to figure out,” said Jordan, a fourth-year member of the Jazz Orchestra who will graduate in May, like Killian.
He even credits the experience with making him a better musician.
“Since being spread out made hearing other parts more difficult, I had to rely on myself more for counting and playing difficult phrases. I think that most other musicians in the band had to become more independent in their playing, which makes us all better players,” Jordan said.
For distancing purposes, the Symphonic Band was split into two groups of about 35 each; each unit practiced once a week with Durst instead of twice and practiced one day a week individually. The smaller Jazz Orchestra continued to practice twice a week as a group.
Practices were in the Great Hall of the Memorial Student Center instead of their Applied Arts rehearsal room, which would have held just 25 musicians under COVID restrictions.
Along with university guidelines, Durst followed COVID research and recommendations for musicians from the universities of Colorado and Maryland commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the College Band Directors National Association and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations.
The band, with the support of MSC staff, will continue to use the Great Hall to practice during the spring semester.
Commencement included the recorded singing of “Alma Mater” by the university’s Chamber Choir, directed by Jerry Hui. Although rehearsals were different, choir activities also continued through the fall semester, proving that nothing can stop the music.
Music is part of performing arts options for students at UW-Stout.