Rehearsals in the Time of COVID-19: A Conductor's Reflections



As a former public educator, I am no stranger to the unusual or unorthodox rehearsal. I have had saxophones play clarinet parts, rehearsals outside or in hallways, and all the logistical obstacles that could face a young itinerant teacher. After leaving public school, and working with collegiate ensembles for several years, I thought I had a firm and comprehensive understanding of navigating challenges and unforeseen circumstances within educational settings.


Then COVID-19 happened.


It was mid-March when we heard the news about the impending Novel Coronavirus outbreak headed towards the United States, specifically the Midwest where my colleagues and I studied at The University of Iowa. I had just finished a performance of Michael Torke’s Javelin and Mozart’s Haffner Symphony a week prior to the announcement of what we thought would be a temporary prolongation of spring break. Unfortunately, all further performances for the remainder of the semester were canceled indefinitely.


Throughout the summer, the University Division of Performing Arts would continually assess different strategies and aerosol testing, to best understand the spread of COVID-19 in the scope of ensemble rehearsals.


The initial plan was quite simple;

  • Separate all aerosol-producing instruments (woodwinds and brass) from non-aerosol producing instruments (strings, percussion, piano).

  • Each ensemble had a player cap of approximately fifteen performers, plus one conductor.

  • Rehearsals would be reduced to thirty minutes to reduce exposure.

  • All students would set up their own spaces, with only one person occupying a space per period.

  • After thirty minutes of rehearsal, the air filtration system would proceed to enact an “air scrubbing” process for thirty minutes, leaving the air sanitized for the next course.

It was all coming to plan and sounded incredibly doable.


After a five-month hiatus from music-making, I entered the rehearsal room bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, until the reality and gravity of the situation settled in. The floor was lined with six-foot by six-foot squares, marked by masking tape with neat little numbered labels in the center of each square. There was a bucket with sanitizing wipes at the entrance of the classroom, in which students would be expected to sanitize their stands and chairs before and after rehearsal. Later on, I would be offered a portable mic pack to wear in rehearsals. Of course, face masks would be required during all rehearsals.


 

Issues


We found a problem with seating nearly immediately—given orchestras are accustomed to arced seating; we found the grid to impose an unforeseen obstacle in our rehearsals. We would have to not only eliminate side by side (inner/outer) seating of traditional desks, but we would also be somewhat unbalanced in our front arc as well, and incredibly boxy.


Some students moved to a TALA or Temporary Alternative Learning Assignment, thus permanently leaving the orchestra. Additionally, due to outside possible exposures, many students missed rehearsals for either testing purposes or to quarantine the recommended fourteen days.


To be quite candid, none of us anticipated the university would actually stay open. With the inevitably of rising cases in a Big Ten school, we thought rehearsals would last for a few weeks, and we would return to online learning as we had in the previous spring semester. With a lot of determination and hard work through all parties, we completed two successful cycles, with the re-integration of winds in the second cycle, seated twelve feet from others, and using bell covers.


 


So how do you rehearse in a time like this?



Make a plan

Prior to running your first rehearsal, scope out your rehearsal space. Does it provide adequate room for players to be six feet apart, with aerosol producing instruments to be twelve?

Since rehearsals are shortened, be concise and efficient in all rehearsals.


If you tend to chat when nervous, keep yourself accountable by writing out an in-depth rehearsal plan, complete with timestamp checkpoints to ensure all necessary excerpts and passages are covered.


Be flexible

Unfortunately, students may miss rehearsal now more than ever to ensure the safety of themselves and those they interact with. A few days before the second cycle, one of my players was unable to perform at the concert—thus requiring a last-minute substitute.


Additionally, due to the vast space between performer and conductor compounded with the use of bell covers, a major delay in winds and brass was an early onset issue. We were able to rectify the issue after establishing to anticipate the attack even more so than usual.


Support your musicians as a whole

Right now students are under incredible amounts of stress and pressure from external and internal factors. It is essential as an educator, leader, and fellow human to support the entire musician, in and outside of your classroom.


Expect the unexpected

There will be instances where not all musicians will be able to attend rehearsals, and sometimes very little notice may be given. In both concert cycles, not a single rehearsal occurred where all musicians were present—a huge setback when rehearsal time is already at a premium.

Stay calm, and continue rehearsal as planned without causing panic or worry as to why a certain student may be absent. Omit any rehearsal points that focus on that student, and use this as an opportunity for others to experience the piece through a different lens.


Be kind…to yourself!

These are not normal times. I have left many rehearsals feeling incomplete--“If I had just done ‘x’, that rehearsal would have been better.” It is imperative to give yourself the same grace you give your students. Take time to unwind and practice mindfulness to ensure a sustainable mentality and rehearsal outlook for the semester.


If you are looking for ways to relax and ease your anxiety, Emma Lin shares a very approachable mindfulness exercise that we could all benefit from.


 

Final Thoughts


Thankfully music in the time of COVID-19 hasn’t been all obstacles. I was able to be a part of two very successful broadcasts with the Symphony Orchestra, as I continue to work with other small chamber ensembles, including the university’s non-major string orchestra and a wind octet performing Stravinsky’s Octet for Wind Instruments. Additionally, I am currently in the process of collaborating with contemporary local composers in a multimedia educational experience.


Had this been a typical school year, I’m not sure I would have had the invaluable opportunity to collaborate at such an intimate level with performers and fellow artists for whom I have the highest appreciation and respect.


Best of luck in your rehearsals, and always remember to take it one day (or note) at a time!


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