Facing an uncertain future, Maryland music graduates virtually adapt and persevere
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
May 15, 2020 | 11:58 AM
Mairead Alexander, a graduating senior at UMBC, talks about how her last year of college has changed ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.
Composer Serena Miller had big plans for her senior recital, the concert that undergraduate music students at the Peabody Institute are required to stage in order to earn their degrees.
She had written a piece for an eight-part choir, flute, saxophone, piano, vibraphones, harp and cello, and it had taken her four months to secure the performers: Part of the task of organizing a composition recital in music school is convincing your very busy peers to rehearse and perform it for free.
But when Peabody moved to online instruction for the rest of the semester in order to comply with stay-at-home orders, degree recitals, most of which are held in the spring, became out of the question. School administrators changed the graduation requirements: Instrumentalists and vocalists could now submit videos of their performances instead, and graduating students would be welcome to return to the school once it reopened to stage a real concert, complete with a live audience and a professional-grade recording.
Miller doesn’t expect to take them up on it. “A lot of the musicians I had lined up for this big piece — they will not be there,” she said in an interview, explaining that many of her peers will have moved to other cities by the fall. “I will have lost touch with some of my friends who play certain instruments.”
As students around the country prepare to graduate in the coming weeks, many are counting their losses as well as their achievements. Commencements for Maryland schools have been postponed or moved online, but the missed end-of-year opportunities extend beyond not getting to walk across the stage or snap graduation photos with friends — some could have a lingering impact on nascent careers.
Students pursuing performance-based occupations, like musicians, are particularly hard hit. It’s analogous to the conundrum that student-athletes will encounter in the wake of the NCAA’s decision to extend eligibility, in that students who had seasons cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic will be allowed to compete in college sports for longer than usual — but this disrupts the usual ebb and flow of students playing at any one time.
Bobby Ge, a composition student at Peabody who’s about to complete his master’s degree, was planning on taking a gap year before pursuing a doctorate. But now he’s worried that he won’t have the materials he’ll need to apply to schools in the fall — he had been counting on the recordings from his own culminating recital as well as from other canceled performances.
“That basically shoots to pieces any hope for putting together a portfolio for applications,” he said. True, Ge still has the musical scores, just as performance-track musicians can technically record audition materials on home equipment, but the quality of these recordings, in addition to the performances themselves, really matters: It shows a student’s level of professionalism.
Ge could delay his applications further, but he runs into another problem: Many other students will likely be doing the same thing. “You’re going to have this whole year of lost time — basically two generations of students applying for the same spots,” he said. What else? The economy is tanking — and data from past recessions show that more people enroll in school during economic downturns.
All of the disruptions from COVID-19 on the arts world ( including hits in funding and income that large institutions are facing) are going to have a domino effect: In the coming years, more musicians and other artists will be vying for increasingly rare financial and institutional support — and applicants who are missing out on the usual educational and career milestones will likely be at a marked disadvantage.
That’s reason for graduating musicians who already had employment lined up to count their blessings. Mairead Alexander, a graduating violin performance major at UMBC, already teaches at The Bridges Program, a nonprofit that provides early music education, as well as at a private studio in Ellicott City.
She plans to continue this work after graduation — and, since she’ll be in the area, that makes it more likely she’ll return to UMBC to stage her own senior recital. As with other schools, UMBC changed degree requirements for graduating students by allowing them to submit recordings of their recital repertoire — but Alexander had prepared pieces that called for an accompanying pianist. “I just play without the pianist and count rests,” Alexander explained.
Of course, it’s a reasonable accommodation, but the changes necessitated by COVID-19 do deprive students of otherwise invaluable learning opportunities, many of them set to be the culminating experience of their studies.
Amirah Farmer, a graduating vocal performance major at Morgan State University, chose to submit audio of her senior recital repertoire to a prerecorded piano part, but the experience was one that didn’t instill the necessary practices of live performance.
“When you’re recording a song, you have so many takes,” Farmer explained in an interview. “When you’re on that stage, you can’t stop and restart the song. You have to make music in real time. Recording in your living room — I think that can hinder people’s musicianship. You have the opportunity to delete, which I did a lot.”
Students aren’t the only ones mourning their missed opportunities. To Dr. Eric Conway, chairperson of the fine and performing arts department at Morgan State University, and the director of the MSU Choir, the ambition and promise of the choir’s spring performances only made their cancelations all the more painful. These included a tour through Texas, a performance at the Kennedy Center with jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, a 10-day tour of Peru and Ecuador and collaborations with the Philadelphia and Baltimore Symphony Orchestras.
“But as important as we believe music is to our persona as human beings, public health concern trumps all,” said Dr. Conway. “I’m optimistic that once we return, we’ll be as stellar as we were previously — it’s just going to take some time to get our momentum back.”
In the meantime, he’s working with the choir to provide them and the rest of the school at least some kind of a musical send-off. Morgan State University announced they’ve rescheduled an in-person commencement for October; on May 16 they are scheduled to hold a “Virtual Recognition Ceremony.”
For the virtual ceremony, said Dr. Conway, “members of the choir that are graduating seniors” — which includes Amirah Farmer — “are going to get on the screen. They’re going to sing the Alma Mater, ‘Fair Morgan,’ at the end of the graduation as we typically do in the stadium.”
Dr. Conway has kept his choir busy with other projects, too. On May 13, he released on YouTube a virtual performance of “We Are The World,” a piece that the MSU choir had previously never performed. From their homes, choir members learned and recorded their individual parts, even simulating being physically together as they look on appreciatively at soloists carrying the tune the next screen over.
Peabody, too, has called upon the creativity of their students to honor the graduating class of 2020. Ashna Pathan, a sophomore majoring in Music For New Media, organized, mixed and edited video performances of “Pomp and Circumstance” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to be included in the virtual commencements for both Peabody and Johns Hopkins University, set for May 20 and May 21, respectively.
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Of course, these performances won’t be live — they required yet more prerecording, deleting, re-recording, uploading and mixing to produce a simulation of a live performance. One of the biggest hurdles in such projects, according to Pathan, is “getting the parts to line up timing-wise, pitch-wise, and to make sure they all have the same interpretation.” That’s because “the musicians don’t get to hear each other. It’s hard to make it sound like a cohesive unit.”
Challenges aside, schools’ commitments to provide original performances is a reminder of the necessity of music to mark important events in our lives, and of its potential to gird graduates’ spirits as they face an uncertain future.
That’s something that Serena Miller, the graduating composer at Peabody, is trying to keep in mind — especially when she considers what a privilege it is to be worried about one’s ability to make music, when there are frontline workers risking their lives every day in the midst of the pandemic.
“I think at this time that art is going to be very important not only in getting out messages, but also in helping people feel like they’re not alone,” she said. “That they’re not going through this by themselves, and they’re still connected to people. We can still have these things that bring us together, even if we’re hundreds or thousands of miles apart.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for The Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions. Nonemaker can be reached at email@example.com.