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Arts & Culture

Brown music community adapts during COVID-19 pandemic

Throughout the past year, U. musicians have pivoted to new methods of music-making, performance

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Last year, many lives were upended as the world went into lockdown. For the music community, however, the sting of the shutdowns was particularly harsh.

When classes shifted to Zoom and club meetings were canceled, students and professors alike had to quickly figure out how they could continue engaging in campus-based music activities remotely. For an industry and discipline that centers around collaboration and live performance, pivoting to virtual working and learning was no easy task. 

Yet, a year later, the University’s music scene is ready to bounce back stronger than ever. 

“One of the lessons of this past year has been that music is pretty d–mn resilient,” said Emily Dolan, chair of the Department of Music. In normal times, the department hosts upward of 200 events each year in addition to ensemble practices, private music lessons and normal classes — all activities that require gathering in person to some capacity. In a year where that in-person gathering wasn’t possible, different arrangements had to be made.

“Only 20 people could be in a room physically at a time and distance,” said Mark Seto, director of the Brown University Orchestra. “Practically speaking, what that meant is that only people who could do whatever they’re doing musically while wearing a mask could participate in any in-person opportunities.” As a result, the only groups that could gather were string players, pianists and percussionists. Singing and wind instruments were off the table. 

While the newfound restrictions presented a challenge, they gave the University’s musicians a chance to innovate. “My approach to working with this group since I came here (has been) thinking about programming in a way that really speaks to what an orchestra … can actually be (as a) vehicle for performing art that actually speaks to the world that we live in,” Seto said.

For Seto, that meant salvaging as much of the in-person orchestra experience as possible. He separated his ensemble into two groups, which met in person at different times. While it wasn’t the same, the rehearsals were meaningful nonetheless. The ensemble even culminated its efforts in a prerecorded YouTube performance May 13.

That’s not to say the past year hasn’t been without challenges. 

“We’ve tried to keep the sense of community tangible, but it’s hard to do over Zoom,” said Ethan Asis ’23, music director for the Jabberwocks, Brown’s oldest a cappella group. While the ensemble was still able to attract new members, Asis said that its typical activities have essentially been on hold since the pandemic began.

“We have always been a group that spends a lot of its time performing both at Brown and doing gigs off campus, whether it’s a random gig in Providence or Boston or if it’s on tour,” said Asis. “We were a pretty intense group in the sense that we spent six hours a week or more rehearsing.” Learning new arrangements over Zoom, however, just didn’t work. 

And, in addition to changes for ensembles, there were also big changes for the world of recorded music.

“There was a lot of figuring things out, and what I’m the most impressed at is looking back at the capstones and honors theses that our students did,” Dolan said. For many of these graduating students, their capstones took the form of full-length albums.

“They don’t look like a bunch of COVID compromises … They’re really great projects that don’t look like they were done under (extreme restrictions),” Dolan added. In fact, all the time spent inside gave many students the opportunity to experiment musically in ways they never had before. 

“I just had a ton of time to start learning more production stuff,” said Jack Riley ’23. “I basically just locked myself in a room (and) watched tons of YouTube material.”

Riley has worked on a number of projects for various classmates that have been released to much acclaim. He recently started collaborating with Tyrone Killebrew ’23 on a personal project called Prettyboyworldwyde. Together, the producer-singer duo has landed placements on some of Spotify’s major editorial playlists like New Music Friday and Fresh Finds.

Working mostly by sending stems back and forth on Google Drive, the pair has managed to put out one single after another. “I find that the quicker we get stuff cranked out … (the better) it ends up,” Riley said. 

Now, with increased vaccine accessibility bringing about some semblance of normalcy, it looks like a new dawn for music at Brown. 

“It’ll be a year of recovery … but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to be investing a lot of time into it,” Asis said. “I think there’s going to be more motivation this year because of the contextual circumstances than there would be in other years.”

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