‘A waiting game’: Music groups navigate campus COVID-19 restrictions


Zoom screenshot

The Pitt Symphony Orchestra gathered via Zoom on Wednesday for its first rehearsal.

By Maggie Young, Contributing Editor

Jordan Bender, a percussionist in both the Pitt Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble, said neighbors in his apartment building will likely notice him practicing his marimba, but at least he’s not using his snare drum.

“The whole building [would] hear it, or at least the people under me and around us,” Bender, a senior computer science and music performance double major, said. “Out of respect to everyone who lives here … that would just be too extreme.”

But he said other campus musicians don’t fare as well in terms of rehearsal space, since students still can’t access campus buildings such as Bellefield Hall and the Music Building.

Various music groups on campus face a challenging year in terms of access to spaces, equipment and each other’s company due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but many plan to utilize their living spaces and recording technologies to safely create pandemic-era virtual audio experiences for listeners. Heinz Chapel Choir, one of the largest student music groups on campus, declined to comment.

These difficulties presented themselves to Roger Zahab, the orchestra director, leading up to the ensemble’s first rehearsal on Aug. 26. The group of 45 gathered via Zoom to play collectively as Zahab gave cues, but each musician turned off their microphone.

Instead of listening to everyone else live, which Zahab said would create chaos, musicians played alongside a preexisting recording of the pieces, but not without making adjustments.

“When you’re playing together, you can gauge how loud you should be compared to what you’re hearing,” Zahab said. “In the internet universe, you have to be in tune, in time and in dynamic range with yourself.”

Instrumentalists recorded themselves using their phones or programs such as Garage Band. Though not ideal, Zahab said these technologies do the job.

“The recordings that are possible with an iPad are quite good,” Zahab said. “The quality of phone recordings is better than what we used to have in magnetic tape.”

According to Bender, the Jazz Ensemble will have twice-weekly online rehearsals this semester, with time slots allotted for each instrumental group. He doesn’t know whether or not he will hear other musicians while he practices, but he assumed this rehearsal will be similar to that of the orchestra, including the nuances lost without in-person rehearsals.

“You kind of have to pretend like they’re all there when it’s just you playing,” Bender said. “It’s definitely going to be a weird and interesting experience, because it’s going to be more like you’re in a recording studio than you’re actually in an orchestra.”

Not all groups will transition to collective online rehearsals. Pitches and Tones, an a cappella group, plans to instead have individuals work alone throughout the year and contribute to a new EP on the group’s Spotify and SoundCloud pages.

Emma Cash, the group’s president, said one member of the group has recording equipment they will share with other members, so everyone can record their parts on their own.

“We’re just trying to do as much music as we can while still following University guidelines and policies,” Cash, a senior chemistry major, said.

For students without access to recording devices, Bender and Zahab said the music department is working to give them USB microphones.

But not all musical equipment is as easily exchanged. Bender said he plays upward of 12 different types of percussion instruments during performances for either group. He owns several instruments, such as a glockenspiel and tambourines, but he usually relies on several University-owned instruments housed on campus.

“People in the music department are trying to figure out a way and they’re being extremely helpful,” Bender said. “But there’s only so much they can do and I can do. It’s more or less a waiting game.”

Zahab has access to Bellefield and the Music Building and has been able to get instruments for performers who left equipment there in March, including one particular student doing the semester from home who drove from Philadelphia to pick up his bass.

With the instruments members can access, Zahab said he and the orchestra’s team of sound engineers plan to arrange all of the recordings students send to him into a cohesive performance. These will air in prerecorded concerts in October and December.

Both the orchestra and Pitches and Tones plan on adding new members to the group in preparation for their respective future music installments. Auditions for all five a cappella groups took place in a Google doc, where interested students could audition from home by filling out the doc and attaching a YouTube link of their performance.

“We’re super happy that we can do that because we were worried, obviously in-person auditions aren’t really an option, but we’re excited to welcome new people into the group, and they can do the EP with us,” Cash said.

Auditions were open until Tuesday night, and vocalists will now go through a callback process. Cash said about 30 people had auditioned for at least one of the five groups as of Monday.

“That’s a little bit less than we usually get,” Cash said. “But it’s still a really good number considering.”

Zahab said he welcomes auditions at any time, and has received 10 to 15 so far. He mentioned plans for potential in-person rehearsals in small groups if the University moved to the least restrictive Guarded Risk posture and University buildings reopened. In the meantime, he just wants to uphold an agreement he made with musicians over the summer.

“I just promised that, somehow, in the fall,” Zahab said, “we would make music together.”