Clarksville, TN – One afternoon last spring, conducting batons and musical instruments were packed away inside the Austin Peay State University (APSU) Music/Mass Communication Building, the lights shut off in the practice rooms and the Mabry Concert Hall, and after all the faculty and students had left – weeks before the end of the semester – the building was locked.
The COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic had forced the University to move all instruction fully online – a particularly devastating move for Austin Peay State University’s Department of Music.
“The way last semester ended was very demoralizing,” Dr. Gregory Wolynec, professor of music, said. “Any group working on a project in the arts, it fizzled and ended.”
In the long months that followed, Austin Peay State University’s music faculty looked at ways to resume ensemble training and performances this fall. In the midst of their planning, new research showed how some safety measures might actually do more harm to musicians.
“A couple of music organizations at the national level have been doing research into aerosolized coronavirus, and they found that things like putting plexiglass shields between players impedes airflow,” Wolynec said. “It creates dead zones in the room.”
As the challenges kept mounting for the fall semester, Wolynec took a close look at his colleagues’ professional, non-academic activities. Several APSU professors often work in Nashville, helping to score films and movies. That gave him an idea.
“Because of a rise of these recordings in Nashville, we thought maybe for one semester we could provide some alternative experiences that would resemble more of a recording studio than life on a stage,” Wolynec said. “We needed to come up with a way we could do it, maybe in sections. Worst case scenario, it would still be very doable from home.”
Last week, APSU music students learned that instead of live concerts, each ensemble will do two major projects this semester centered around a movie soundtrack.
This fall, the Austin Peay State University University’s Symphonic Band has commissioned Chris Childs, an Atlanta-based composer and performer, to provide the musical score for an early silent film, “Joan of Arc.” The University’s Wind Ensemble commissioned Nikk Pilato, a faculty member at Indiana State University, to provide a soundtrack for a public domain silent film. Old, silent films work better for teaching and performing purposes because the musicians don’t have to compete with dialogue.
“We also have two very talented composers who are writing new works for us,” Wolynec said.
Ashlee Busch, an Arizona-based composer, is developing a piece for the Symphonic Band, and Cristina Spinei – who’s commissions include works for the Nashville Ballet, the New York Choreographic Institute, the Pacific Northwest Ballet – will write a new work for the APSU Wind Ensemble.
“The way we’ll approach these pieces, we’re going to try to start the semester with as large of a group as we can have at a time,” Wolynec said. “Because of these COVID aerosol studies, we’re able to play together, in masks and social distanced, for 30 minutes. Then we’ll move from one large room to another large room, do another 30 minutes.”
If the pandemic causes Austin Peay State University to move fully online again later this fall, the student members of these ensembles will go home with a studio-quality microphone and headphones. This will allow the student musicians to record their own parts at home, and then send them back to be mixed together for a full ensemble score.
“I will miss conducting this semester; I put my baton down, and I don’t know the next time I’ll be touching it,” John Schnettler, associate professor of music and director of the Symphonic Band, said. “But I’m excited to learn all these technologies in this method, learning along with the students.
“We’ll all walk away with this new skill set. It’s better than lemonade,” he said, referring to the old adage about what to do when life gives you lemons.
But musical concerts aren’t a thing of the past. Austin Peay State University’s University Orchestra does plan to host a live performance this semester, just without the live audience. That concert will be streamed for the public. The movie soundtracks will also be made available later this semester.
For more information, visit the APSU Department of Music’s website at www.apsu.edu/music.