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The orchestral experience amidst a pandemic

By Samantha Amundarain, May 17, 2021—

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the University of Calgary to completely revamp learning for the student body. For musicians and ensembles, this meant a drastic change to their approach to music and performance. This is the first year that the University of Calgary Orchestra — directed by Professor Edmond Agopian —  had no live performances. Removing the group setting and having to play in isolation was a radically different experience than students were used to. 

“I would compare it to substituting a hiking experience with walking on a treadmill while looking at pictures of mountains,” says Agopian. He has been the conductor of the orchestra for the past 30 years. “The only way to run orchestra rehearsals and performances is as a group, in-person — there is no alternative.” 

While a rehearsal in the past consisted of detail-oriented, methodical playthroughs of the music that turned into performance-ready, beautifully moving pieces, being online has focused more on the historical and cultural aspects connected to the music and composers. Under this new format also came listening to and recording excerpts from Beethoven’s symphonies. 

“To a certain degree, this exercise mimicked the process of playing in an orchestra and worked well as a simulation,” said Agopian. 

Beethoven’s symphonies were pivotal in the music world and still serve as the foundation blocks for a large part of symphonic writing today. Every week, the students would listen to one movement from one of Beethoven’s nine major symphonies. The score would be analysed, and elements of the music, such as chord progressions and musicality, would be discussed. Alongside the technical aspects of the music, the historical and cultural context of when the piece was published allowed the students to interpret the music with more background. There was a more general understanding of why the piece came to be, and why it was written as it was. The class also had mock auditions, which consisted of preparing some orchestral excerpts to perform via Zoom to the rest of the class. 

“The zoom mock auditions added a hands-on learning experience to the course and were very useful training exercises,” said Agopian. The auditions were designed to resemble an in-person audition in front of a jury. 

Yet this experience is in no way comparable to playing before an audience. 

“The most exciting part and enjoyable part, especially when playing for an audience, was creating music with others, […] it’s just so rewarding,” says Ryland Gujilde, a first-year student. This is his 9th year performing music, but only his first without the rest of the group. “[Being online], I gotta say, it’s way different.” he continued. “The audience is the face [cameras] you see on your screen — it’s not as exciting, or rewarding in my personal opinion.” The reaction that is usually received from an audience in person was not present — the applause when an excerpt ended was replaced with the clapping hands emoji over the face of his peers on their zoom windows. The closure of ending the performance was not as elegant as it had been in the past. While seeing a friendly face in the crowd is a welcome feeling when performing, it’s bittersweet when they are not in the same room.

While the audience is the most important aspect of performing, playing orchestral music with no other musicians also altered the experience. 

“I struggled so much,” said Gujilde. He said that having a group helps with learning the piece quicker. “You understand the piece better, like when you’re supposed to start or stop playing.” Having no one else to play with also affected his motivation to take part in the orchestra at all. “Honestly, the only thing that motivated me was the deadlines. “This year is also the last year that I’m playing my instrument, that was also a motivating factor.” 

Being online, the connection between the ensemble is lost. Yet playing alone offers an opportunity to try new approaches to learning music. Learning the music alone allows for more time to rehearse and perfect the pieces with no external pressure. It is quite different to practice for a group rehearsal than it is for a recording that can be done repeatedly as needed. Having to prepare for a rehearsal means that the music must be at a certain standard in terms of tempo and musicality. The progress made in a rehearsal is not individual, it is for group progress, an element that is absent in online playing. Without rehearsals demanding a certain pace at which to learn the music at, there is more time to understand the assigned part, and less pressure to learn it at a certain time under certain conditions. From a teaching perspective, different topics about the music can be explored, which wouldn’t normally happen in a regular, in-person rehearsal. Learning about the cultural and historical influences in the music allows for a deeper understanding — the musical piece becomes more meaningful than just scribbles on paper. 

“It was an excellent, academic type, learning experience,” said Agopian. This novel approach to music-making deepens the cultural understanding behind Beethoven’s symphonies and other pieces that could be explored in the future.

Despite the obstacle of being online, the course was still a positive experience for Gujilde. 

“It was a challenge but it was an enjoyable one.” It allowed for a different sort of exploration through the music, one that may be most beneficial to individual learning experiences. Agopian noted that “lecture-type orchestra music courses with some applied individual performing [or] recording component can work very well online, but not for an orchestra.” 

Incoming musicians that are interested in playing in the orchestra can expect well-rounded discussions about the music that will be played. The course will likely stay the same as it was this past year. 

“The only change I can think of comes out of an instinctive desire to add more orchestra performances than the usual number,” said Agopian. “However, despite my enthusiasm, I do not want to overwhelm the students with work, so I will not pursue that plan.” 

Against all odds, music lives on. With enough creativity and dedication, it is possible to turn the most exciting group activities into COVID safe individual experiences. While the group setting is dearly missed by musicians — student and teacher alike — music education continues and offers room to grow. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the show has found a way to go on.

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