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It has become a cliché to use the term unprecedented, but, in truth, there is no better word to describe the challenge that our campus community faced this past academic year. Still, the music department faculty and staff went above and beyond to meet every challenge they faced and excelled in innovative teaching. From global collaborations to Zoom masterclasses and lessons to virtual concerts, the 2020-2021 academic year saw our students, faculty, and staff rising to meet each challenge with creativity and ingenuity.

What better time to go global than during a pandemic?

Screenshot, Clockwise from top left: Joseph Fort, King’s College London; Michael Kris, UNC-Chapel Hill; Kristina Arakelyan, London-based composer and pianist; Evan Feldman, music professor, UNC-Chapel Hill.

While it may seem counterintuitive to create an international class during a pandemic, that’s just what Professor Michael Kris accomplished in the fall 2020 semester. As part of UNC Global’s new COIL initiative, Collaborative Online International Learning, Kris partnered with Professor Joseph Fort, of King’s College London. Kris and Fort have worked together numerous times over the years (most recently Kris took the UNC Sackbut Ensemble to KCL over Spring Break 2019), but this was the first time their collaboration has been solely online.

In this new course, Kris’ Brass Chamber Music students and Fort’s Advanced Performance Studies students combined to explore music’s intersections with nationalism, globalism, and accessibility. These explorations culminated in a unique performance experience for the students of the class as well as Professor Evan Feldman’s UNC Wind Ensemble students. This final performance was of KCL’s student-composer Kristina Arakelyan’s composition “Protest in 7 Intervals.” This composition was written specifically for the class and designed to be performed over Zoom, using the limitations of the technology to enhance the meaning of the piece.

Drawing on all of the themes the class explored throughout the semester, the world premiere of “Protest” brought together faculty and students in separate countries to create one incredible experience for the viewer.

In an interview with The Well in November 2020 Kris said,

“I want them to experience being together, talking, right now in this pandemic. The internationalization of music is a tool of diplomacy, a tool of bringing out the best in a culture, a tool to bring about accessibility and education to younger people.”

You can view the premiere in full below, and to read The Well’s feature on this and other COIL classes click here.

Songwriting Over Zoom

Screenshot of Don Schiltz’s visit with Songwriting class.

The MUSC 381 Analysis of Songcraft course, taught by Professor Jocelyn Neal, normally sees a bustling classroom of students huddled together to discuss new songs, work through bridges and choruses, and give feedback on lyrical compositions. While these discussions had to take place via Zoom last year, that didn’t slow Neal or her students in the slightest.

In Fall 2020, the class was treated to two amazing guest lecturers: Rissi Palmer and Don Schlitz. Both Palmer and Schlitz shared their personal experiences in the industry with the class as well as tips on maintaining authenticity as a songwriter. Rissi Palmer is a Country, Pop, R&B/Soul, Songwriter and artist from Raleigh, NC. With the release of her first single, “Country Girl,” in 2007 she became the first Black female artist on the Country charts since Dona Mason in 1987. Don Schlitz is a Grammy-Award winning Country songwriter, whose first hit was Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”

“At the age of 20, I got on a bus and I came to Nashville, Tennessee. I had $80 and that’s why I came to Nashville. I couldn’t afford to get anywhere else. I got a job as the all-night computer operator at Vanderbilt University. They had an IBM Selectric typewriter and I would sit and type, and I would sit and rhyme. ‘The Gambler’ was the very first song I had recorded, but was not the first song I’d written. I’ve been writing songs, since I was 16.”

Instead of a live open mic-style showcase the students’ final projects were presented on YouTube, showing off various new skills in recording, audio editing, video production, and video editing that the students undertook as part of the changes Neal made to adapt the course to a remote learning environment. One such video is “Whisper of the Devil” by Eddy Rios, based on Bob Marley’s most well-known sayings about being rich in happiness and not money or possessions.

Making music together, apart

Many classes in the department rely heavily on real-time music-making between professors and students. While going remote presented a challenge to this, many faculty came up with inventive solutions to work around the lag time of Zoom calls.
Professor Evan Feldman found software for his conducting class that essentially turned students’ laptops into an orchestra that they could then conduct. This inventive solution allowed students in his class to continue their practical studies of conducting instead of having to switch to an all theoretical learning style. As Feldman told Spectrum News in August 2020, just after the University made the decision to switch to remote learning for the fall semester, “We’re all trying to figure out what’s the best practice. What’s the safest way. How can we do what we do and be safe.”

Screenshot from UNC Opera’s production of Ravel’s “The Child and the Spells.”

Similarly, Professor Marc Callahan, director of UNC Opera, turned to technology, using TikTok, Snapchat, and YouCam Fun filters to create an opera completely remotely. The opera Callahan chose to produce this semester is Ravel’s “The Child and the Spells.” Composed during the Spanish Flu pandemic on 1918, the story follows a boy who is forced to stay home and do his homework. Needless to say, it was easy for students to find parallels to their own lives while recording their parts for this production. You can view UNC Opera’s production of “The Child and the Spells” on the department’s YouTube channel.

Building connection and inspiring change from a distance

Creating and maintaining meaningful connections was another major challenge of the past year, especially in the fall semester. Many students and faculty struggled with the isolation of not being able to play music together as they normally would. However, Associate Professor Nicholas DiEugenio found innovative ways to re-engage musicians with his fall mini-series, “Alone/Engaged.”

Each episode featured two solo performances by Dr. DiEugenio from J.S. Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas as well as an interview with a guest artist. The series honored one of the most classic works of the violin repertoire while also reconnecting colleagues who have been distanced through quarantine.

“When I play the music, I don’t really feel alone, so much as I feel engaged with the music itself… And so I started also to think about what kinds of engagement really mattered to me and my life, and how can I share?”

Screenshot of Nicholas DiEugenio and Jacqueline Jove in the first installment of Alone/Engaged.
Nicholas DiEugenio and Jacqueline Jove in the first installment of Alone/Engaged.

When asked about his motivation for creating the series, he remarked, “…there are a lot of stories contained in the Sonatas and Partitas of Bach, himself, but also stories in the music, and stories in a way, if you take the time to go through these stories, you can possibly find some resonance within your own life.”

He thought of his colleagues throughout the music industry, the incredible social justice and accessibility work they are doing, and wanted to allow them a space to share their voices and stories.

“I had no idea there were entire aspects of their stories I had never heard before,” he said. He noted how these interviews have also given him ideas for new ways to engage in his community and social justice movements that incorporate and uplift people through music. Being able to reconnect with colleagues in new ways has not only helped DiEugenio but also has the potential to impact the music department as a whole.

“What I’m hoping is that this is the start of a much broader kind of engagement between not only me, but all of my colleagues in the music department, and members of the community.”

All three episodes, featuring Jacqueline Jove (Sphinx Organization), Vijay Gupta (Street Symphony), and Kenneth Bean (Primavera Fund), are available for viewing on the department’s YouTube channel.

Finding a new normal

After spending the fall semester fully remote, it was a relief to be able to begin to come back together in the spring of 2021. However, with masks and distancing all still in effect — and many classes still meeting remotely — the challenges of the pandemic were far from over. Instead, students, faculty, and staff were faced with a new set of challenges to embrace and overcome.

Luckily, the plans that had been formulated originally for in fall 2020 worked for the spring semester. In October 2020, the jazz faculty gave the only live (streamed) performance in Moeser Auditorium of the semester. While there was not a live audience, it was an emotional experience to have department musicians back on the stage creating together. It also foreshadowed things to come for the spring semester.

Utilizing the incredible new ultra low-latency audio and video technology the department acquired over the summer in 2020, the department was able to hold concerts safely in the spring semester. This new technology removes the delay normally heard between multiple performing studios, classrooms, and concert halls. This allowed real-time playing between musicians in two, three, even five different locations at once — all over Zoom.

Thanks to this innovative solution, for rehearsals and performances in spring 2021 students and faculty were masked while in the same room, and those who needed to play unmasked were in a separate location in the department. In fact, the department was able to host forty-six performances in the spring semester, garnering close to twenty-five thousand views on YouTube altogether.

UNC Jazz students perform together from three separate locations in Kenan Music Building in February 2021.

Forward together

No matter the class, faculty tried to maintain the energy of in-person learning, make the most of the technology, and keep students engaged. From virtual concerts to masterclasses with world-renowned artists, from breakout rooms and online listening sessions to recording TikToperas, our faculty and students spent the year creating music in new and exciting ways.

The culmination of many of these efforts can be seen on the department’s YouTube channel, where viewers can see over virtual and live performances from the complete academic year.

With close to thirty thousand views between these live streams, it’s clear that our students, faculty, and staff were not the only ones hungry for music and connection during the pandemic. We hope you enjoy viewing them as much as we enjoyed creating them.

by Catherine Zachary

Gene Galvin bakes and sings in his kitchen.
Voice professor Gene Galvin rocks out for his students while baking at home in his kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Gene Galvin.)