Jazz, guitar, choir prepared to perform this semester

An empty Dana Auditorium, as it was for much of the pandemic.

Om Oza

An empty Dana Auditorium, as it was for much of the pandemic.

From public performances to ensemble courses, music is an integral part of Guilford College, and the 12-week session is shaping up to be alive with it. Guilford offers a variety of music courses, from basic music theory to performance studies in saxophone, harp and more. These classes can include or culminate in performances both at the College and outside of it, but with COVID-19 and its associated restrictions, some music courses had some major adjusting to do.

Pandemic restrictions were not kind to music at Guilford, as they forced courses online and put restrictions on in-person playing, leading to some interesting methods of both teaching and performing. Some courses had an easier time adjusting than others. 

“We’re a pretty tech-savvy bunch of folks,” said Charles A. Dana Professor of Music Kami Rowan. Virtual instruction and performance isn’t a foreign concept to the guitar world, and Rowan (who had a few virtual students herself before the pandemic) was still able to teach and put together pieces with her students.

The Guilford College Choir took a similar approach. Taking advantage of technology, Wendy Looker, choir director at Guilford, was able to put together some unique performances using recordings, even one featuring choir alumni who sent in their parts virtually for commencement. While nothing could replace the sense of community that choir builds, she said, it definitely was better than nothing and made for some interesting projects.

The Jazz Ensemble, instructed by Drew P. Hays, had a tough time but managed to get through it, and they still were able to play.

“(It was) amazing we were able to do it ….” Hays said. “But we weren’t able to do the thing the way we usually would.” 

Jazz music is very dependent on subtle interplay between the performers. Rehearsing on the Dana stage with the horn players spread 15 – 30 feet apart from everyone else made it hard for everyone to get in sync with each other. They were able to perform outside at some points, but the Jazz Ensemble had one of the harder times practicing and performing through the pandemic.

All courses have tentative plans for performances throughout the year. Rowan is preparing some of her students for the U.S. Guitar Orchestra, a project she created with an alum, which will perform in the summer. The choir has a planned three-way collaborative performance with Exigence Vocal Ensemble (described on its website as “​​a professional vocal ensemble highlighting artistry within Black and Latinx communities”)  and the First Lutheran Church Choir. The Jazz Combo has plans for both an outdoor performance mid-semester and an indoor performance near the end of the semester.

Going into the 12-week, some courses are ready to embrace in-person learning with the evolving restrictions. 

“We have an easier time, we aren’t blowing on a wind instrument… we aren’t singing,” Rowan said. For guitarists in the guitar ensembles, restrictions regarding COVID shouldn’t hamper them too much in practicing and performing. A mask only covers your mouth and nose, so their ability to play isn’t diminished, and they normally aren’t too close to each other anyway.

Plus, Rowan has some extra confidence in their safety. “I am really close to my guys,” she said. “I know the vaccination status of my kids… we’re tight.” Rowan sees her students five hours a week and is their advisor, so she knows the ensemble is vaccinated. “We’re gonna have ensemble this year.”

The students in the choir aren’t as close to their instructor. The choir, as a one-credit elective taking place during collaborative time, has a wide variety of students participating. From the average Guilfordian, to student-athletes, to the occasional Early College student, the choir is a microcosm of Guilford.

Nevertheless, the choir seems to be just as prepared. Looker is “prepared to rehearse with everyone in the (Dana) Auditorium.” 

A massive auditorium with seating for 900, spacing won’t be a problem. Neither will masks for as long as they are required, as the choir will be equipped with singers’ masks. They are specially made masks for vocalists with extra room. For the choir, “the big question is the audience” Looker said

Those evolving restrictions could be a boon for the Jazz Combo, as close playing spaces are their forte. They didn’t have a single COVID transmission from a rehearsal, and would sometimes utilize specialized PPE like bell covers and horn masks. Being in Dana certainly helped, but the hope is that they will be able to move into the choir room as it’s a tighter space with better acoustics for student musicians that can be cross-ventilated. 

For Hays, his focus is clear. “How do we keep the audience safe and our musicians safe while maintaining artistic integrity?” Hays said. While the pandemic restrictions made playing hard, the jazz musicians got it done, and Hays “will not sacrifice safety.”

There are also plans for a cumulative performance at the end of the semester with a guitar ensemble, the Guilford college choir, and jazz ensemble. The plan is tentative, as COVID has been anything but predictable, but as it stands the performance would take place in the Carnegie room in December.

This would also be after the College’s vaccine mandate, so hopefully, with higher vaccination numbers, some restrictions will be looser. With vaccines finally out and rolling, the pandemic seems to be fading away, and as virtual learning, mask mandates, and social distancing rules are rolled back, it looks like music at Guilford is set to flourish.