Music Making in "Hard Times"
The Coronavirus pandemic interrupted music making of all kinds during 2020. Here we explore the affect of the pandemic on collegiate wind band ensembles through an interview with Mike Votta, Jr., Director of Bands at the University of Maryland. The episode features the music of Danny Clay and The Living Earth Show performing in collaboration with the University of Maryland Concert Band.
Narration: Welcome to “Not a Quiet Place: Exploring Special Collections in Performing Arts at the University of Maryland.” I’m Christina Taylor Gibson.
When we began to collect the interviews for this podcast in the Fall of 2019, we had no idea what an eventful year 2020 would be. The twin pandemics of COVID-19 and racial justice affected the entirety of our process in both positive and negative ways. The podcast ended up getting more time and attention than we would have been able to afford it absent a pandemic. Almost from the very being we were conscious of the need to be inclusive in our storytelling, but as we worked current events sharpened our approach to episodes two and three. Coronavirus was not a planned podcast subject, but it kept intruding into all our discussions, just as it was intruding into our lives. By the time we were outlining and scripting it became clear that we would have to do something about the ways in which the pandemic was reshaping the way people make and listen to music.
For the bulk of this episode, we’ll be hearing from Dr. Mike Votta, director of bands at the University of Maryland has a background in microbiology—a field he thought he was leaving when he became a musician. Dr. Votta explains the dangers and difficulties of practicing and performing Wind music in the age of COVID. He also discusses the measures that the University of Maryland and other schools around the country are taking to protect their students and staff members while also providing a good educational experience.
But before we hear from Dr. Votta, I’d like to review some of the ways Coronavirus has come up in the previous episodes. For example, in Episode 2 we heard from Fredara Hadley on HBCU Marching Bands. When I interviewed her, she was anticipating the loss of Homecoming rehearsals in the Fall, and the way that could change the whole environment of a campus for her.
FH: HBCU bands are just. We think about them, at their actual performances, both on campus or away, whatever the case may be. But I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the midst of pandemic times and all that. One of the sounds of fall to me, still, is hearing the band rehearse off in the distance, right? And so, and at FAMU’s campus, the practice field, sits a little bit away from campus, but, like as you’re walking, going where-ever you’re going on campus, you hear the Sousaphones, you hear the band. You may drive by the practice field late at night, and you see the lights on, you see the folks out on the field. That is a part of the soundscapes of these campuses, and so, as I’ve gone and worked at other institutions that don’t have marching bands, it’s always been very striking to me that that ambient sound of the band off some place, doing something, making magic that we will soon enjoy, was something that I always noticed.
Narration: Obviously those rehearsals were not happening in the same way this fall, but there have been various attempts to make music with ensembles across the U.S. That’s why I was so delighted to see that FAMU was releasing content for a virtual Homecoming. It wasn’t the large, communal, community-focused weekend of the before times, but it was a little piece of sonic fun in our current reality. To me that approach encapsulates how so many of us are getting through this particular moment—by doing the very best we can with the resources available to us.
Here’s the sound of the FAMU Marching band at virtual Homecoming. If you want to see the video featuring band members dancing and playing six feet apart on the football field, visit our website for a link: lib.umd.edu/scpa-podcast
The spirit of collective problem-solving was also part of the concept and execution of The Minnesota Consortium of Black American Composers. That project was the subject of episode 3. The commissions at the heart of that project were contracted and completed during the pandemic, and the call for “flexible instrumentation” was a reaction to new difficulties of running a music program with fewer students or online students, allowing as many different types of ensembles as possible to perform the works. Several composers mentioned thinking about the tragedies associated with COVID as they wrote their pieces, including Christian L. Thomas.
CLT: But I just wanted to focus on, you know, we are going through this pandemic together. It does not matter that we’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic. Whatever ethnicity we are, we’re entering this together. It does not matter what part of the world we’re in because we’re enduring this across the world. I wanted something where we could come together and we could put all of the politics aside and we could just share a moment of reverence, a moment of—a moment to pray together, but a moment to bond if that makes sense. I wanted this to be an experience where people could come together and be like, “hey, we’re going through this together” and so that’s where the piece was inspired from.
Narration: The conversations I had in preparation for earlier episodes directed my preparation for this one. I was lucky that most of my questions could be answered by Mike Votta, who not only administers the Band program at UMD, but also serves in the leadership of the College Band Directors National Association, where he’s been working to commission studies on wind instruments and COVID and to disseminate those results to institutions around the U.S.
MV: So, one of the quirks of things is that my undergraduate degree is I have a bachelor of science in microbiology. And a bachelor’s of music in clarinet. And I thought, well once I get into music I’m done with microbiology, but apparently not, so . . . God has a sense of humor apparently.
CTG: It’s perfect! Um. Terrible, but perfect.
MV: So, actually, I’m one of the officers. I’m one of the national officers of the College Band Directors’ National Association. And so early on, like last spring, we were talking and so, just because of my science background, I became, unwittingly, like the Dr. Fauci of CBDNA. And the current president, Mark Speed, is partnering with other organizations and commissioning some studies. So there’s a famous one at the University of Colorado, Boulder with sort of a companion study at Maryland with the School of Public Health. And there’s also one at Colorado State University. Looking specifically on wind instruments and aerosols and singing and aerosols. So I’ve been part of that since the beginning. And um. It’s been great because I’ve been able to keep kind of the School of Music administration in the loop. So I really feel like between my connections there and then the fact that our school of public health has got experts actually working on this problem, we’re pretty well situated to know what the current thinking is.
CTG: So it’s a matter of studying like how far those particles are traveling and then kind of extrapolating what the risk is to the sorts of people that you’re working with. Is that the sort of thing that you’re trying to sort through?
MV: Well, so, not to go too far into it, so there are droplets, those are the bigger particles. That’s that “stay six feet apart” and then there’s aerosols, which are really fine, small particles and what no one knows or knew is what kind of aerosols came out when you played a wind instrument. They had an idea like singing, everybody knew that was bad. But. And it actually turns out everybody thought, well the flute’s gonna be the worst cause you’re blowing straight out into the room. Flute is actually the best.
MV: Oboe is the instrument of death. Apparently. And I’m sorry to say as a clarinet player, clarinet is not far behind. But what they’re thinking is a lot of it has to do with when air moves across something wet.
CTG: Aah. So the reeds.
MV: Yeah the reeds are wet or like a trumpet across your lips. And a lot comes out, even though you can’t see any air or detect any air, a lot comes out around the instrument, not necessarily out the instrument itself.
CTG: Ahh. Okay.
MV: So they found out silly things like just take a mask and cut a hole in it and play the instrument through a mask. You would think that if you cut a hole in a mask, it’s useless, but actually if you play a clarinet through a mask, it reduces the particle emissions by like ninety percent.
CTG: Amazing! Although I’m thinking of like, just the discomfort level of doing that? I’m not a clarinetist, so I don’t ever. But. I could sing into a mask but then you couldn’t hear me so, all kinds of problems.
But you’re going to have that mask in your line of sight. So you’ve got your music in front of you and then you’ve got the (gestures to face). It seems like it would be—complicated.
MV: Yes, it is. And the idea of conducting in a mask seems a little weird to me. So it. And this is part of, going back to the idea of trying to have in-person ensembles for a few weeks this semester, yeah, you can get together and play in-person, but if you’re in a room twelve feet from the players who are closest to you, playing through a mask with a masked conductor, is this really like and ensemble experience? You know. And then at that point the question becomes, is it enough like and ensemble experience to justify the risk of you know, having to come out and just interact and get there. I mean no one’s going to get sick on a Zoom call, we know that.
CTG: Right. Right.
MV: So these are some of the judgements that we’re trying to make in this decision about whether to have in-person or virtual classes.
Narration: Institutions and music ensembles within those institutions make decisions around in-person classes based on local infection rates, state and regional regulations and recommendations, and the financial health of the institution. But as Dr. Votta pointed out, there are also considerations particular to ensemble music making. Despite all of that, colleges and universities are making a wide variety of decisions.
MV: I mean some schools are not quite totally full speed ahead, but back to playing in person and so forth. Others have said they’re online for entire semester, no matter what. Like University of Texas, which is a big School of Music is online. They’re not gonna even try. Peabody, right down the road was going to have in-person ensembles and John Hopkins said, “no we’re not!” But other schools have, and between CBDNA being a conduit for directors to share information and then like the big ten band directors association of bands, we talk about once-a-month. So there’s been that and a lot of informal just emailing one of my friends from the Hart School sent out an email out to a bunch of us like , “hey does anybody know pieces for woodwind ensemble, cause I’ve gotta get one of these” I think directors have done a pretty good job of staying in touch. So there’s. Everybody has kind of a sense of what the industry standard practices are and how. What I’ve pushed for was constantly to kind of. If we can establish that, then everybody knows where you’re kind of in line with most institutions, where you’re different and how. That way if we have to explain to administrators. You know we have a sense of where you fall in the grand scheme of things. And I think that’s happened pretty well.
MV: The hardest schools I think are the small colleges where it’s like one director and a band. You know I have several of my former grad students are, you know, band directors at small colleges and between budget pressures, the fact that the administration is pushing to have as much in-person as possible. You know enrollment up and down. You name it. It’s, it’s been a real roller coaster ride I think for the smaller programs.
Narration: You can get a sense for the bizarre experience of performance during Covid-19 by watching Purdue University’s live broadcast of their full band concert held Oct. 4, 2020. Like Maryland, Purdue has a large, well-established band program. Their plan was to live-stream performances from every ensemble during the fall semester, without an audience in attendance. To keep the musicians safe, every performer stood six feet from every other, and every performer wore a mask with a hole in it. In addition, the reed instrumentalists have placed loose bags over the bottom of their instruments. We’ll play a little bit of their rendition of Clifton Jones’s Chorale Prelude on Nettleton here. To hear the rest of the concert and see the musicians, please check out the link posted to our website.
Narration: When I spoke to Dr. Votta in September, the UMD ensembles were not contemplating livestream concerts. As he explained to me, the approached differed from one ensemble to the next, because of the differing needs and restrictions. The musicians in each ensemble come from a different population pool, have different expectations for an ensemble and different performance commitments. The policies around rehearsals needed to reflect those differences while still being responsive to the findings released by the University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado University, and UMD’s School of Public Health. To convey just how difficult it is to arrive at a solution, Dr. Votta described the variety of ensembles in the UMD band program.
MV: So the Band program at Maryland has kind of a music major component to it and a non-music major component to it. For the music majors, the upper ensemble is mostly juniors, seniors and graduate students and it’s called the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, players rotate and play one concert with that and then the rotate over and play one concert with the University Symphony Orchestra. And the people who played with the Symphony Orchestra on the first concert rotate in so they constantly go back and forth between the Wind Orchestra and the Symphony orchestra. So they get a wide variety of experiences throughout their time here. And then for mostly Freshmen and Sophomores, is the University of Maryland Wind Ensemble. I conduct the Wind Orchestra and the Wind Ensemble is conducted by Dr. Andrea Brown, she’s our Associate Director of Bands and also leads the athletic bands, so, and that’s where most of the non-music majors in the Band program reside. In the Mighty Sound of Maryland and the other Athletic Band, the basketball band, and other pep bands. And we also have a University Band which is led by Dr. Craig Potter. He’s Assistant Director of Bands, and that’s a band that meets Wednesday nights and it’s just for people who want to play for enjoyment, mostly music majors and some music education majors will play in it to work on their secondary instruments. So that’s sort of the main part of the band program. And we’ve also had a sort of long association with the Maryland Community Band which is an adult band that meets at the Clarice on Tuesday nights. It’s conducted by one of my graduate students, Joseph Scott. And, although it doesn’t necessarily have a connection with the Band program, it was started by John Wakefield, who was Director of Bands, my predecessor for decades, and many, many members of the Maryland Community band are alums of Maryland or alums of the band program. There’s this sort of strong connection there as well.
Narration: In addition to the ensembles and the three faculty members who conduct them, there are two staff members, several graduate assistants, and student volunteers all in service to the Band program. The policies and procedures regarding COVID changed several times during the Fall semester. When I talked to Dr. Votta in late September, the Marching Band was rehearsing outdoors live with about 50 students connecting virtually. The curricular ensembles, including the Wind Ensemble, were entirely online. As director of the Wind Ensemble, Dr. Votta was trying to grapple with the realities of rehearsal and performance in a new environment. They’ve been experimenting with computer programs and platforms as well as curricular changes.
MV: Yeah, I mean the students have been great so far. Both. First of all, I think that the things that we’ve devised as quote-on-quote replacement activities are things that we wouldn’t have had a chance to do with them, but I think they’re finding them a little bit interesting and useful. I think they’re interesting and useful as kind of a one semester stop gap. If it’s kind of the new normal, I don’t think it’s gonna be so great but for the situation we’re in, I think everybody is pretty good with it.
And we had a couple of meetings with them, I think last week talking about the possibilities of in-person ensembles, trying to answer questions that they might have about what that would look like, what the safety protocols might be. So that they can decide, if the option becomes available if they might want to participate. We thought it was important that they have all the information that they felt they needed to make a decision. And I have to say, the atmosphere and the spirit from the students was great. They were very enthusiastic about, what could be. You know some were clearly interested and some clearly not and it’s like, I think it’s all going well so far.
CTG: Yeah. And I assume you recruit too based on parts and how many, how many instruments you need on each part?
MV: So for the School of Music, yes. There’s sort of a number from each studio that we want to bring into the school based on ensembles and chamber music so everything stays balanced.
CTG: Right. And so, but with this situation, if you have some students opting to go online and some students opting to go in person and you’ve got some folks doing small ensembles and some wanting to do this large ensemble, as large as you can get. Um. It’s gonna have some obstacles in terms of. Like you can’t choose very far in advance what you’re gonna play until you know what the numbers are.
MV: Exactly. It’s not like they’re all opting in and opting out based on the instrumentation of the music that we have, it’s just making decisions without. You know, and those are the kinds of things where everybody understands that. The students are very understanding and
MV: The faculty, we’re also, like, as I told them, people are going to choose to do it or not. I don’t know your health situation. I don’t know if you are living with your family with older people or whatever. And I don’t need to know that. So at that point, we’re going to make the best music we can with the people who can do it. Other people stay online and next semester. You know you just respect each other’s choices and understand people make choices for a variety of reasons. Everybody is 1000% on board with that. So they’re very supportive of each other.
CTG: Yeah. That part is beautiful. It’s the part where you’re up at midnight going, “well what am I going to do?”
MV: What the hell do I do now? Yeah.
CTG: And I don’t know that anyone can solve that, unless you just commission all new music for every concert. Like . . .
MV: Well, I’ll tell you. That’s part of this improvisation thing. So I’ve improvised from my younger days playing in new music groups. But what I. Nowadays with musicians needing to become more entrepreneurial, you can’t really be entrepreneurial if you have to wait for somebody to write a piece and be in an orchestra to play it. But if you can just play then you have more free but it also creates more opportunities if we have odd instrumentations to maybe take a notated piece and
MV: Or work around, work off of it in a way.
CTG: Yeah, that’s great. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of job flexibility. Yeah, that’s an excellent skill set. I hope they recognize that. It sounds like you have a good group.
Narration: Most of the improvisation lessons that Dr. Votta was adding to the curriculum are taking place virtually through a computer application called “Jam Kazam”. Zoom, Teams, and Webex are terrific for office meetings, especially with large groups of people, but they work by bouncing communications through servers before delivery. That causes all kinds of delays that disrupt ensemble playing. Jam Kazam works using a peer-to-peer network, which allows musicians to play in time together. The problem is the system become unstable if you add too many machines or too many people into the meeting. For that reason, Dr. Votta is experimenting with the size and flexibility of the ensemble virtual rehearsals. When we spoke he was optimistic about the possibility of creating improvisatory music experiences online with students, replicating and extending some of the things they would have to do in an in-person ensemble class.
The Wind Ensemble was also working with composer Danny Clay on a new composition, “Music for Hard Times,” a collaboration among the Living Earth Ensemble, UMD Wind Ensemble, and the composer himself. First written in the Spring of 2020 with the Living Earth Ensemble, the piece was intended as a way to meditate on and cope with the new pandemic reality. The score to the piece is a set of instruction that Clay calls “calming strategies”. Most of those instructions include text and notation. The text for the second strategy reads: “Imagine the most warm, enveloping harmony you can think of. Build this harmony to sit in indefinitely. If you’d like, play within this harmony, emerging in and out of it imperceptibly. Below the text, the composer offers a set of harmonies to try.
To prepare for the December performance with the Maryland Wind Ensemble Clay met with students six times during the semester to discuss the strategies and how they might improvise in and around them. Following those meetings, students recorded improvisations on the prompts in the score. The Living Earth Ensemble also supplied recorded improvisations using those same prompts. And then the composer used all the improvisations he collected as well as a collection of electronic and found sounds to stitch together the final realization of the piece.
The end product was an album-length piece with video and improvised music. We’ll play a little bit of the music here. The realization, the one that was put together in May is available on Danny Clay’s webpage. The UMD version that premiered in December will be on the Clarice’s page for a short while. We’ll provide links to both on our page.
[clip from performance]
The “Music for Hard Times” Concert, performed by the Wind Ensemble in collaboration with Danny Clay and the Living Earyh Ensemble was different from the sort of virtual performances that many arts organizations have released in recent months, including the Marching Band’s Victory Song celebrating the end of the May term. One thing most people don’t realize about such performances is that they take a lot of work and expense. We’ll listen to the Marching Band’s Victory Song, followed by Mike Votta on the difficulty of engineered virtual performances.
MV: So it goes back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier. So it’s like, you could give me a click track or a guide track and I could play something exactly. But, if we’re in the same room playing together, I’m reading your body language, I’m hearing things, I can hear you breathe, I can see you move, and so, an ensemble really plays together. When you break it up and everybody just plays by themselves, it’s not as together. So, like every note has to be adjusted a little ahead, a little behind, a little this a little that. All the adjustments you would normally make in person, you can’t because no one’s there, so it takes a lot of. A lot of fine tuning to get it to sound even remotely like you would think an ensemble would sound like.
CTG: I’m also wondering, and you may not be doing this part of it. I’m also wondering about, um, blend in terms of like loudness and softness with a partner who’s next to you.
MV: Yeah, there’s that and then it’s the same thing in a choir. So when you’re singing or playing, like your sound will get a little brighter or a little darker to kind of match, where if you’re just singing by yourself, you tend to sing like a soloist, which is a whole different kind of sound you’re making, right? And it’s the same thing, you instinctively do that when you play in your home. Like who are you gonna play with? Putting a bunch of soloists together is not the way. And who? Who? You don’t even think about it.
CTG: Right, right. So it’s so much. You have to do that all on the backend which means engineering every single track for dynamics, for balance, for blend, for timing.
MV: And to compensate because your recording set up is a little different than my recording set up and a little bit different equalization and so. You know when you hear, you know, the Met puts out things or professional orchestras do these things, those are multi, ten thousand, you know dollar projects that take you know, hundreds of hours to put together for relatively short things, so fortunately for us the Clarice has got this “Music for Hard Times” project. And Danny Clay, part of his work is to take all of our improvisations and put them together so that’s kind of built into that.
Narrator: So the Danny Clay project came along at the perfect moment, allowing the Wind Ensemble to present a new work that spoke to the present moment without investing in engineering technology and expertise that was beyond their capability at this moment. It was a small break in an otherwise impossible situation. Much of my conversation with Dr. Votta tended in that direction; he was describing for me the best choices available in less-than-ideal circumstances. I was surprised, therefore, at his response when I asked him what he wanted to keep from these pandemic-inspired practices and performances when the pandemic was over. He provided me with a fairly long list.
MV: I think this improvisation thing is going to stay around. There’s actually been a fair amount of interest in it from the students, and we’ve said for a long time that it should be part of the curriculum. So I’m actually going to probably take a leave next semester, and part of it would be to design improvisation curriculum for the School of Music, so I’m pretty sure that’s going to stay around in some form. Um. The other thing that we’ve done, and will continue to do, is I never realized how easy and how fun it is to have guests visit a rehearsal or a seminar on Zoom. I never used Zoom until last March.
MV: And then all of a sudden, you know, Jason Fettig, I know him, he’s the conductor of the Marine Band, well he just Zoomed into one of my Wind Conducting, “well I would be happy to do it!” And I’ve been, you know, visiting other schools, and composers will come in and that’s definitely going to continue. I’m a little embarrassed that I’ve taught for all these years and never realized how much fun it was to just beam people in on Zoom. So those are things that, I think, we’ve learned from this experience that will actually carry forward and be a big enhancement to what we’ve done. I also think it’s just been a chance to kind of, as I alluded to earlier, just rethink what ensembles are, how they work in a curriculum, so I think it’s kind of an opportunity to modernize the curriculum, rethink the curriculum in some really good ways.
CTG: Yeah, and that’s more of like a philosophical attitude that you can carry forward too cause that’s not just for now. Although, the semesters get so busy that you can’t be re-evaluating as you go every semester, or you’d go nuts.
[music enters in background]
MV; Yeah, we call it building the airplane as you’re flying it, and we’ve been doing that a lot.
Narration: This podcast has been a little like that too—we’ve been learning how to do it along the way, but we’ve gotten a lot out of the experience. In addition to figuring out how to interview, script, record, cut and paste, we’ve been learning all the content presented over these four episodes. We’ve learned about the history of band music, including the Sousa band formula and how it influenced the Wind Band, the centrality of Marching Bands to HBCU culture, a new experiment in commissioning projects in response to Black Lives Matter, and Covid response efforts in the University of Maryland Bands. We’re planning to keep every bit of that information going forward, and we hope you are too. If you enjoyed this episode and want to find out more about Covid and Bands, please check out our website, where you’ll find a transcript, links, and a bibliography for every episode, including this one.