St. Olaf College | News

Making music from a distance

During a typical April, it’s hard to travel across the Hill without hearing some form of music. Seniors and juniors prepare for recitals, ensembles rehearse for spring concerts, and students hone their skills in the many practice rooms spread across campus. And whether it’s accompanied solos, small chamber ensembles, a cappella groups, or symphony orchestras, music at St. Olaf College is rarely performed alone.

Although things are quiet on campus this spring due to the  COVID-19 pandemic, the music plays on for our students and faculty through newly developed approaches to distance learning. 

“My goal is to give students as close to the on-campus experience of my classes as possible, which means lots of interactions with me and with other students,” says Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein. 

My goal is to give students as close to the on-campus experience of my classes as possible, which means lots of interactions with me and with other students.Assistant Professor of Music Louis Epstein

Epstein and fellow St. Olaf professors have been challenged by the sudden shift to distance learning. But as usual, Oles rise to the occasion, and that’s been evident in music faculty and students.

Ensemble rehearsals
While music lessons and classes have had some success shifting to remote instruction, accounting for distance has been a big adjustment for the music ensembles at St. Olaf. Gathering in person and in large groups is the foundation of how choirs, orchestras, and bands at St. Olaf not only create music, but form friendships and bonds with their conductors and fellow musicians as well. Without the ability to perform together or even rehearse, for many music ensembles COVID-19 has forced the suspension of all activities. But it hasn’t stopped our students and faculty from finding new ways to connect musically.

Among the many conductors at St. Olaf who have set up weekly check-ins or video chats with their ensemble to discuss music and socialize (or in some cases even share a virtual meal), Tesfa Wondemagegnehu has used this new reality as an opportunity to lead his ensembles in new ways.  

Since early March, Wondemagegnehu has held weekly digital rehearsals with the two choirs he conducts, St. Olaf Chapel Choir and Viking Chorus. During these rehearsals he not only sets aside time to socialize as small groups and continue to form bonds, but he has also continued rehearsing by leading warm-ups, singing repertoire, and planning future activities. Furthermore, he’s used the video conferencing medium to bring guest artists and composers into the “classroom” who may have otherwise been unable to visit campus.

Tesfa Wondemagegnehu conducts St. Olaf Chapel Choir in a digital rehearsal of Jake Runestad's "Into the Light."
Tesfa Wondemagegnehu conducts St. Olaf Chapel Choir in a digital rehearsal of Jake Runestad’s “Into the Light.”

Guests during these digital rehearsals have included:

  • Singer and Broadway performer Mykal Kilgore, who shared his experiences and journey with the St. Olaf Chapel Choir.
  • Composer Troy Robertson, who got to work with members of Viking Chorus on his new piece that the first-year tenors and basses are rehearsing called “In Meeting We Are Blessed.”
  • Grammy-nominated composer Jake Runestad, who joined a St. Olaf Chapel Choir digital rehearsal to not only hear them rehearse his piece “Into the Light,” but also to discuss the composition in greater detail and answer questions from ensemble members.
  • Tenor and bass vocal ensemble Cantus joined Viking Chorus during a digital rehearsal to meet with the first-year singers and answer questions. The two ensembles were originally scheduled to perform together at the Cantus 25th anniversary concert and gala on May 3, before it was postponed. 

Wondemagegnehu also used a digital rehearsal with Viking Chorus to engage with newly enrolled and prospective students from the graduating high school class of 2020, in order to give them a taste of St. Olaf while they are unable to visit campus in person.

While Wondemagegnehu has continued to find innovative ways to digitally engage with his vocal ensembles, St. Olaf faculty member Rehanna Kheshgi has done the same for the Javanese Gamelan ensemble she leads. A gamelan consists of a large number of bronze gongs and metallophones of different sizes, plus drums, a zither, and flute — not an easy instrument to move, let alone play from afar.

However, Kheshgi designed a Virtual Gamelan Studio, which features a static image of the campus Gamelan Studio taken during a workshop, and put together a video of herself playing 8 parts of the piece that she’s having her students work on. For the virtual studio, she recorded the part played by each instrument and created a linked icon with information so students can remind themselves which instrument plays which part. She’s still assembling future plans and balancing student workloads, but Kheshgi is confident in the remaining instruction for the semester.

“The advice that I’ve been hearing from other educators is to stay flexible, be patient, and encourage students to also be patient with themselves,” says Kheshgi. “I am confident that we will get through this, and that it will still be a meaningful experience for students, despite the challenges!”

Classes and lessons
While St. Olaf ensembles have found unique ways to carry on the semester via digital means, St. Olaf faculty in the Music Department have also risen to the challenge. One of the first decisions faculty members have made is how to approach scheduling class — either synchronous (at a set time with all students) or asynchronous (providing materials and recordings for students to consume lessons at their own pace). For Epstein, a combined approach of these two methods is how he’s decided to launch his online teaching.

“I still ‘meet’ any students who want to meet during regularly scheduled class times, but I record all of those meetings and share the links with all students, in case anyone wasn’t able to join us,” says Epstein. “I’ve also been pre-recording lectures for one of my classes, asking students to watch them before we meet, then using synchronous class time to answer questions and give students time to discuss course material in small groups.”

This balanced approach is designed to maintain a semblance of a usual lecture routine, while also maximizing flexibility. 

To keep students engaged and introduce some whimsy into his digital classes, Epstein has been playing live music examples on his melodica, and sharing clips of songs he’s written or co-written in response to the current pandemic and remote learning situation. 

For example, here’s an opening credits sequence Epstein uses at the beginning of all his class and lecture recordings:

Students returning home have faced a bevy of new challenges, including access to the internet, working, caring for family members, living in a different time zone, and more, which can impact the ability to set a defined schedule. Thus, asynchronous instruction has been implemented by many professors in order to accomodate the shifting needs of their students. 

Kheshgi has shifted her upper-level seminar on Music, Gender, and Sexuality to a completely asynchronous schedule. She’s also shifted her discussions to accommodate the new lesson plan and asked her students to meet virtually in small groups of 3-4 students and post thoughts from their conversations on Jamboard. This altered approach to discussion-based learning allows the community aspect of class to continue, while maintaining flexibility for students’ altered schedules.

“Students have been responding well so far,” says Kheshgi. “I’m continuing to check in to see how things are going. I believe we established a good sense of rapport as a class before spring break, and that set us up well for continuing to stay connected despite the distance.”

Music lessons have also made the shift to digital instruction, allowing students to interact one-on-one with their instructors just like they did on campus. 

For trumpet performance major Steven Garcia ’20, it’s been an exciting time for him to flex his creative muscles and assemble a virtual learning setup for his trumpet lessons.

St. Olaf student Steven Garcia's virtual learning setup for trumpet lessons and classes.
St. Olaf senior Steven Garcia’s virtual learning setup for trumpet lessons and classes.

“My virtual learning setup acts as an all-in-one space for music lessons, virtual meetings, photo editing, and a recording studio,” says Garcia, who is also an avid photographer. “I have my laptop connected to our TV and my stereo system to help make lessons and meetings feel more like they’re ‘in person’ rather than compromised to a small screen. It also helps sound quality immensely if we’re sharing audio and video. For lessons and recording, I am using equipment I already invested in for audition recordings and other projects to help transmit the best audio quality I can to my professors so they can listen and focus on my playing and be able to hear me as close to being in person as possible.”

First-year music performance and church music major Abbey Kelley-Lanser ’23 has also been navigating both voice and organ lessons. Although her lessons have maintained their engagement, logistics have been a bit of a challenge. Issues with sound connectivity have delayed vocal warmups and restricted her instructors’ ability to hear her perform well. However, she remains optimistic. 

While it’s discouraging not to interact with friends and professors in-person, it’s been an entertaining adventure trying to figure out online ‘musicking.’Abbey Kelley-Lanser ’23

“Overall, video classes and lessons have been entertaining because of their newness,” says Kelley-Lanser. “I have found more time during the day to practice my instruments since travel time to and from buildings on campus has been taken out of the picture. And while it’s discouraging not to interact with friends and professors in-person, it’s been an entertaining adventure trying to figure out online ‘musicking.'”