Music returns to St. Olaf College
While planning for an in-person return to campus this fall, St. Olaf College staff and faculty were tasked with figuring out how they could continue to provide the rich musical experience we are known for. To do this, the St. Olaf Music Department, Music Organizations Office, and the Campus Reopening Team developed a plan for student musicians to rehearse together in a safe, yet still meaningful way.
As the pandemic spread in spring and lingered throughout the summer, new COVID-19 research evolved in real time that had a direct impact on the performing arts. One of the major concerns for musicians everywhere were aerosol movements.
St. Olaf ensemble conductors were committed to reuniting musicians and tracked the important yet ever-evolving music performance research that helped inform our reopening plan. In many ways, they acted as the driving force in providing information and studies to the college about how musical activities could safely return.
“It took a lot of people a lot of time and a lot of discussion, as every action we took could have some corresponding impact in another area,” says Director of College Relations for Music Organizations Jean Parish ’88.
Throughout the summer, music faculty and staff weathered the stress of these changes by focusing on the impact that music ensembles have on students. Ensemble membership is an integral part of the St. Olaf music experience, and making music together is even more meaningful during these isolating and difficult times. Additionally, as a residential campus, St. Olaf seemed uniquely positioned to offer musicians an isolated environment where they could rehearse together as a large group and even record performances — a privilege not available to many other musicians across the world.
In order to accomplish this return to campus life, many safety guidelines had to be put in place for not only performing ensembles, but for the college as a whole.
Upon arriving on campus in August for the beginning of the fall semester, all students were quarantined for two weeks while going through initial COVID-19 baseline testing provided by the college. Every student on campus was tested twice before being able to attend any in-person classes, let alone attend a rehearsal that involved close to 100 musicians in some circumstances. With this baseline testing, any individual with a positive test was put into isolation and appropriately contact-traced. After this initial baseline testing, each week about 10 percent of the college’s students, faculty, and staff were randomly selected for COVID-19 testing throughout the remainder of the semester.
Once these initial procedures were completed and the college established a Green Alert Level on campus, in-person activities were given permission to commence — including all music activities.
Some of the extra campus safety precautions for music ensembles included:
- Rehearsals limited to 30 minutes
- Thirty-minute breaks between rehearsal blocks for air ventilation
- Rehearsal group size limited to the ventilation requirements of the space
- Singers and wind and brass players at least 9 feet apart
- String players and percussionists at least 6 feet apart
- Masks must be worn covering the nose and mouth
- Modified masks with a flap must be worn by all brass and woodwind players
- Brass and woodwind instruments were fitted with bell coverings
- Musicians must bring their own music stands
- Disinfecting chairs and equipment between uses
Once out of the initial campus-wide quarantine, students in instrumental ensembles were originally allowed to rehearse in small cohorts in the band and orchestra rooms, but the Music Department was soon told that they would need to find somewhere else for the larger rehearsals due to ventilation issues in these regular rehearsal spaces. Thankfully, spaces like Skoglund Gym, Boe Chapel, and The Pause were accommodating to these needs, and were safe venues for music rehearsals.
“Luckily, we have the benefit of having well-established and great relationships with people in the Athletics Department in Skoglund, and in Boe Chapel,” says Parish. “The Pause is a relatively new partner for us, at least to this degree of need, and they too have been helpful and accommodating to the extent they are able to be without compromising their own student programming.”
Despite the necessary precautions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, students, faculty, and staff have enjoyed the community that comes with rehearsing and performing with others. The ensembles have also been recognized for their dedication to returning safely to music-making. Specifically, the St. Olaf Band was highlighted in the latest Performing Arts Aerosol Study released by the College Band Directors National Association and National Federation of High Schools.
Some other key players in orchestrating the safe return of music ensembles to campus are the ensemble student managers, who act as liaisons between Music Organizations, ensemble conductors, and ensemble members. Norseman Band manager Riley Kazukiewicz ‘23 says, “What has really impressed me is how everyone has been able to turn on a dime with really short notice to help out and make things work. I think that we’ve really hit our stride with our learning curve, which has been super cool to watch and makes everything worth it for me, and I think for the ensemble members as well.”
What has really impressed me is how everyone has been able to turn on a dime with really short notice to help out and make things work. I think that we’ve really hit our stride with our learning curve, which has been super cool to watch and makes everything worth it for me, and I think for the ensemble members as well.Riley Kazukiewicz ’23
With so much time and effort dedicated to simply returning music to St. Olaf, new challenges arose for many when it was finally time to put plans into action. Conductors were worried about the new seating arrangements of the ensembles, being able to hear balanced sections, and being able to successfully emote and connect with the musicians through facial expressions while having to wear a mask.
Norseman Band Conductor Arthur Haecker, like most of the conductors, also found himself anxious upon returning to his first full rehearsal after not rehearsing with or being in front of an ensemble for nearly six months.
“At first, I was really nervous,” says Haecker. “I was nervous because I hadn’t conducted in a while, and I could feel the nerves of everyone in the room. But the second we started playing, I felt like it went away. This experience has taught me just how lucky I am that I get to stand in front of Norseman Band.”
“Students were relieved to have at least a small amount of normalcy returned, and many have a newfound appreciation for the performance and community aspects of music ensembles,” Kazukiewicz says. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘I didn’t realize how much I missed this!’ and I didn’t realize how much I was missing it until I had it back.”
Music ensemble membership allows for bonding among students over common ground, and emphasizes the importance of listening to one another to achieve something bigger together.
Not only were rehearsals able to occur, but because of the success of the safety regulations put in place, all ensembles were able to record pieces to be included in streamed concerts available for public viewing. The opportunity to record instilled the same sense of purpose and direction as a live concert would in normal semesters.
“When our student musicians gather together to sing and to play their instruments together, they can’t do so with the beauty that you will hear in these recordings if they don’t listen to each other and try to find common ground,” says St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78. “I hope more than the beautiful music, that’s the message that comes across to our audience and inspires them to seek the same in their lives.”
When our student musicians gather together to sing and to play their instruments together, they can’t do so with the beauty that you will hear in these recordings if they don’t listen to each other and try to find common ground. I hope more than the beautiful music, that’s the message that comes across to our audience and inspires them to seek the same in their lives.St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78
The music in these recordings was programmed as any normal concert, and features many of the choral and instrumental ensembles on campus. In addition to individually broadcasted concerts, two of the ensemble recording sessions will also be presented as formal instrumental and choral showcases. The St. Olaf Instrumental Showcase will be streamed on Sunday, November 29, at 3:30 p.m. CT, and the St. Olaf Choral Showcase will be streamed on Sunday, December 13, at 3:30 p.m. CT. Both will feature interviews from conductors and students, and a live chat function so friends and family alike can come together and enjoy the accomplishments of these student musicians.
Watch the St. Olaf Instrumental Showcase below:
There were many obstacles to overcome before music ensembles could return to St. Olaf in the midst of a global pandemic. But with a campus-wide focus on safety — plus the determination and dedication of our music faculty, staff, and students — the healing power of music has continued at St. Olaf.
“These are amazing young people,” says Armstrong. “They are making music in a way that I didn’t think would be possible.”
These are amazing young people. They are making music in a way that I didn’t think would be possible.St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong ’78
Fall Recording Streaming Dates:
- Collegium Musicum Fall Performance Recording: Monday, November 23
- St. Olaf Instrumental Showcase: Sunday, November 29, at 3:30 p.m. CT
- St. Olaf Orchestra Fall Performance Recording: Friday, December 11, at 7:30 p.m. CT
- St. Olaf Jazz I, II, and Jazz Combo I Fall Performance: Saturday, December 12, at 7:30 p.m. CT
- St. Olaf Choral Showcase: Sunday, December 13, at 3:30 p.m. CT
- St. Olaf Handbell Choirs Fall Performance Recording: Friday, December 18, at 7:30 p.m. CT
- Norseman Band and St. Olaf Philharmonia Fall Performance Recording: Saturday, December 19, at 7:30 p.m. CT
- St. Olaf Band Fall Performance Recording: Sunday, December 20, at 3:30 p.m. CT
These performances can be accessed via the Upcoming Concerts and Recitals page.