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The Power of Music in Times of Crisis

Music educators at Syracuse University help students learn, perform and sustain meaningful connections in the digital realm.

A person strumming a guitar

Alina Plourde, an oboe instructor in the Setnor School of Music , scoots her chair forward and squints at the screen. Before her is a checkered layout of video thumbnails showing a dozen or so children brimming with excitement. “Ready?” she asks, building anticipation. “Does everyone know when to come in? Then unmute.”

The participants lurch forward and, with hands outstretched, maneuver the in-meeting controls. One by one, each child takes center stage, singing—no, performing —his or her name with dramatic flair. Juuuuuuuulie. Rrrrrrrrroberto. Monicaaaaa . Each name is echoed back by the others in rhythmic cadence.

After the music recedes, Plourde joyfully reflects on the exercise. “Did you hear the beautiful melody we created? It was amazing,” she says to the class.

The call-and-response activity is part of a unique pilot program between the worldwide Music for People (MfP) organization and a Syracuse-based homeschooling co-op called the Success Enrichment Group (SEG).

Plourde directs the local branch of MfP, which provides music-making opportunities for, among others, Setnor faculty and students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts . Every week for several hours, she co-facilitates MfP games and activities with SEG—improvised singing, drumming, instrumental playing, dancing and creative movement—designed to foster creativity and build community.

Like most musicians, Plourde has responded to the coronavirus pandemic by taking her show on the digital road. For her, it’s all about FaceTime and Zoom, as well as a host of newfangled music-making apps, all managed from the comfort of her Jamesville, New York, home.

Plourde is particularly excited about MfP because of its commitment to experiential, inclusive music education. She thinks the digital realm can be a catalyst for such learning, especially in times of crisis.

“Granted, real-time music-making over the internet is difficult because of the lag time of everyone’s devices. I try to frame it as an opportunity for creative problem-solving,” she says. Internet latency , as lag-time is formally called, forces musicians to make different choices, such as adding silence to their solos or more space between notes. “We do a lot of call-and-response playing, using body language,” Plourde adds.

MfP teaching artist Nick Abelgore ’16, G’19 is among the beneficiaries of the organization’s improvisational approach. He says creative expression is one way to address the “pandemic of separation.” “The arts can be used to highlight the inherent need for community and emotional acuity,” says Abelgore, who earned a master’s degree in music education , offered jointly by the Setnor School and the University’s School of Education . An in-demand trombonist and pianist, he also is an aspiring music teacher and yogi.

One of his former classmates is Amy Zubieta ’09, G’20, a professional actor, singer and yoga teacher, also involved with MfP. While social distancing has limited her ability to perform, she appreciates the unexpected rewards, such as connecting with her daughter. “Since we have more time together, we make more music together,” says Zubieta, a graduate student in music education. “I also create more music on my own and support other musicians through FaceTime, Instagram and [Facebook] Messenger.”

Nathaniel Murphy portrait

Music industry major Nathaniel Murphy encourages students to step out of their technology comfort zone.

Indeed, livestreams and virtual concerts are helping musicians reach new audiences. Witness the overnight success of the #SongsofComfort movement, featuring home concerts by such luminaries as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and singer John Legend. Setnor School students and faculty are following suit.

Abel Searor ’08, G’10, a Setnor instructor who teaches piano to musical theater majors, presents weekly “piano bars” on Facebook Live. “I’m very busy these days, putting together online workshops, running rehearsals via Zoom and preparing rehearsal tracks for drama students,” he says.

Sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention—or self-invention, as Professor John Warren notes. When the pandemic forced Central New York’s professional orchestra, Symphoria, to cancel its gig with Syracuse University’s Oratorio Society, he got creative. “We invited everyone to an informal virtual conversation over dinner and then performed our music,” says Warren, who directs choral activities in the Setnor School. “Most of the chorus sang along to a YouTube performance of Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem . Afterward, we did Frank Ticheli’s Earth Song , using a video of me conducting a recording of the piece.”

Inspired in part by his colleague’s success, Associate Professor José “Peppie” Calvar is launching a virtual project with the Hendricks Chapel Choir later this semester. Meanwhile, the chapel’s Music and Message initiative offers livestream performances by student musicians, interspersed with spoken reflections. “These weekly inclusive gatherings use technology to bridge the gap between campus and community,” Calvar says. “They also feature a diversity of religious and spiritual perspectives.”

The Music and Message program draws on a videoconferencing tool called Blackboard Collaborate, a staple of many college classrooms. Amanda Eubanks Winkler, associate professor of music history and cultures in the College of Arts and Sciences , applauds the tool’s chat feature. “It comes in handy,” she says, “because students can respond to what they’re seeing or hearing in real time without disrupting class.”

Students and faculty agree that COVID-19 changes the way music is taught, created and distributed. Nathaniel Murphy, a sophomore majoring in music industry , has witnessed a spike in file-sharing networks. “It’s exciting to see people collaborate in mediums that they normally would avoid. I’m using this time to connect and create,” he says, referring to a band EP that is in the works. “Music brings us together and gives us something to hold on to.”

Theresa Chen portrait

Setnor School piano instructor Theresa Chen keeps up with students via Facebook and file sharing.

Other Setnor School faculty members, including Theresa Chen, Josh Dekaney and Jeffrey Welcher, recount similar tales, noting that students take to technology differently. “I do Facebook Messenger meetings with students who want them. For those uncomfortable with online meetings, I tell them to send me recordings or paper projects,” says Chen, another MfP-er. “It works.”

While technology cannot replace the human touch, it makes for other kinds of meaningful connections. “If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that my professors are fantastic people,” says Julie Coggiola, a junior majoring in music education. “They’re always checking to see how I’m doing, offering words of support, understanding and encouragement. It’s a healthy example I wish to emulate.”

Rob Enslin

This story was published on .

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