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Student practices music with video recording of conductor. Photo by Angelica Mansfield.

Artistic innovations offer artistic relief at UMBC

In lieu of the constant cancellations of performances and events due to COVID-19, the music, theatre and other performing and visual arts departments of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County are scrambling to find ways to showcase the hard work and dedication of their students without having any live performances.

“Our entire livelihood relies on meeting in person,” Rowland Smith, a theatre major at UMBC, says. Smith was an actor, cast in the canceled show “Gwyneth,” which was scheduled to be performed one week after spring break. 

These same barriers are hitting artists across all genres, many of whom are struggling to adjust to the new reality of social distancing. Many student artists spent the entire year preparing for performances scheduled for the end of the spring semester, but like many other daily routines, these performances have slipped out of reach. 

Regardless of these challenges, many departments at UMBC have been experimenting with a solution that demonstrates both courage and creativity: virtual events.

The UMBC Wind Ensemble takes the lead in this futuristic innovation. The director of the Wind Ensemble, Brian Kaufman, with the help of a music technician student, plans to edit together separate video recordings from each of the 50 students in the ensemble, all of them playing the same song, The combined product will be the first virtual concert in UMBC history.

In order to remedy the issue of every player keeping in time with each other and hence helping ease the technical department’s workload, Bentley Corbett — a graduate student earning his M.A. in teaching —will be recorded conducting the music with a piano track of the song being played in the background. Every student, while watching and listening to Corbett’s video through headphones, must then submit a video recording of themselves playing their assigned sheet music on their own instruments. 

The inspiration behind this, Kaufman reveals, comes from a tweet written by professional musician, Dr. Daniel Bernard Roumain. Earlier this semester, Roumain collaborated with UMBC’s Wind Ensemble and the Baltimore OrchKids for a multimedia concert advocating gun control through instrumental music, videos and song. 

“We must now become beacons of light and love. We must lead the way. Artists always have and do and will,” Roumain writes in this social media post. 

The song selected for this virtual concert is a piece titled “Elegy for a Young American.” The piece, written by Ronald Lo Presti in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is meant to represent the different stages of grief. It has become a relevant subject during this time of crisis as all of us experience the same loss of our normal, everyday lives. 

“I’m hoping our virtual performance will be helpful for us as performers in expressing our feelings and feeding the souls of others from our community who listen as we grapple with this challenging situation,” Kaufman says. With the help of social media platforms, he plans to spread the virtual concert as far as possible. 

“We all need that connection right now,” Kaufman adds.

Other departments have also been using digital means to overcome the restrictions of social distancing. The Center for Innovation, Research and Creativity in the Arts — an interdisciplinary department on campus looking to foster conversations between faculty, students and the arts — has been promoting its online newsletter which offers numerous updates and opportunities for isolated artists, many of whom rely entirely on income from the in-person auctioning of their art.

Issue 13 of the “CIRCA Digest” arranges a long list of links underneath each of its headings, providing information about financial resources for artists during this period of social distancing, local government COVID-19 updates, online professional development workshops, potential internships, current open submissions and contests and even awards and funds for faculty members.

Timothy Nohe, director of CIRCA, understands how important it is that his department continues to spread its influence in order to help ensure artists are given the chance to promote their creations, even in a time of crisis.

“Part of what we’re doing is helping people feel seen and heard when you feel very disconnected. And the other part of it is a kind of triage, which is artists really need audiences very often to complete the work itself. They need to be seen. They need to be heard,” he says. “We’re trying to build them a life raft right now that’s not just bread and water. It’s not just the basic accommodations.”

CIRCA also invites students to submit photos of visual arts, music, theater and dance creations to them for the possibility of being posted on the organization’s Instagram channel, @circa_umbc. This Instagram page currently hosts multiple announcements for virtual art events and online submissions being put together by organizations at UMBC and across the state.

Some of these include UMBC’s Virtual Clothesline Project where students can submit t-shirt designs relating to their stories of sexual or power-based violence; “Coffee with Ken [Skrzesz],” the Maryland State Arts Council Executive Director, which is advertised as a dialogue between artists of Maryland; and the call by Media and Communication Studies department head Dr. Rebecca Adelman for individual stories about the pandemic, which will be compiled into a self-described “Pandemic Archive.”

In addition to these announcements, CIRCA’s Instagram page frequently features art by current students and alumni. At the time of publication, alumna Jill Fannon’s stunning photograph titled, “Nurse in the garden,” from her series on pandemic healthcare workers, leads the growing collection of art from UMBC artists on CIRCA’s Instagram page.

The digitalization and perseverance of all visual and performing art departments across campus embodies UMBC’s values of innovation, impact and collaboration. Though the future ahead is uncertain, artists everywhere are adapting.

“To go back to that Latin phrase: ‘Ars longa.’ Art lasts. And it’s sometimes the thing that survives a culture,” Nohe professes, “The art of a culture goes forward.”