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Pandemic, perseverance, performance: In-person concerts in the works

Concerts, shows and recitals have been at a standstill for the past year and a half. But after COVID-19 unexpectedly rewrote the score for the past three semesters, on-campus performances are returning to the music department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. However, university leaders are continuing to work on creative solutions to keep audience members and musicians safe so that the show can go on.

The music department is working closely with the university to follow COVID-19 guidelines and ensure that concerts can happen this semester. However, the dynamic nature of the pandemic means that the department remains cautiously optimistic.

“Nothing is certain at this point, but nothing is ever certain in this world,” said Dr. Nell Flanders, the new UMBC Symphony Orchestra conductor. 

Matt Belzer, Jazz Ensemble Director, said that audience limitations remain to be seen. Currently, there will be restrictions on how many audience members are allowed into the Linenhan Concert Hall and masks will be required. 

COVID-19 restrictions have also been implemented in a unique way for the musicians themselves. 

In a “normal” Fall 2021 class at UMBC, everyone masks up and maintains three feet of distance. But in an ensemble class, these rules have to be modified to balance safety with music-making. 

Musicians who play wind or brass instruments (e.g., flute or saxophone) are wearing “split” masks. These masks have a hole in the center for the instrument’s mouthpiece so that the performer does not have to remove their mask while they play. Belzer said that these masks are meant to limit the droplets that are expelled from the side of the mouth when playing. 

Brass and woodwind players are also using bell covers to filter the air that is forced from their instruments. All other musicians are required to wear masks, provide proof of vaccination and maintain social distancing when rehearsing and while backstage. 

While masking solutions have been developed, the required physical distance between students during classes creates a unique challenge for musicians. 

“It’s much easier to play with somebody if you’re side by side and you can hear them clearly,” said Flanders. “However, I think, if we’ve learned anything from COVID, it’s that we are all remarkably adaptable.”

That adaptability was particularly visible during the height of the pandemic when music ensembles went fully online. 

Belzer cited the height of the pandemic when classes were fully online and curriculums were revised to highlight this adaptability. Because he could not focus on teaching students how to perform “in the moment,” Belzer focused on developing students’ recording and music technology skills.

Echoing the director’s sentiments was Brady Toms, a senior music education major who was a member of a few different ensembles during the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters. 

“Online is very difficult but making those breakthroughs is super rewarding,” he explained.

After the loss of more than a year of normal performance and music education, directors and students alike agree the new precautions are a small price to pay to play and perform in-person again. 

“I haven’t focused on many of the challenges because I’m so happy to be back,” said Flanders. “I think that the orchestra fulfills a really important function and I think it’s going to be really wonderful for the audience to come in and have a live concert again.”

“It’s fantastic. There are so many things I lost out on and now I’m here and I’m happy to be here,” Toms agreed. 

The Jazz Ensembles are scheduled to have performances in October and December and the UMBC Symphony Orchestra is planning to perform in November. 

Article by Clair Volkening (