Thriving Musically During a Pandemic

WPI student musicians perform for Giving Society and Tech Old Timers, and music directors share their experiences teaching, rehearsing, and performing music during the pandemic.
December 21, 2020

Normally at this time of year, music performances by talented WPI student musicians are enjoyed by numerous audiences in the campus community, including two special groups of alumni and friends in particular: Giving Societies members, representing WPI’s most generous and loyal supporters; and Tech Old Timers, the social organization for retired and nearly retired alumni, faculty, staff, and guests. Like everything this year, these gatherings were different—and, in true WPI spirit, equally inspiring.

On Dec. 9, these groups were treated to a special talk by Director of Choral Activities Joshua Rohde, Concert Band Director Mitchell Lutch, and Avery Smith ’22, a computer and mathematical sciences major, principal bassoonist in the WPI Orchestra and Concert Band and vice president of the Symphonic Association. The panel of three shared their experiences teaching, rehearsing, and performing music at WPI during the pandemic.

“Music is extra tricky with the pandemic,” Rohde said. Singing and playing instruments can spread the COVID-19 virus just as talking does, and trying to sing with masks or moving outside to social distance posed their own challenges. For example, spreading out the WPI choir of more than 100 singers with appropriate social distancing would take nearly a football field, Rohde noted.

Likewise, holding classes via Zoom created its own challenges. There is a delay, Rohde explained, between the singer and the listener, and so a song with dozens of singers quickly becomes a disaster. He took a counterintuitive approach—singing himself to demonstrate and then having the students sing by themselves, on mute. The students were amenable to this innovative approach and, as an added bonus, found that the people living and learning around them during their rehearsals also took pleasure in their singing.

“I feel this new way of working built community among the singers and a lot of confidence,” Rohde said. “I often say in music we teach confidence, we teach leadership skills, we teach expression, and if along the way we make a little music—great!”

Lutch, who is new to WPI this year, agreed. “Without music, I am convinced we would have an uncivilized society,” he said. “It does feed the soul and soothe the savage breast.”

Lutch also found that seeking creative ways to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic strengthened the Concert Band’s sense of camaraderie. Band members managed to rehearse outside right up until Thanksgiving with much appreciated support from Lens and Lights (the WPI student organization that provides lighting, sound, and projection services) and the Campus Events Office.

In addition to sharing some of the teaching adjustments for the fall, Lutch also shared what music has meant to his students during this challenging time. When asked how their lives would have been different without music during the fall terms, many expressed how participating in music provided them with connection to others—a form of social interaction they couldn’t get anywhere else, a way to practice teamwork, a welcome way to be outdoors, and, most important, time spent doing something they love to do.

Smith comes to WPI from Mercer Island, Wash., where he started playing bassoon in seventh grade. The student musician reiterated the comments from his fellow students in describing his own experience and presenting a video of the concert band performing “Flourish for Wind Band” on the Higgins House lawn.

“What you can’t see,” he said in introducing the video to alumni and friends, “is the pure energy of the band. Being together, in person, was just incredible.”

Indeed, performing concerts—sharing their passion for music with family members, friends, and the community—has been felt most keenly by the WPI music community. During the event, Rohde shared a recorded performance by the WPI Choir, “Stars.” Each singer recorded their own part, using special microphones that helped mitigate things like ambient sound. The individual recordings were then digitally assembled into one piece and paired with a video the students created of themselves recording their parts, of their homes, of Worcester, and of outdoor spaces where they live. Rohde also presented a recorded performance at a Dec. 14 Virtual Town Hall for employees, at President Leshin’s request.

Even though this music presentation was quite different than those in past years, Giving Societies and Tech Old Timers members appreciated the opportunity to learn about the music program innovations and to listen to the recorded music performances.

“It’s wonderful to see that the students had opportunities to perform, and that you all were able to work together and learn new ways to bring us a lovely concert in this COVID time,” said Paula Delaney, ’75, Giving Societies and Tech Old Timers member.

“Your collaborative efforts at problem solving are an amazing testimony to WPI's commitment to solution driven energy,” said Giving Societies member Michelle McGuire ’76, “which is why I am a very proud alumna.”

Many moments of gratitude also shone through the gathering, like the bright stars in the night sky referenced in the choir performance: Gratitude for President Leshin and her leadership that has kept the WPI community together and thriving during tumultuous times, for the creativity and ingenuity of the faculty and students who have found ways to continue teaching and learning in the most challenging circumstances, and for the alumni and friends who support these efforts through their gifts of time, talent, and treasure.

“The generous support of our Giving Societies members makes all of our music programs possible,” Lutch said, “and we are grateful.”

The videos shared at this event can be viewed here:

Stars (WPI Chamber Choir):

Flourish for Wind Band (WPI Concert Band):

Dec. 14 Employee Town Hall (WPI Chamber Choir at 22:00 and WPI Pep Band at 1:09:30):

Information about WPI Giving Societies

Information about WPI Tech Old Timers