Orchestras take advantage of opportunities afforded by pandemic

Arts and Culture

SUMMARY: Not having a concert schedule this semester has meant more time for members of the Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra to research composers, analyze scores, listen to various recordings, and even look at paintings and other works of art as a way of sharpening their aesthetic language.

By Jim Heffernan (’96, ’17M)

The pandemic has been especially hard on music ensembles. The joy that comes from making music together, in person, and performing it live in front of an audience has been diminished by the stark reality of face masks, physical distancing, schedule disruptions and empty concert halls.

But over the last few months, members of the JMU Orchestras have adapted and persevered— and in the process, furthered their understanding of their repertoire, and themselves.

“There’s certainly been a lot of adjustments,” said Director of Orchestras Foster Beyers. “It’s disappointing [not having a concert schedule and not being able to perform for a live audience]. But at the same time, I do think there have been some opportunities because of this.”

Like other classes at JMU, the orchestras began the Fall semester in a hybrid format. “We were doing one day a week online and a few days a week in person,” Beyers said.

In September, when the university transitioned to online courses, the orchestras followed suit. They used the time to research and discuss the backgrounds of the composers whose works they were performing, analyze scores, listen to various recordings, and even look at paintings and other works of art as a way of sharpening their aesthetic language.

In analyzing the score to Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, junior music industry major and violist Ryan Haymans described the piece’s ambivalent harmonies as “a triumphant lament”—a “deliciously ambiguous description for music that is caught in the middle,” Beyers said.

“Most of this type of study would not be practical when we are vigilantly preparing for an upcoming concert,” he said. “But with our concert schedule removed, we now had time for much broader thinking.”

For Beyers, there is value in the orchestras continuing to operate as a community.

“The word ‘orchestra’ or ‘ensemble’ can mean a lot of things,” he said. “It doesn’t have to mean we meet and play music, in person, in real time. We’re a group of people with common aims and common interests, and a lot can be accomplished with that in mind.”

The return to in person and hybrid learning in early October didn’t come without its share of challenges.

Six-foot distancing guidelines have limited the Symphony Orchestra to 22 students. The Chamber Orchestra consists of 33 students divided into two smaller groups. Both ensembles contain only string instruments, in part because they can be played while the musician is masked and in part because the School of Music is discouraging its students from participating in multiple ensembles in accordance with COVID-19 safety protocols.

One of the perks of the pandemic, Beyers said, is that the orchestras were able to use the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts concert stage for all of their rehearsals during the Fall semester as well as to record their fall concert. Normally, the venue’s extensive performance schedule forces groups to have to share the space.

Beyers also credits the coronavirus with bringing the groups closer together.

“I feel I know my students better than ever because I have been gifted the time and opportunity to discuss their thoughts and insights,” he said. “For this, I am very grateful for the circumstances of this semester.”


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Published: Friday, December 4, 2020

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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