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Despite the pandemic, young musicians in the Bay Area attempt to keep the spirit of classical music alive

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One of the earliest hit regions of the novel coronavirus, the Bay Area has remained largely under shelter-in-place orders for almost three months. Students have had to transition to using virtual platforms for all their usual activities, ranging from school to internships and even sports practices. Yet, an often overlooked aspect of many students’ lives that has been considerably affected, especially in the region, is classical music. 

While the critical roles of physical presence and contact in athletics is fairly clear to the ordinary person, the significance of in-person experiences in music may be more vague. 

For starters, the various competitions and performances that populate the spring semester were simply cancelled, leaving many to deal with the disappointment of months of seemingly pointless preparation.

Harrison Chang, a marimba player and rising junior at The Harker School in San Jose, said he had a competition that had cancelled its winners’ concert “because it was at Carnegie Hall in New York, and New York was pretty bad during March or April.”

Angeline Kiang, a rising junior studying cello at the Colburn Music Academy in Los Angeles, echoed this statement. She had been preparing for a solo concert along with several chamber concerts, but “they were all canceled.” She misses “playing chamber music with friends and playing in halls for people.”

While competitions and concerts can at least be postponed, music lessons are an integral and regular part of every musician’s life. Since in-person lessons, often requiring close contact between student and teacher, could not possibly be conducted safely, most have had to move their lessons to online video calling platforms such as Zoom, Skype or Facebook Messenger. 

Chang’s sister, Katie Chang ’24, who also plays marimba, had to transition to taking virtual marimba lessons since March and has encountered difficulties with sound quality from the start.

“For marimba, the sound doesn’t come out as rich and doesn’t transfer as well,” she said. “Sometimes [depending on] placement, the microphone doesn’t catch everything.”

Harrison explained that what would usually be discussed in an in-person lesson doesn’t always come through as well over virtual lessons: “There’s a lot of different types of strokes, a way that you can hit the bars, and that affects the sound and how it rings.”

But Jonathan Koh, a widely-known cello teacher mainly based in the Bay Area, has experienced less difficulty with the transition to remote musical learning. 

“Back in ’02, ’03 … I knew that down the road, everything would move online. So when I began teaching and had to travel to perform, I taught through the webcam and had people call me on their landline so the audio wouldn’t glitch. I would teach from Asia or Europe … and I also taught at Meadowmount in New York [during the summer],” he said. ”For all the people that I taught back home, I had to teach virtually anyway. So for me and for a lot of the people that I teach, [online lessons] are the norm.”

After almost two decades of experience teaching virtually, Koh has already learned to adjust to poor sound quality and other connection issues during his lessons. He compares these concerns to the same problems that musicians had to face years ago, when technology was not nearly as advanced as it is today.

In an old LP recording, “you can hear a lot of cracking and don’t hear much of the dynamic range,” Koh said. “Even if I hear cracking or when people have a different microphone or internet connection … I’ve learned to put on a different filter for each individual. If there’s a delay or [the audio] cuts out, I have to watch the way they move the bow or arm or how they vibrate and I can tell what kind of tone they’re making already. Before the internet, I had people put the phone in front of them. Then I had to rely on just hearing what people were doing and come up with how they were moving, how much bow they were using, where they were putting the bow. [It’s like] me being blind, and I have to do everything by ear.”

While technique may be more easily discerned through the screen, Kiang argued that virtual lessons lack an aspect of music that is not easily explained yet integral to every musical experience.

“You miss the human aspect … You can’t feel the warmth of the sound … You lose the beauty … You lack this connection between you and your teacher when he plays with you and the sound melds together,” Kiang said, citing these experiences as those that she misses the most. 

While private lessons are made possible thanks to video calling technology, large ensembles such as the Stanford Wind Symphony do not have the same privilege. Because holding rehearsals with his 50 player group was unfeasible, Giancarlo Aquilanti, conductor of the Stanford Wind Symphony, had to improvise: instead of having his students play their repertoire, they researched it.

“Usually when we rehearse, we don’t have time to go into the details of what the music is about, the structure, the form, the harmony, the counterpoint. So, in a sense, it was an opportunity to explain those compositions more thoroughly,” Aquilanti said.

In the fall, Aquilanti hopes to resume live music, possibly with smaller chamber ensembles of five to ten people that would make social distancing possible. At the minimum, however, he hopes to have some semblance of that experience with advanced online software.

But he described a gaping hole in the music industry that has been created by the pandemic — one that is impossible to fill with technology.

“Music is meant to be seen. People want to go to [live] concerts to see players sweating. To hear a mistake live — that’s part of the beauty,” he said. “There is anxiety, and at the same time, there is excitement that cannot be recreated in any other way other than playing [in-person] with an audience, and the audience can sense that as well.”

Referring to the growing popularity of live-streamed concerts online, Aquilanti explained that “when you watch a video on YouTube, most people don’t get to the end and just watch the first five minutes … It’s so easy to get tired or distracted, but when you go to a concert, you sit there and listen to the whole thing. That’s your dedicated time to that performance.”

When asked to identify a silver lining in the circumstances his students and the music industry in general have had to face, Aquilanti said, “If we don’t go back to some kind of normality soon, we might have to be creative and find something positive … I haven’t found anything [so far].” 

Some, however, have been able to find some benefit to the pandemic. Student musicians have turned their homes into practice spaces that can now be utilized much more often, enabling them to expand their musical abilities and repertoire. 

“I’m practicing a lot more new pieces at a faster pace … just because I’m not really preparing for a competition that needs a lot of detail. I think it’s nice to explore different pieces while I’m in quarantine,” Katie said. “You’re always next to your instrument, so if you feel like it, you can always practice.”

Harrison said, “A lot of the music I play is fun and relaxing. When I’m stressed, I just go and play piano or marimba … So there’s definitely stuff that I just enjoy playing and I can now practice that too.” 

Considering COVID-19 cases are spiking again in the state, and reopening seems to be paused for now, it will likely be a while until any sort of normalcy returns for music students. Fortunately, the extra time that comes with quarantine brings not only an opportunity for musicians to further hone their individual skills, but also to experiment with new musical ventures.

Kiang, for example, is taking advantage of the pandemic to “participate in recording collaborations with friends as a way to simulate real-life chamber music.” She even hopes to step out of her comfort zone of classical music and “try producing modern, popular music, like beats” and also “learn about recording engineering.” 

On the other hand, some truly enterprising individuals like Catherine Huang, a pianist and incoming freshman at Harvard, have taken initiative to create larger scale projects that garner the participation of hundreds.

H.O.P.E., which stands for Harmonies of Pianists Everywhere, is a student-run initiative in which over 250 young pianists from across the world have united to creatively share music with the world during these trying times.” What began as a small group chat with pianists in the Bay Area quickly grew into a widespread, ambitious endeavor when Huang “suddenly had the idea to create a collaborative video in which each person records three or four measures of a well-known solo piano work.” Later that same day, she had “gathered performers ranging from the Bay Area to the Midwest to New York City,” and just the next week, H.O.P.E.’s first episode was published.

H.O.P.E. has taken on multiple projects in the three months that have passed since its birth: From weekly collaborative recordings like the first episode, to biweekly webinars for sharing advice and ideas, or even a “Beethoven Sonata Series, which commemorates the composer’s 250th birthday,” Huang’s unifying initiative represents solidarity amid uncertainty and is the archetype of a silver lining in the pandemic. In the future, the group hopes to extend their reach to the greater community by fundraising for COVID-19 relief efforts and encouraging classical music education, “especially in underprivileged schools.”

While Huang plans for the expansion of H.O.P.E. in the future, Koh predicts the effects of this time will carry on past the pandemic and fundamentally change the music industry.

“For people that are looking for a better or different teacher, and they don’t have a good match in the area that they live in, going virtual could potentially help them find that teacher from wherever … If you are a newer teacher without a big reputation yet, students could potentially move on to finding a teacher from out of town and learn from them virtually. In the future, [the newer teachers] might be weeded out.”

Koh hopes that the pandemic will force those planning on working in the music industry to think creatively and stay on top of the latest technology. “For music in general, people are only taught how to play … but not how to prepare for the real world after they graduate,” he said. “You can’t go off of what happened before, you have to think ahead [since] you never know what life will throw at you and you have to be ready.” 

Reflecting on her experience so far, Kiang said she’s learned that, whether it’s through technology or any other means, “music surpasses every mode of life. No matter the situation, music can always influence and reach people, and it can never fully leave our lives.”

On the other hand, Aquilanti recognizes that “in the long run, a world without [live] music, without art, without that kind of beauty … we’re all going to be depressed and eventually die. But at this moment … music can wait. Hopefully, we don’t have to wait too long … We’re not losing hope, and like anything in life, it will pass.”

Contact Yejin Song at 22yejins ‘at’ students.harker.org.

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Yejin Song is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop.