It is March 2020 at UNC Charlotte. Students and faculty are returning from spring break and looking forward to finishing the 2019-20 semester. Among the people returning to campus is UNC Charlotte's Department of Music, and they have a busy schedule. Between March and May 2020, the Music Department has several concerts on the schedule, including a "Remembrance Concert" on April 30, 2020. However, the Department of Music will have to alter its schedule for the spring and fall when COVID-19 cases begin to increase in North Carolina, forcing the entire state to go into a lockdown. As a result of the lockdown, the music department could not meet in person, and all of their concerts were canceled or postponed.
One of the people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic was Meg Whalen Freeman, the Director of Communications & External Relations for the College of Arts + Architecture since 2011. Freeman is used to seeing students perform in front of live audiences and rehearsing on campus. When the music department had to transition to Zoom for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, Freeman knew it would be tough for students.
"It is possible to [teach a music class] virtually," says Whalen. "But it is complicated and time-consuming to put together...even in the best of circumstances, it is not the same thing as being in a room. Being able to truly hear the tone, level of volume, shape of the phrases, all of those things are affected."
While it took time to adjust to teaching classes online, teachers told Freeman that students were more focused when the individual lessons were taught on Zoom. "[The teachers] get down to business teaching the lesson," said Freeman. "The Zoom sessions focus everyone's attention and efficiency in their teaching, while the students are efficient in their learning."
When the fall 2020 semester began, the music department was still teaching classes on Zoom. Then on Oct. 1, 2020, the university allowed the music department to hold in-person classes. While it was relieving to have in-person classes for the first time since early March, the music department had to make a few adjustments to comply with the COVID-19 safety guidelines. Before the fall 2020 semester, the music classes would last an hour, and the students would perform and rehearse on stage. To comply with the COVID-19 guidelines, the students had to spread out six feet apart and perform in the bowl. They also had to rehearse in half-hour intervals to reduce the aerosol build-up in the classroom. Most importantly, every student and teacher had to wear a mask, even during rehearsals.
Despite the challenges, the musicians were able to come together again and record performances for a single concert called "The Music Ensemble Showcase." It was the music department's first concert since returning to campus. While it was good to come together and perform for UNC Charlotte finally, there was one thing missing: the in-person audience.
"It is very much a partnership between the performer and the audience," says Freeman. "When you do not have the presence of an audience, a big piece of the performing experience is lost and affects the quality of the performance because there is an energy fill that is not there."
While they could not perform in front of an in-person audience, the Music Ensemble Showcase participants were pre-recorded and streamed on Dec. 13, 2020, via Vimeo.
A year after the campus went into lockdown, things are looking better for the music department. On March 8, 2021, the department held the "Spotlight" concert at the Anne R. Belk Theater in Robinson Hall; it was the first concert performed on campus in over a year. "Spotlight" will be the first of many concerts to be played on campus during the spring 2021 semester. While the concerts will be live-streamed on Vimeo—as there will not be any in-person attendance for the time being—it is the first step to returning to normalcy for the music department.
*Editor's Note: Additional information has been added to the story to ensure accuracy. We apologize for the error.