The coronavirus has had a major impact on music departments at universities across Nebraska. Most notably, the departments had to change their performance schedules. Most schools opted to release video or livestream rehearsals in lieu of live performances.
However, the pandemic’s impact on the rehearsals themselves, particularly for larger ensembles, should not go unnoticed.
Some ensembles still meet in their usual rehearsal spaces, adopting various social distancing measures to ensure student safety. Others have chosen a different tactic — moving rehearsals outdoors.
“We recently rehearsed the UNL Opera outdoors,” Olivia Hacker, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said. “I currently teach private voice as a graduate assistant in the school of music. Most of my students opted for lessons in-person, socially distant and outside, instead of via Zoom.”
They’re not the only ones choosing to move outdoors for rehearsals. Kurt Runestad, director of choral and vocal activities at Doane University, said ensembles rehearse outside when it does not rain because their semester ends at Thanksgiving.
Derrick Fox, director of choirs at the University of Nebraska Omaha, said their ensembles rehearse everywhere. Some ensembles are rehearsing online, others are staying in their usual rehearsal rooms and some are rehearsing outdoors.
“Some of the choirs are not as big as the others, so you can get everybody out there,” Fox said. “There are some that are smaller, like sectionals or small groups of people. We only do what we can do and make sure that everybody is separated at a distance to keep them safe, and we always have on our masks.”
Hacker said the biggest advantage of outdoor rehearsals is that it provides fresh air without requiring ventilation changes to allow more air flow.
While that’s the biggest advantage to rehearsing outdoors, it’s not the only one.
“Rehearsing outside for the opera allowed us to think more creatively and use a larger amount of space to our advantage,” Hacker said. “For teaching private voice lessons, being outside gives students a moment to sing in nature rather than singing to a screen. I have found my students have enjoyed this, weather allowing.”
Not everyone is on board with outdoor rehearsals, however.
“We don’t have a great parking garage with some sort of acoustic roof on it, and outside, given the space we have to sing, the sound is kind of terrible,” Barron Breland, chair of the fine and performing arts department at Creighton University, said. “Of course, in Nebraska, weather is the weather — you never know what it’s going to be, so it’s hard to plan for.”
Another group that is not rehearsing outside is the Cornhusker Marching Band. The ensemble rehearses inside the Cook Pavilion on campus. Director Anthony Falcone said the group opens the garage doors in the pavilion to allow air to flow through.
Falcone noted the pavilion is spacious and has a high roof because the football team used to practice there. These factors enable the band to rehearse safely in the space despite the increased social distancing protocols.
“It’s virtually like being outside,” he said.
There are a few drawbacks to rehearsing outdoors. Hacker said it’s tougher to accommodate for collaborative pianists, which does play a big role in many vocal ensembles. However, the biggest hurdle is the weather.
Falcone said for bands and orchestras, the weather can present an additional challenge. Rehearsing outdoors during bad weather can easily damage the high-quality and expensive instruments.
“With the shortened semester, my hope is that we’ll be done before things get too cold, but it’s Nebraska so you don’t know what’s going to happen with the weather,” he said.
As winter approaches and the weather does change, the ensembles rehearsing outdoors must decide whether there are any viable alternatives. For some, Hacker said, instructors would need to fall back on teaching via Zoom. This could lead to some ensembles simply not rehearsing.
For others, it will be easy to simply transition rehearsals back indoors. Fox said at UNO, there’s enough indoor rehearsal space to allow ensembles to either meet in a large group or in sectionals. This makes it easier to provide consistency to students.
“When the weather changes it’s going to be a time in the semester when students are already stressed out,” he said. “Changing how we meet, when we meet, where we meet is just adding another layer of stress to that. We started out the year with a plan that we can switch over to whenever the weather changes.”