A photo of the Glenn Korff School of Music on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, Sept. 21, 2020.
Universities and college music departments across Nebraska have been adjusting their fall and winter concert schedules because of COVID-19. The Glenn Korff School of Music on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, Sept. 21, 2020. (Photo/Christian Horn)

In the midst of the pandemic, music departments at universities across the state have either drastically cut down on live performances this fall or eliminated them altogether. Accessible technology, however, allows many schools the chance to record rehearsals and post the recordings online. Such recordings enable music departments to fulfill at least some of the performance aspect of music curriculum. 

This marks an improvement from the spring, when because of the pandemic, scheduled performances during the spring semester never happened. 

“What a lot of the performing groups did was they had already had a concert, so we let that kind of stand as the semester,” Anthony Falcone, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s associate director of bands and the director of the Cornhusker Marching Band, said. “The performing ensembles by and large didn’t do much remote work once we redid the schedule after spring break.”

Music departments across the states faced uncertainty entering the fall thanks to the pandemic. Members of the music department at Doane University in Crete feared there would be no music making at all this semester, Dr. Kurt Runestad, Doane’s director of choral activities, said.

Ultimately, those worries were for naught, as music departments are back in action this fall. Many safety protocols are in effect across the board. Such measures including wearing masks, practicing social distancing and disinfecting surfaces after human contact. Several departments also enacted half-capacity classrooms and reduced rehearsal times.

Most bands are putting bell covers on instruments.  Additionally, many music departments have focused on ways to increase air circulation in rooms. This includes upgrading HVAC systems, adding fans at the doorways and adding extra air filters. 

According to Dr. Duane Bierman, an associate professor of music and the director of bands at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, an unexpected challenge to the fall semester is picking the right kind of music to rehearse.

“I couldn’t really pick band music anymore because I didn’t know who was going to audition, and we had some students not show up,” he said. “I had to pick music that’s called flex instrumentation, meaning it’s just four or five-part music that’s just transposed out to the different instruments. It’s a very different sound and approach, but it’s working.” 

Largely, music departments across the state agree on what safety protocols to enact amid the pandemic. Where they differ, though, is in what should be done about performances, a very large chunk of the curriculum. 

According to Runestad, the Doane music department as a whole holds anywhere from 50 to 70 performances a year. That number is down to only a handful this fall. Additionally, choirs that would usually tour largely on the generosity of host churches aren’t able to do so this semester. 

Doane has an outdoor concert scheduled for the second weekend of October with no live audience. However, the event will be livestreamed — perhaps on Facebook Live, though nothing has been settled yet. 

Runestad also said there are tentative plans to walk over to Crete High School and sing with the music students there in addition to potentially go Christmas caroling in late November. Generally, though, nearly every performance outside of the October concert is either canceled or in limbo.

The chart below illustrates performance plans for other Nebraska universities. 

SchoolConcordiaNebraska WesleyanUNOUNKCreightonUNL
Vocal or Instrumental?VocalVocalInstrumentalInstrumentalBothInstrumental
Typical Performance ScheduleTwo in fall,more in springFour scheduled performancesTwo to five performancesTwo for wind ensemble, several for marching/pep bandsTwo for choir, one for bandTwo scheduled performances
Revised Performance ScheduleNo live performancesNo live performancesNo live performancesMarching/pep band canceled, still two for wind ensemble  No live performancesOne scheduled performance

To make up for the lack of live performances, Concordia made some video recordings and released them on Facebook.

“Two recent choir releases have both gotten over 150,000 views and over 2,000 shares each, so the sound is still getting out,” Dr. Kurt von Kampen, the chair of the Concordia music department and director of choral activities, said.

The school canceled its annual Christmas at Concordia concert because there are no live performances. However, staff members plan to create a large video and audio project to replace the live concert. Recording is scheduled for the first week in November, with the video itself set to release in December.

At Nebraska Wesleyan, a planned video recording on Nov. 1 will take the place of live performances. 

The school elected to release a video rather than livestream because of the opportunity to edit out pauses between pieces after the fact, according to choir director Tom Trenney. 

For UNO, rehearsal recordings will be released on their YouTube channel to fulfill the performance aspect for the semester, according to director of bands Dr. Karen Fannin. 

“We thought about livestreaming, but the problem is for every piece of music, the students are sitting in a different place,” she said. “For the flow of a concert, normally you play a piece and then people get up and move, then you play another piece. We have to vent the room so that people aren’t coming in to where someone else was playing. It’s the safest way to go about it, which is our main concern.”  

At Creighton, choral ensembles will have no performances of any kind this semester. However,  Dr. Barron Breland, the chair of the fine and performing arts department, said groups are still rehearsing anyway. 

The choir moved from its usual room to either St. John’s, a Catholic church on campus, or in the school of business. Both locations are much larger than the choir room.

According to Breland, the choirs considered recording rehearsals to release online. Ultimately, they decided wearing masks inhibits the audio quality.

“It’s a really boomy, acoustic church with six or seven seconds of reverb, which sounds very cool live but in recording can kind of sound like just a big wash of sound,” he said. “I would love to do it, but it’s not entirely representative of what we actually sound like, and we can’t get permission from our university people to unmask for something like that because there’s so many people in a single space.”

While the choir won’t have performances of any kind this semester, Breland said the band and orchestra are both looking at releasing recordings from rehearsals online.

“They’re just going through all the final stages right now, just being sure that it’s all kosher with rights and copyright and all that stuff,” he said.

At UNL, meanwhile, Falcone said most of the performances will be held in different venues without live audiences, instead opting to record videos and release those. 

The marching band lost its usual band camp exhibition because there was no band camp this fall. Additionally, there won’t be the traditional highlights concert at the Lied Center because there’s no live audience and the band won’t be able to fit everyone on stage while still following safety protocols. 

Before the Big Ten Conference’s recent announcement that it will reboot its season in late October, the marching band began working on four songs it’s learning independent of any potential halftime shows with the goal of releasing a video presentation. 

However, the Big 10 will not sell tickets to the general public this fall. Therefore, attendance could be strictly limited to family of players and staff members — if anyone is allowed into the stadium at all. 

“We still don’t know what our future is with the rebooted football season, but what we do know is if they call upon us and they want the band at football, we’ll be there ready to go,” Falcone said.

In Kearney, UNK’s two wind ensemble concerts remain on the schedule. However, they will be much shorter with different music choices than normal. 

“In a normal year, we’d have as many people in the seats as we could get to come,” Bierman said. “This time around, we taped off seats in the auditorium. We can fit probably about 50 people in the audience, separated out with masks and clear entrances and exits, so we will be able to have a few people live with us for our concerts.”

For those not in the 50-person audience, the school still plans to stream the performances on its website, Bierman said.

Also impacting the department’s scheduling plans is the university’s semester schedule itself. Instead of condensing the schedule to allow the semester to end at Thanksgiving like some other schools are doing, UNK will bring students back after the break. 

According to Bierman, each individual teacher has been given the choice to either come back and finish the semester in person, go remote after the break or a mixture of the two. 

Because the music department will still have performances at the end of the semester — including juries, which serves as a sort of final performance exam for the semester — they are planning on finishing the semester in person. 

However, Bierman cautioned that such a decision may cause troubles for non-music majors who participate in ensembles. Such students could be forced to come back and live on campus to close out the semester with the ensemble while the rest of their classes are online.

“It’s really not a decision I agree with, but I didn’t get to make that call,” he said.

I am a senior journalism and sports media and communication double major at UNL.