Fall 2020: How Music and Dance Returned to Campus

Masked and socially-distanced students return to in-person rehearsals in Aasen-Hull Hall during fall term, 2020 (photo credit: Dennis Llinàs).

The sound of music wafted through the hallways of the Frohnmayer Music Building and swirled around its outdoor spaces, from the amphitheater to the courtyard. Footfalls from dance choreography echoed inside Gerlinger Annex. If this were any other year, it would be the standard soundtrack for fall term. But this was 2020, and in a year like no other, these noises heralded a return to a new normal.

“Everybody kept saying, ‘I’m so thankful to be able to make music again,’” said Dennis Llinás, director of bands and associate professor of conducting. “The students have a way to get that creative outlet.”

Stringent safety guidelines, developed over the summer in collaboration with the university’s Environmental Health and Safety Department and COVID-19 Incident Management Team, allowed students and faculty to get back to doing what they love best–making music and dancing–albeit with some significant changes.

“After months of playing music alone in my room, having the opportunity to make music together safely is something I am very grateful for,” said sophomore Stephen Burroughs. “As someone who loves making music as part of a team, I found myself being reminded again of why I chose to go into music education.”

Burroughs plays trumpet with the University of Oregon Wind Ensemble, which opened fall term rehearsing under a 30-foot by 40-foot tent set up outside, giving masked students ample room to stay more than six feet apart. As the term progressed, the ensemble moved rehearsals to several large indoor performance spaces (including Aasen-Hull Hall), rotating between rooms after every 30 minutes of playing time, and moving woodwinds to nine-foot spacing. All the brass players were given bell covers for their instruments, and every student was issued special face coverings with slits that let them access their mouthpieces, while keeping their noses covered to prevent aerosols spreading through the air.

“[W]ith several weeks of in-person rehearsals underway, I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have some sort of normal, and I can say confidently that these rehearsals are as safe as possible and very well-planned,” said Mikayla Golka, a junior majoring in music education.

Choral studies students have to maintain 12-feet of physical distancing during rehearsals. They wear face coverings at all times, and even need to leave the room if they want to take a drink.

“I’ve been really impressed with our students–with their perseverance and their kindness to each other,” said Sharon J. Paul, choir director and Robert M. Trotter Chair of Music. “It warmed my heart to hear them sing again, and to see them in the rehearsal room interacting, even though they were 12 feet apart.”

The detailed and deliberative process for creating a fall term resumption plan gave students and faculty the confidence that they could return to rehearsals as safely as possible, according to Paul.

“I appreciate that our dean and the School of Music and Dance community that implemented everything was really science based,” Paul said. “We all looked at studies and put together a proposal based on science to make this happen.”

Sabrina Madison-Cannon, the Phyllis and Andrew Berwick Dean, praised faculty and staff for their hard work and creativity in meeting student needs, while keeping health and safety as their top priority.

“We have an extraordinary staff and faculty that have made all of this possible during impossible circumstances,” Madison-Cannon said. “They continue to work tenaciously for the edification, health, and safety of our students, and I have never been so proud to serve and support our school.”

The tough safety protocols didn’t stop the University of Oregon Symphony Orchestra from tackling an ambitious range of repertoire, using specially rearranged scores that allowed them to play “socially distanced orchestral masterworks” with around half the standard number of performers.

“I’m really pleased that we’re still able to do really great pieces,” said David Jacobs, associate professor of orchestral studies and conducting.

Wonkak Kim, assistant professor of clarinet, celebrated the start of fall term by “bringing serious music outside,” with a series of socially distant, pop-up concerts across campus. Kim’s students and faculty colleagues played in venues ranging from the courtyard at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to the front lawn of the music building.

“Without performance, there’s a great deprivation of the artistic self that effects everything,” Kim said. “As soon as I started playing again outside in small groups, that just turned things around.”

Any students who didn’t feel comfortable resuming in-person rehearsals were given options to participate remotely. Many faculty members offered students the opportunity to learn from world-class performers through online lectures and workshops. Virtual guests for the wind ensemble and wind symphony classes have included: Chicago Symphony Orchestra bassoonist Miles Maner; Richard Deane, acting principal horn at the New York Philharmonic; Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist for the New York Philharmonic; and Thomas Hooten, principal trumpet at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

“Hearing from the greatest players in the world is a great way to keep them motivated, especially the students who are remote,” Llinás said.

Over in Gerlinger Annex, the floors have been marked with 12-foot squares, to give dancers a visual cue for maintaining physical distancing. Students follow a one-way flow of traffic into and out of the building, and wear face coverings throughout classes. Each studio gets cleaned and sanitized after every use.

“Week by week, more students came in person,” said Brad Garner, associate professor of dance and head of the dance department. “I think they’ve started to realize that it’s safe and the protocols are effective.”

Dancers who didn’t feel ready to come back in person could join classes remotely (and all classes at the School of Music and Dance returned to remote after Thanksgiving until winter term). Dance students said it was refreshing to escape the constraints of practicing at home, and share the studio with fellow dancers again.

“Being back in the studio feels like a dance family reunion,” said Sara Zeman, a junior double majoring in dance and advertising. “A huge part of dancing is being in the community around others . . . so it’s amazing to be back.”

As we reflect on 2020, it’s been a year that’s taught us all some hard lessons. But it’s also reminded us of some powerful truths, according to Garner.

“It makes me think about resilience and how the arts are resilient,” Garner said. “We always find a way.”

—By Steve Fyffe