MHS music department shares songs through virtual performances

Ally Guo | Staff Writer

No matter the distance between them and their audience, the music of the students at Mason High School (MHS)  will be heard.

Music is an art, and with any form of art, creativity is vital. This year, the music department at MHS had to think creatively in a different direction when developing new ways to allow students to perform. Prior to the pandemic, performances of the band, orchestra, and choir typically took the form of live concerts. But with new safety guidelines thrown in, both for the students and the audience, the department had to come up with new ideas.

With brainstorming beginning as early as June, Band Director Avious Jackson said the driving question was, “How can we do as close to what we normally do within those ranges [and] restrictions?”

The eventual alternative to live performances emerged as livestreams for the band and orchestra and audio recordings for the choir, all produced by a professional production company, Lifeboat Digital Media.

While the personal journey an individual has with music is essential, Orchestra Director Stephanie Jones said that being able to play together and to share that experience with others is equally important– something that was clear during the pandemic when videos of musicians playing together from their windows went viral across the world. As a result, the livestream was chosen as the best way to present the music “as if [the orchestra was] performing” and “to give [the viewers] as much of that experience as possible,” especially during a time when ensemble music is so limited.

“You can play music by yourself, but the reason that our students sign up to be in an orchestra or to be in a choir is for that sense of music community,” Jones said. “People really missed that, and they craved that, and they enjoy doing that together. We wanted to find ways — even though we can’t bring an audience in to see us perform right now — to bring that music to others.”  

No matter what route they take, however, things are still far from normal. Jackson said that students will miss the “interaction of an audience giving you applause,” which “can’t be replicated.” Without that, Jackson said that students may feel “almost incomplete.”

“[Usually] their parents are there, families are there, and they’re very appreciative of the hard work the students put into their programs,” Jackson said. “Just having that affirmation, I think the students really appreciate that. Not only that, at the end of the concert, that’s [typically] the chance to see friends and family congregate, talk about the concert, and catch up. That really does feel unfortunate that we don’t have that piece.”

Especially with the band, Jackson said, which has a strong alumni base, “people who have graduated come to the concerts to see their friends that are still here and to be involved in the program,” which will also not be possible this year.

Though there are changes and differences, senior soprano Sankhya Rajan said she is grateful for the chance to be able to sing in person again.

“We’ve talked about in choir how a lot of other schools don’t even have the opportunity to sing together,” Rajan said. “I’m part of a separate community choir, and we don’t have the opportunity to sing together in person. So the fact that we are even able to sing together in the same room in person is as much of a sense of normalcy as we can ask for at this point.”

Despite slight returns to normalcy, the choir still faced new challenges while practicing and recording. Instead of the usual six feet, students in choir must be nine feet away from each other, so the choir began practicing in the audience area of the auditorium to meet this requirement. Rajan said this new space often makes it difficult to hear each other singing.

Rajan still tries to look on the bright side of an atypical year. One benefit she saw in the recording experience itself is less pressure to perform perfectly.

“It was a lot less pressure because we had multiple takes for every audio versus a concert [where] it’s one shot,” Rajan said. 

“With this more informal recording session, I actually really liked it because if you felt like you messed something up, or if the entire choir felt like they messed something up really badly, you can have another take.”

Sophomore violin player Lillian Wang said she also enjoyed recording for the orchestra livestream for similar reasons. However, she said that the ability to re-record and fix mistakes sometimes complicates the process even more.

“On stage, you play it once, and you give it your all, and you take what you’ve learned throughout the semester, and you just perform, and that’s it,” Wang said. “Whereas for the recording, you know that if you don’t play well, we’re doing it again, and often the rehearsal time extended longer than we were supposed to end.”

Additionally, she said some of her classmates felt slightly pressured by the multitude of cameras filming, swiveling around, and zooming in on them, describing it as “nerve-racking.”

“Personally, I was too absorbed in playing and making sure I was doing everything correctly to notice much, but I do recall that many of the people in my orchestra were noting how they could see the cameras following them,” Wang said. “Without the Coronavirus, there’s just a big camera installed at the high balcony above the stage so you don’t even know that you’re being recorded.”

Overall, responses to the livestreams and audio recordings from both teachers and students were positive, bringing into consideration the possibility of continuing to produce professional, high-quality recordings in future years.

“There’s a lot of things that we’ve come across and we’ve thought, ‘You know, this actually isn’t a bad idea,’” Jackson said. “Maybe we can keep doing this, even when we’re not concerned about COVID. There might be a good need to livestream a concert so that someone’s grandparents in California can see it.”

The accessibility of the recordings is being seen as a benefit. Every winter, the choir holds two Elegant Holiday fundraising concerts. Choir Director Jason McKee said that the Elegant Holiday performances are usually held in the large commons, but, due to new distancing regulations, the choir is hoping to rent out the atrium of the city building for a video performance that can then be livestreamed.

According to McKee, most years, the Elegant Holiday concerts are recorded and aired by local cable station ICRC, limiting viewing access to households with cable. Thus, if the choir does decide on a livestream, more people will be able to view the performances.

“Normally, we wouldn’t be able to share those performances with the entire Mason community unless they had Spectrum or Cincinnati Bell Fioptics,” McKee said. “So if the district promotes it, then it can be shared with the broader community. In that regard, I’m kind of excited about being able to reach a broader audience.”

Jones said she feels that both her and her students, starting with the struggles of playing individually during the spring, have learned to more deeply value the opportunity and importance of playing and performing together. Their “resolve to play music together, to get to have that experience” and to not “take it for granted as much” has strengthened.

“The music needs to go on,” Jones said. “In the spring, we could play individually, but it just wasn’t the same [with] music that was intended to have lots of different parts with many different people. Experiencing what we did from March — a much more isolated community — we can appreciate having that community and that teamwork and that spirit of working together so much more.”

Graphic by Rachel Cai

Photo contributed by Brian Frey