In past semesters, Monday evening has signaled a post-dinner tide of students and community members into the depths of Rosse and Storer Halls: Instrumentalists vie for practice rooms to warm up in and vocalists prepare to rehearse as their roommates doze off. Recent Monday evenings have not been typical. The entrance to Rosse is marked not by the usual congenial bustle, but by a faint smell of disinfectant.
In a semester defined by COVID-19, Kenyon’s music department faces a challenge: how to keep the music alive in a discipline that relies on musicians being within earshot of one another. Professor of Music and Department Chair Benjamin “Doc” Locke is taking things in stride. Sensing the desire in the community to return to music, the primary focus of the department is to develop a “modus operandi and to work from there,” he said. The foundations of the current plan are strict social distancing and online adaptations. The Knox County Symphony — composed of community members and Kenyon students — will continue to meet in person and rehearse outside beneath tents as weather permits. Participating community members must first undergo COVID-19 tests. The Kenyon College Chamber Singers who are also meeting, will be distanced over nine feet apart to reduce the heightened risk of COVID-19 transmission from singing. Unfortunately, it would take a football field for a group the size of the Community Choir to gather safely, Locke says, so they will be unable to meet this fall.
Occupancy within music buildings is limited as outside visitors are not permitted to enter. To secure a practice room in Rosse, student musicians may contact Music Program Coordinator Donna Maloney to register for a time slot. Students must also follow a protocol to disinfect the practice space before leaving.
In addition to its in-person and hybrid classes, the department is offering remote music classes. Most instrumental and all voice lessons have shifted to remote as well. In response to worries of remote students being unable to take classes in person and fulfill academic credit for music majors and minors, the department states that they will remain flexible. Locke noted that there “may be cases where petitions would be appropriate to make up for any deficiencies that happen because of COVID.”
Jackson Wills ’23 is one such music major grappling with this uncertainty. Returning from an audition for the Jazz Ensemble, he mentioned the attempt to maximize larger outdoor spaces on campus: the Jazz Ensemble will be rehearsing on the steps of Rosse. While he is grateful to be back on campus, Wills misses closer interactions. “Being able to just get into a small room with people and play” is his favorite part of music at Kenyon. After COVID-19 broke out, he turned to a digital interface to replace the instruments his friends would usually play around him and simulate an ensemble environment.
The absence of upperclass students this semester is palpable, and nowhere is this more apparent than musical groups that cannot practice on campus because most members are remote. With only two members on campus this fall, it was determined that a cappella group Take Five would take a “hiatus of sorts.” Emma Spivack ’21 joined Take Five as a first year and has been active in the Kenyon music scene ever since. “I don’t really remember a life at Kenyon without being a part of the group,” she said.
Live performances are easily what Spivack misses most about music on campus. Like Wills, she has looked for ways to f ill this music-shaped gap in her life. As co-manager of the Horn Gallery, Spivack is working remotely on the creation of a “virtual platform where the Horn will host online shows, Q&As and other artistic experiences.” She encourages interested students to reach out and become involved in this endeavor.”
Much of the energy created by playing music with friends is unique to being in the same space. “Some of the feelings and excitement associated with live events can’t be fully replicated online,” Spivack said. Wills echoed this, citing the particular difficulty of using Zoom to play jazz, a genre in which “subtle musician-to-musician interaction” is key.
Locke, leader of the treasured First-Year Sing, emphasized that some moments cannot and should not be transferred online. He assured first-year students that their inaugural gathering on the steps of Rosse Hall is merely “postponed ” until it is safe to conduct in person. Because, Locke says, “how can you heckle people online?”