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All Together Now

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UMass students, faculty, and staff have shown incredible creativity in adapting top-notch educational experiences to conform to public health guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic. And the university’s innovations in multi-modal instruction meant that even before the virus, many courses had already integrated online learning—so when the pandemic struck, faculty and staff were able to swiftly move 3,600 courses online to keep students on track.

While many classes could be converted to remote learning, others—like Wind Ensemble—simply couldn’t accomplish their work from a distance. With the help of outdoor tents, social distancing, and some perseverance, the class was able to make music in person. “There really is no online way to simulate the energy of people creating something together,” says Matt Westgate, ensemble conductor and director of wind studies. Of course, not every session provided gorgeous weather like the October day pictured here, but, Westgate says, “It has been a true gift to be able to make music with one another, despite the circumstances.”

Whether using videoconferences, in-person labs, a hybrid model, or an outdoor tent, UMass students are getting the experiences they need to fulfill their personal, academic, and professional goals. And this year of challenges will surely prove to be a hurdle that our students will not only surpass, but will learn from. Their efforts will help them become smart, creative, competent citizens—the changemakers the world is seeking.

We started the semester not knowing how far we were going to get.

—Matt Westgate

The students in the Wind Ensemble, some of whom are pictured rehearsing above, are all music majors, so making music is a vital part of their learning. And the very nature of ensemble pieces, with different parts for each instrument, means “you can’t play the pieces of music we’re playing by yourself,” Westgate points out. So, it was tremendously important to find a way to create these moments of togetherness that move learning forward for music students.

Westgate says, “The way that it worked this semester was that all of the wind musicians that could come back and felt comfortable coming to campus, from first-years up to second-year graduate students, were put together in one ensemble.”

From there, the logistical and scheduling factors loomed large:

  • 60 people in Wind Ensemble group
  • 15 chamber music groups within this cohort (ranging from 5 to 20 people in each)
  • 20 people at a time allowed in a tent
  • Four tent sites
  • 30 minutes can be spent together before taking a 10-minute break

Westgate found music appropriate for the level of each student, and made a grid tracking these multiple factors. With the help of some graduate students, he created a complex schedule to make it work.

The challenges didn’t stop there, though. Wind blew over the music stands during rehearsals. Fluctuating temperatures made sensitive instruments behave unpredictably. Communicating with an instrumentalist in the back row from 40 feet away proved difficult. “With all these things working against us,” Westgate says, “the students and I knew we weren’t going to be able to have normal concert cycles, and that was frustrating. But we talked about that in the beginning and said this is not going to be what we’re used to. We’re going to make the best of the situation. And I think that helped us.”

“We started the semester not knowing how far we were going to get,” he says, “so I didn’t initially schedule any concerts or public performances. A few weeks in, we came up with the idea of making these videos next to the pond behind the Fine Arts Center and posting them on YouTube as a way to share the performances.” The performances provide a testament to the resilience and skill of the students and their educators. As of this writing, no one in Wind Ensemble has tested positive for COVID-19, so their safety measures proved successful. In late October, the course moved to remote instruction to finish the fall semester.

“I’m very thankful to the university for supporting our department,” Westgate says. “It was a big logistical undertaking. They bought the tents, there was an architect involved, there was a facilities crew that set them up—for them to support the students in this way was very meaningful, and the students and I really appreciated the fact that they allowed us to have this opportunity.”