Despite Shutdown, Department of Music and Dance Finds Ways to Educate, Create

UMass Amherst Music and Dance word mark

During the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, college students have been forced to confront an entirely new reality with respect to their studies. Few have felt the effects of these changes more than students of the performing arts. For them, the impact has been two-fold; the loss of immediate and nuanced feedback from their instructors, and the inability to put that knowledge into action in rehearsals and performances alongside their peers.

The UMass Amherst department of music and dance has met these challenges head-on through a mixture of imagination, technology and enthusiasm. From an instructional standpoint, professors and TA's have used video conferencing platforms like Zoom to continue providing students with one-on-one lessons and feedback. For example, associate professor of piano Gilles Vonsattel has been providing students with his perspective on works they are studying, like this overview of Bach’s Concerto in G Minor, along with video recordings like this one of him performing the piece.

Music history professors like Emiliano Ricciardi refused to let the current crisis impact their ongoing research efforts. In only a matter of days, Ricciardi was able to shift the Tasso and Music Symposium and related performances entirely online. Over 100 participants attended the Zoom videoconference, likely a larger turnout than if the event had taken place on campus. The events also included a performance by the early music duo Palma Choralis recorded at a church in Lombardy, Italy, one of the regions hardest hit by the pandemic.

Students, too, have shown a great deal of initiative in using technology creatively to satisfy their academic duties and their need to practice their art. Music education students have been delivering their required micro-lessons remotely, giving them a taste of the challenges currently facing their professors and other teachers across the country. The trombone studio recently pieced together a virtual ensemble performance with editing help from director Gregory Spiridopoulos. Undaunted by the cancellation of her graduate recital, marimbist Danielle Russo spent hours working with violinist Leticia Andrade to record a challenging duet by Alejandro Viňao that she had planned to perform live. Junior performance major Lachlan Miller even created a video of himself performing four separate vocal parts of a work by Renaissance composer John Dowland. 

Alumni also got into the act, with 2017 graduate Ryan Hollander hosting a series of online concerts dubbed “COVID-Stock” via Facebook Live. Over the course of two weekends, Hollander presented virtual performances by a wonderful array of over 40 recent graduates who submitted recordings from as far away as Australia.

Administratively, Chair Salvatore Macchia led regular discussions and virtual Town Hall meetings online with students, faculty and staff, which helped to generate an open dialogue about the remote learning process and how best to support our students through the crisis.

To wrap up this unique year, the department hosted a distinctly nontraditional Convocation and Awards Ceremony on April 27 via Zoom. Besides acknowledging this year’s scholarship winners and graduates, the event featured imaginative and heartfelt performances by faculty and alumni. The dance program’s senior recognition ceremony on May 8 will include messages of congratulations from award-winning choreographer David Dorfman and Robert Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts.

When asked to reflect upon the department’s response in the face of the crisis, Macchia commented, “The initiative shown by our faculty, staff, and most of all, our students, nurtures and sustains my belief that we will not only survive this tumultuous catastrophe, but we will emerge a stronger, more committed, and more aware population. This dedication to our art, our craft and our realization of the important role that we as artists play in society will strengthen all of us.”