The extent of music knows no bounds, and the COVID-19 pandemic has really put that adage to the test for the Gonzaga wind ensemble. The wind ensemble, one of the five ensembles and orchestras hosted at GU, is composed of woodwind, brass and percussion instruments.
Just as with other concert bands at GU, the wind ensemble requires a cohesive synchronizing between a multitude of performers in order to produce the pieces they’ve arranged. Optimally, this would call for the entire ensemble to be together in the same space for rehearsals as they have done in years past, but evident by the circumstances of the semester, the ensemble’s procedures had to be adjusted.
Currently, those within the ensemble attending in-person are able to practice together in compartmentalized sectionals. The woodwind and brass sections are able to rehearse together in the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center (MWPAC) for their three hour weekly practices under the tutelage of associate music professor and wind ensemble director Peter Hamlin, while the percussion section practices separately in the Music Hall during that time.
All of those in-person are required to space out 6 feet from each other and perform while wearing specially curated masks with slits built in them to allow for air filtration, and the horn players use bell covers on their instruments to limit aerosol transmission.
“Rehearsals are still really fun and productive and I think [Hamlin] is coming up with ways to ensure that we can still get a whole, good blended band sound,” said Dagny Albano. “With all of these distancing measures, he understands that it has been difficult for us to really get that sound when we are that far apart. He’s coming up with new ways for us to develop a good band sound because he knows that we’re capable of it and it’s just a learning curve.”
Battling through the adversity, the ensemble has been committed all semester to putting together their new collection of pieces. The ensemble has added three full compositions to their repertoire this semester, including Movements I and II of Julie Giroux’s symphony "Bookmarks of Japan," "Pacem" by GU professor and composer Robert Spittal and "Mother of a Revolution" by Omar Thomas.
On Oct. 28, the wind ensemble was able to outfit the MWPAC to accommodate the entire in-person ensemble so that they could record the three pieces. It was the first time that the entire live band got a chance to perform together, and the recordings stand in place of the wind ensemble concerts that are normally put on each semester.
The only members of the ensemble who didn’t participate in the recordings were those participating in remote learning this semester. At the onset of the semester, Hamlin attempted to have students online play along with the live band during rehearsals, but due to the natural lag of platforms like Zoom, it became relatively impossible for online performers to stay in tempo with the live band.
“It’s hard for us to play live with everyone else actually in the room, so we do a lot of listening and taking notes on their sound and how they could improve,” said junior trumpet and pipe organ player Kyle Fuxa, who is one of 10 remote ensemble performers this semester. “We’re doing our own little project between us remote learners called a virtual ensemble where each of us records our parts individually and then they’re going to mash that up together into one video. It gives the effect that we’re all playing together even though we perform it individually at our own leisure.”
Virtual students are working away from the rest of the ensemble in a multifaceted venture that includes aspects of composing, playing and collaborating. Students are taking aspects from the repertoire they’ve been listening to during the in-person ensemble’s rehearsals, while implementing instances of improvisation to create their own unique piece.
The online ensemble doesn’t have the comprehensive range of instruments at their disposal such as the in-person ensemble, so the group has had to utilize ingenuity within their music to compile a complete composition by developing variations of the standard playings. The 10 online students worked together to plan the arrangement, each recorded their part individually, and then collaborated to mix their performances together to create their own composition.
“The blessing of this time is that we get to focus on things that we don’t necessarily always get to focus on like meeting composers and studying more of the background for some of these works,” Hamlin said. “But I think the compositions that these students are doing are incredibly creative. There is incredibly creative talent that exists within our wind ensemble that we really didn’t know about before, and now that we’re able to do these composition projects, you’re able to see this element of the students that wasn’t being tapped prior to this semester.”
Once classes get moved entirely online this semester after Thanksgiving, Hamlin wants to have his ensemble hone into the study of musicianship. They will be analysing the content and historical nature of the various pieces that they’ve played, and having the composers of those pieces join their practices via Zoom to discuss the creative process of concepting these works.
The wind ensemble has hosted and worked with outside composers in the past, but the unique platform that this semester offers the ensemble allows them to pursue a wider variety of musical interests in the absence of the live concerts that they would normally have to rehearse tenaciously for.
For future endeavors by the concert band this semester, Hamlin is in the works of creating a sub-repertoire of Christmas music that he plans on having the ensemble put together for a virtual Christmas card. This project will hopefully be performed by all members as everyone will be online by the time it’s recorded.
“Dr. Hamlin’s idea of a Christmas card is really cute,” Albano said. “He wants to send it out to friends and family along with the other recordings which will be nice considering that we won’t get the chance to perform in front of them this semester.”
This year, there are a total of 67 members within the GU wind ensemble, making it the largest wind ensemble that the school has had in recent history. This entails that the ensemble has seen a substantial amount of new members join this semester, but what can be tough for the new students is getting a sense of the band community that really makes it a special and inclusive space.
To fill that gap of social interaction that is potentially being missed by most within the collective, Hamlin and the students who are a part of the wind ensemble board of directors have been working on setting up social events. They’re arranging for game nights, discussion roundtables and other fun activities to get all of the students to share in the experience of what makes wind ensemble a special place outside of the music.
“It has been different, but I am extremely proud of the students,” Hamlin said. “They’ve worked really hard to pull this off together this semester and they’ve remained incredibly positive with everything that we’ve been through, and it means a lot for me and for them to be together because a large part of what the ensemble is about truly is community.”