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COVID Can't Stop the Beat

by Leah Dwyer

The Purchase Symphony Orchestra from one of their livestreamed concerts (Image via

With the education of about 380 students at stake, the Purchase College, SUNY, Music Conservatory had to figure out how to balance safety and effective learning for its students.

“We have made this work even during a pandemic when major conservatories are doing everything remote,” said Jack Schatz, Purchase’s brass program head. “I think that’s huge.”

Some risks remain. According to the Public Health Ontario article from July, “COVID-19 Transmission Risks from Singing and Playing Wind Instruments—What We Know So Far,” “There is evidence that playing wind instruments (and singing) may generate droplets and/or aerosols, and that instruments themselves could become contaminated with infectious pathogens. The degree to which this contributes to the risk of COVID-19 transmission is unclear.”

According to David DeJesus, a music professor at the school, Purchase is one of the only schools on the east coast that is having in-person music classes. DeJesus has been posting videos of rehearsals.

“I did that to show it’s possible, kind of to brag a little, but also to show other programs,” he said.

Schatz said, the school has been using protective shields, social distancing, and air purifiers to ensure safety during practices. “If you’re not playing your instrument,” he said, “you have a mask on.”

According to Schatz, the Purchase Music Conservatory has, as of Nov. 20, no reported positive COVID-19 cases.

Researchers at the University of Colorado found that, in a recent study, “Instruments can produce aerosols in the range of sizes that can carry the COVID-19 virus.” Research from the University of Maryland, College Park, emphasizes the importance of distancing and states that conventional ceiling ventilation systems are less effective than systems where the exhaust is on the floor.

Despite the safety measures, Logan Friedman, a Purchase junior majoring in jazz performance as a bass player, expressed some concern about the plexiglass shields. “The shields make it much harder to hear other musicians in a group,” he said. “We really rely on being able to hear each other to make sure we can achieve a good balance.”

DeJesus recalled having to spend one class rearranging the room due to student discontent with the sound. He explained that some instruments, like trumpets and trombones, are more affected by the plexiglass than others. He mentioned having to adjust to the sound quality while teaching.

“If the trumpets sound soft, I have to remember that it’s because of the plexiglass,” he said. “I have to skew what I consider proper balance and walk around the room to make sure that they are playing how they’re supposed to be.”

Alicia McMillan, a senior studio production and studio composition major, explained that people are only allowed to have their masks off inside of practice rooms with open windows. If they’re rehearsing with others, they must have plexiglass shields around them.

Schatz said ensembles are practicing in the bigger rooms on campus to allow for proper distance between players, he mentioned that some ensembles are even practicing in the Neuberger and outside.

“When the weather was warmer, outside jams were pretty common at night,” Friedman said. “I think those are going to stick around regardless of what happens because they added a strong liveliness to the campus.”

“I miss the basement of the music building getting booked out for shows, it really was a unique thing to Purchase,” McMillan said.

Although there are no live concerts, according to Schatz, there was a live-streamed brass concert on Nov. 22 and 23.

Despite all the physical changes made to the conservatory, the core mission remains the same.

“We’re trying to go ahead as business as usual,” Schatz said. “The only difference is if you’re not playing your instrument or eating, you’ve got a mask on.”

McMillan agreed, “The music, and the process to create that music has stayed the same.”

Friedman added, “Everyone has the same drive to play music as they did in every previous semester. I don't think anything could ever change that, for musicians in general, but especially about the musicians at Purchase.”

McMillan and Julia Klot, a senior studio composition major, are both on-campus attending online classes. Klot noted the difficulty of attending private piano and voice lessons online.

“While I think that the quality of education is still good online, it’s definitely not as effective,” she said.

DeJesus has been teaching two classes online and said the change might be a good thing. “It has made me realize that I can use technology to improve my classes even after this is over,” he said.

McMillan said she faced much difficulty during the transition in spring, “I missed being with my professors and feeling excited about music.” During the fall, however, she said, “I think being back at school, having access to the recording studios, and being able to work again has really reinvigorated my desire to learn. It has made school exciting again.”

With their futures at stake, senior students McMillan and Klot felt a hard reality amid the pandemic.

Klot worries about missing out on forming vital relationships.

McMillan worries about the future of her career. “The music scene in New York has shut down, and when things open up again, none of us know if music will come back to New York, or move somewhere else,” said McMillan. “I think it’s hard to plan for life after school when our professors can’t advise us on what the future might look like.”

Friedman was more lighthearted about the situation. He said, “We have to be grateful for what we do have, and stay smart to avoid throwing it away.”

Schatz also tried to find a silver lining. “This hopefully will be the greatest hurdle that students have to live through in their entire lives,” he said. “Good times are ahead.”

“The great thing about the music program at Purchase is that it’s a very tight-knit community,” Schatz said. “Everyone looks out for each other and we’re all concerned and there for the same reason.”


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