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by Catherine Zachary

By this point it has become cliche to say that the current climate is unprecedented, but, in truth, there is no better word to describe the challenge that our campus community faced this fall semester. Still, the music department faculty have gone above and beyond to meet every challenge they faced and created innovative teaching. From global collaborations, to Zoom masterclasses and lessons, to virtual concerts, the fall semester saw our faculty and students rising to meet each challenge with creativity and ingenuity.

What better time to go global than during a pandemic?

Screenshot of COIL collaborators, Fort, Kris, Arakelyan, and Feldman.
Screenshot, Clockwise from top left: Joseph Fort, King’s College London; Michael Kris, UNC-Chapel Hill; Kristina Arakelyan, London-based composer and pianist; Evan Feldman, music professor, UNC-Chapel Hill.

While it may seem counterintuitive to create an international class during a pandemic, that’s just what Professor Michael Kris accomplished this semester. As part of UNC Global’s new COIL initiative, Collaborative Online International Learning, Kris partnered with Professor Joseph Fort, of King’s College London. Kris and Fort have worked together numerous times over the years (most recently Kris took the UNC Sackbut Ensemble to KCL over Spring Break 2019), but this is the first time their collaboration has been solely online.

In this new course, Kris’ Brass Chamber Music students and Fort’s Advanced Performance Studies students combined to explore music’s intersections with nationalism, globalism, and accessibility. These explorations culminated in a unique performance experience for the students of the class as well as Professor Evan Feldman’s UNC Wind Ensemble students. This final performance was of KCL’s student-composer Kristina Arakelyan’s composition “Protest in 7 Intervals.” This composition was written specifically for the class and designed to be performed over Zoom, using the limitations of the technology to enhance the meaning of the piece. Drawing on all of the themes the class explored throughout the semester, the world premiere of “Protest” brought together faculty and students in separate countries to create one incredible experience for the viewer.

In an interview with The Well in November Kris said,

“I want them to experience being together, talking, right now in this pandemic. The internationalization of music is a tool of diplomacy, a tool of bringing out the best in a culture, a tool to bring about accessibility and education to younger people.”

You can view the premiere in full below, and to read The Well’s feature on this and other COIL classes click here.

Songwriting Over Zoom

Screenshot of Rissi Palmer's visit with the songwriting class.
Screenshot of Rissi Palmer’s visit with the Songwriting class. (Photo courtesy of Professor Neal.)

The MUSC 381 Analysis of Songcraft course, taught by Professor Jocelyn Neal, normally sees a bustling classroom of students huddled together to discuss new songs, work through bridges and choruses, and give feedback on lyrical compositions. While these discussions had to take place via Zoom this semester, that didn’t slow Neal or her students in the slightest.

This semester the class was treated to two amazing guest lecturers:  Rissi Palmer and Don Schlitz. Both Palmer and Schlitz shared their personal experiences in the industry with the class as well as tips on being authentic as a songwriter. Rissi Palmer is a Country, Pop, R&B/Soul, Songwriter and artist from Raleigh, NC. With the release of her first single, “Country Girl,” in 2007 she became the first Black female artist on the Country charts since Dona Mason in 1987. Don Schlitz is a Grammy-Award winning Country songwriter, whose first hit was Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.”

Screenshot of Don Schiltz's visit with Songwriting class.
Screenshot of Don Schiltz’s visit with Songwriting class.

“At the age of 20, I got on a bus and I came to Nashville, Tennessee. I had $80 and that’s why I came to Nashville. I couldn’t afford to get anywhere else. I got a job as the all-night computer operator at Vanderbilt University. They had an IBM Selectric typewriter and I would sit and type, and I would sit and rhyme. ‘The Gambler’ was the very first song I had recorded, but was not the first song I’d written. I’ve been writing songs, since I was 16.”

Instead of a live open mic-style showcase, the final projects this year included a visual component to the songs, as well as showing off various new skills in recording, audio editing, video production, and video editing that the students undertook as part of the changes Neal made to adapt the course to a remote learning environment. One such video is “Whisper of the Devil” by Eddy Rios, based on Bob Marley’s most well-known sayings about being rich in happiness and not money or possessions.

Making music together, apart

Many classes in the department rely heavily on real-time music-making between professors and students. While going remote presented a challenge to this, many faculty came up with inventive solutions to work around the lag time of Zoom calls.

Professor Evan Feldman found software for his conducting class that essentially turned students’ laptops into an orchestra that they could then conduct. This inventive solution allowed students in his class to continue their practical studies of conducting instead of having to switch to an all theoretical learning style. As Feldman told Spectrum news in August, just after the University made the decision to switch to remote learning, “We’re all trying to figure out what’s the best practice. What’s the safest way. How can we do what we do and be safe.”

Screenshot from UNC Opera's production of Ravel's "The Child and the Spells."
Screenshot from UNC Opera’s production of Ravel’s “The Child and the Spells.”

Similarly, Professor Marc Callahan, director of UNC Opera, turned to technology, using TikTok, Snapchat, and YouCam Fun filters to create an opera completely remotely. The opera Callahan chose to produce this semester is Ravel’s “The Child and the Spells.” Composed during the Spanish Flu pandemic on 1918, the story follows a boy who is forced to stay home and do his homework. Needless to say, it was easy for students to find parallels to their own lives while recording their parts for this production. UNC Opera’s premiere of “The Child and the Spells” airs on YouTube and Facebook on Friday, December 18 at 4:00 PM (the video will remain available on both platforms after the premiere).

No matter the class, faculty have tried to maintain the fun, make the most of online learning, and keep students engaged this semester. From virtual concerts to masterclasses with world-renowned artists, from breakout rooms and online listening sessions to recording TikToperas, our faculty and students have spent the semester creating music in new and exciting ways. The culmination of many of these efforts can be seen on the department’s YouTube channel, where viewers can see virtual performances from throughout the semester. We hope you enjoy viewing them as much as we enjoyed creating them.

Gene Galvin rocks out as he bakes at home in his kitchen.
Voice professor Gene Galvin rocks out for his students while baking at home in his kitchen. (Photo courtesy of Gene Galvin.)

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