Music Faculty, Students, Venues Adjust to a Temporary Life Without Performances

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – At its core, music is an inherently social experience. While a musician can revel in the joy of a flawless performance, the act is truly transcendent when an audience, packed into a concert hall, expresses their appreciation for seemingly endless hours spent in the practice room with a vigorous round of applause and, if the musician is lucky, a standing ovation.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in more than a million U.S. cases and has killed more than 60,000 Americans –  including at the time of this writing, three Corpus Christi residents – the future of public performances is an uncertain one. The Department of Music at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi continues to monitor the pandemic and subsequent public health policy decisions while also looking ahead to concert events and student recitals this fall.

According to Dr. Brian Shelton, Chair of the Department of Music, the senior recital is the capstone of a music major’s undergraduate career.

“The senior recital experience is the opportunity for the student to apply myriad skills they have learned in their lessons, ensembles, and academic classes in a performance setting,” Shelton said. “It is made especially significant at the Island University by the Performing Arts Center. Our students perform this important event in a world-class venue.”

The Bachelor of Music with Teacher Certification program has over 40 students, and there is a growing performance program with a small group of students in either an instrumental or vocal degree tract. In addition, the department also offers a BA in Music, which includes a Music Industry tract and a General Studies tract, as well as a Bachelor of Music with Teacher Certification degree plan. All of those students perform in ensembles that take the stage throughout the spring and fall semesters.

The abrupt transition to online instruction in the wake of the pandemic in mid-March forced the cancellation of about 40 music events at the Island University, Shelton said.

“All of our ensembles had to cancel their concerts: Three choirs, Symphonic Winds, Pep Band, Jazz Ensemble, Mariachi, and Orchestra,” Shelton said. “Piano Celebration Week was canceled, and that involved 10 days of performances, clinics, and demonstrations. Our chamber groups canceled their concerts, and we had to postpone all guest artist recitals.”

In response to the situation, the Department of Music – like the Art, Communication, and Theatre departments – has turned to the web to keep students on track. Of the seven seniors who were due to give a recital in order meet graduation requirements, 6 of the 7 students have recorded or will record their recitals and submit them to the recital committee for approval. The other student live-streamed his recital for the committee, Shelton said.

Senior Alexandra Flint was one of the seven students who recorded a performance. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Flint moved to Portland and studied piano for two years at Del Mar College before transferring to the Island University to study with Dr. Dino Mulic, Assistant Professor Piano. To date, Flint has given several recitals – her junior recital was featured in Piano Celebration Week last year – and she has performed with University Singers and the Symphonic Wind Band.

“Naturally I was disappointed,” Flint said, recounting her reaction to the cancellation of all music events. “Of course, I understand how important it is to be careful right now, but for a Performance Major, a senior recital is the pinnacle of the university experience, so it wasn't an easy sacrifice.” 

Challenges for Music Production Students 

In the production side of the Department of Music, courses such as Music Business II, Entertainment Law and the Music Industry, Recording Techniques II, and Applications of Music Technology, have also transitioned to online instruction albeit with some changes, depending on the course, according to Dr. Dan Sipes, Associate Professor of Music Technology and Low Brass.

“Fortunately, the industry courses use our online content delivery software, Blackboard, to post content, assignments, and now lectures. The hands-on courses have moved to discussing the theory behind software, mixing, etc. for the short term,” Sipes said. “Several of the music software companies are allowing extended free trials of their products so students may use them on their home computers.”

For recent graduates, things will be no less challenging as the enter the job market amid the most pronounced economic decline since the Great Recession. Add to that the concern that the concert industry’s hiatus has affected thousands of working professionals and may result in a dramatically different concert experience in the future, and it’s easy to see why faculty members who prepare students for a future in the music industry are deeply concerned about the pandemic’s lasting effects.

“I am telling my students to be flexible and willing to change your approach and perceptions. This year will, I think, lead to a drastic change in the music industry,” Sipes said.

Sipes adds that he is optimistic that creative professionals will be able to survive this challenge.

“There will be opportunities for people willing to collaborate with others that envision where the entertainment industry is going. The music industry has been in a rapid state of change since the 1990s with the introduction of digital media. There will be opportunities for innovative, energetic people,” Sipes said.

While technology provides a remarkably agile means of facilitating educational instruction, however, it is an altogether different experience when it comes to live music for both performer and the audience alike.

“Listening to a performance with others in a beautiful setting is an aesthetic experience that is difficult to replicate any other way. Second, there is an energy – a vibration – in a live performance that cannot be replicated. Being in the presence of an outstanding performer or ensemble creates a vibrational and tangible energy unique to the setting,” Shelton said.

Alumna: Music Venue Pivots to Stay Afloat

Like Brewster Street Ice House, Executive Surf Club, and Black Monk Tavern, the venerable downtown live music venue House of Rock canceled live music events starting in mid-March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Islander alumna Stephanie Garcia ’12 has worked at the House of Rock for the past eight years and handles marketing and public relations duties for the venue. Garcia said the House of Rock has cancelled roughly 40 music events and was forced to lay off event staff.

“It was a hard thing to do and we let them know that when we have the ability to bring them back, we definitely plan to do so,” said Garcia.

Garcia said the House of Rock held several live-streamed concerts prior to Gov. Greg Abbott’s March 31 executive order shutting down all non-essential businesses and it plans to return to live-stream concerts for the time being.

“Music is the foundation of House of Rock as a venue and has been what we have known for its (almost) 15-year existence,” Garcia said.

In order to survive these difficult times, said Garcia, the venue shifted its business model to focus primarily on food sales.

“Owner Casey Lain had a proactive approach and immediately made a plan for us to change to a curbside business model,” said Garcia. “The community has been very supportive, including the city manager’s office and the Downtown Management District.”

With the official stay at home orders lifted for the city and state as of April 30, the plan is to offer live music again as soon as all the details are worked out.

“We have brainstormed ways to safely and responsibly have shows – even at a smaller capacity – but we’re still working through the logistics,” she said.