University of Tennessee viola students share finals recital with New York assisted living community

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Four weeks into social distancing, University of Tennessee music performance student Zach Miller felt close to his breaking point. Away from his campus routine, he spent most of the day alone or in online classrooms. His recitals and performances were canceled or switched to a digital submission format.

“I felt stripped of human interaction,” Miller, a junior violin and viola player from Maryville, said.

Erin Parker, a senior music education major, was also struggling. One of her favorite classes included a hands-on jazz emphasis in the second half of the semester, and it wasn’t the same not being there in person to interact with her teacher and classmates.

The difficulties were obvious to Hillary Herndon, associate professor in the UT School of Music. Through March and April, as the faculty worked with undergraduate and graduate students to plot a way forward when COVID-19 forced classes online, her students were finding themselves adjusting— many for the first time — to life conducted over Zoom.

“Music is a performance art; it’s not meant to be done by yourself in a room,” Herndon said. “To be able to interact with an audience, even if it’s thousands of miles away — that opportunity is very important for all musicians.”

While listening to her Aunt Dottie recount a Zoom conversation she and other residents at a senior living community in Long Island, New York, had shared with a dog, Herndon hatched an idea.

“If they’re willing to spend time on Zoom with a dog they can’t pet, and I’ve got students who want to perform for somebody, maybe we could fill a need from both sides,” she said.

She emailed her viola studio students with three options for the juried performance that made up their final exam: a digital submission, a one-on-one performance for her over Zoom, or playing for the senior living community residents.

The plan came together on April 28 when five UT viola studio students performed over Zoom for Dottie and more than a dozen other residents Encore Luxury Living community in Jericho, New York.

The performance served as the students’ final exam and provided a social opportunity for people facing the isolation of COVID-19 in one of the country’s hardest-hit regions.

Miller was second in the day’s lineup. He performed selections from Carl Stamitz’s Viola Concerto in D Major and Johann Sebastian Bach’s C Major Suite.

School of Music students perform Beethoven's Ninth Symphony
Zach Miller (second student in, third row from right) performs in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

“I’m standing in my living room, and I’ve just finished playing and I’ve got applause coming through my laptop — that doesn’t happen in an academic setting,” Miller said.

Community engagement events and outreach to retirement communities, hospitals, and local schools are routine for faculty and students in the School of Music. In February, Herndon and other faculty members played for residents at Parkview Senior Living in Maryville.

“But this is the first time we’ve done something like this using technology,” Herndon said. “Because of that, it was the first time we were able to reach outside of our physical community. It was an opportunity to reach out and help by providing what we could do.”

The benefit was twofold: seniors had an opportunity to enjoy an afternoon of music, and students experienced an escape from feeling isolated. At the end of each student’s section, residents engaged and asked questions.

One resident asked Miller where he saw himself after finishing music school.

“They had a good idea of what we go through as musicians,” Miller said. “Getting to talk to each other made the interaction feel a little more human.”

For students who chose the group performance option, Herndon extended an invitation to their family and friends, who typically are permitted to attend only public recitals.

“It really touched my heart to have my family there, especially during this time when we’re all feeling disconnected,” Parker said, who lives in Maryville and hasn’t seen her mom or stepdad —who attended the Zoom call along with her sister, niece, and nephew — since social distancing started.

Parker performed Mark Summers’s Julio-O and Bach’s Viola da Gamba Sonata in G major.

Behind the scenes, Herndon worked with Shayla Superior, social director for Encore Luxury Living, to organize the performance. She created a program, as she would for any recital, while Superior created a poster and promoted the event to the center’s 14 residents, who all attended.

“Residents are really confined to their rooms right now,” Superior said. “They aren’t able to enjoy their lives as they once were.”

residents of Encore Luxury Living community prepare for performances on Zoom
Residents of Encore Luxury Living community prepare for the performances on Zoom.

As COVID-19 intensified, community administrators canceled all trips and temporarily closed the dining halls. Residents, who must wear masks at all times and are not permitted to have visitors inside the building, have meals delivered to their rooms and rely on drivers and staff to pick up prescriptions and groceries.

Nassau County, where the senior living facility is located, has experienced nearly 40,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than 2,000 deaths.

Although the performance wasn’t without its complications — Superior had to find the right speakers, a setting accessible for Wi-Fi, and a screen to project the performance on — she couldn’t help smiling behind her mask as the students played.

Erin Parker
Erin Parker

Parker, who is currently seeking out student teaching opportunities and plans to start an event ensemble, has been inspired to organize her own Zoom concerts for family and friends she hasn’t seen in months.

Miller sees the virtual concert as an extension of the spirit he experienced on campus.

“There’s conservatories across the U.S. that are filled with incredibly talented people. But UT — we’re still here. We have this really special aura,” he said. “Being able to share the Volunteer spirit with somebody outside of Tennessee, outside of the Southeast — I never thought I’d be able to share what I do with people this way.”

This summer he has been invited to train with both a viola professor at Vanderbilt University’s Blair School of Music and the principal violist at the Nashville Symphony, using Zoom and online learning tools.

Herndon hopes to incorporate more virtual activities in future semesters for her students. Virtual performances may not substitute for a live performance in front of a crowd, but they demonstrate a creative way forward in a time when audiences are unable to gather.

“It’s just like interacting over Zoom isn’t the same as being in the same room together,” Herndon said. “But knowing what we know now, we see what is possible.”

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