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Despite the pandemic, USM’s School of Music didn't miss a beat with spring 2020 performances

USM’s School of Music is nationally renowned for the high quality of its faculty, the talent students bring to the program and the historic campus spaces where they rehearse and perform. The question is, what happens when curbing the spread of COVID-19 prohibits students and faculty from sharing the same space to learn and play music? How do vocal and instrumental ensembles assemble and perform?

Despite extraordinary challenges, School of Music faculty and students didn’t miss a beat with their spring 2020 ensemble performances. Firm in their belief that the show must go on, they organized themselves to — channeling the Beatles — come together and take a bow, over YouTube.

As semester-culminating concerts couldn’t be performed before live audiences in the University’s famed Corthell Hall, faculty had students record their individual parts, which — with the aid of music editing software — were then knit together for the final performances. The piecemeal, multi-track approach to performing and recording stretched the range and register of students and faculty alike, but the process also presented some uncommon learning opportunities.

“I do think that one thing students may have gained is how specific and exact performing in this format needs to be,” says Christopher Oberholtzer, Professor of Music and Director of USM’s Jazz Ensemble, which performed and recorded “On the Sunny Side of the Street” for its spring 2020 concert.

“Skills such as time, intonation, articulation and phrasing become very visible when you are the sole person recording,” he explains. “When you perform live, in a group, these skills are still important but it can be a bit more forgiving. The required level of detailed attention is very high in this format. Ultimately, that sort of focus will serve the students well as performing musicians.”

For those who were denied in-person attendance of these annual rites of spring, curated here are several year-end School of Music performances, along with faculty and student reflections on their making. Take note. They’re worth a listen.

USM Jazz Ensemble — “On the Sunny Side of the Street"

Directed by Christopher Oberholtzer and featuring vocalist Katie Oberholtzer; Mikayla McClure Carpenter, Bailey Giles, Josh Hyssong, Jett Tachibana and Abraham Wojewodzki on saxophones; Kyle Cormier, Noah Hall, Dan Kaschub, Ed Mitchell and Kayla Raleigh on trumpets; Isla Brownlow, Dylan Childs, Griffin Gingrich and David Hession on trombones; and the rhythm section of Josh Chadbourne (drums), Ryan Geary (bass), Keenan Ruffin (guitar), Masashi Sekioka (piano) and Sam Smith (drums).

Oberholtzer says the 19-piece big band Jazz Ensemble managed to complete in-person rehearsal for its spring 2020 concert before the pandemic required the switch to remote learning. After students decamped for home, Oberholtzer had them listen to the original recording of Ella Fitzgerald with the Count Basie Orchestra and perform their parts “stylistically as close as possible.” He also provided them with a “click-track” reference of him playing the lead trombone part so students would be able to hear “time, articulation and phrasing” while they recorded their parts.

Along the way, unforeseen challenges emerged. For instance, Oberholtzer says apartment-dwelling students had to be careful about making the big, bold sounds required by the piece. And disparate recording technology meant some students used cell phones while others had access to nearly pro-quality studio equipment.

“With all of these variables, the biggest challenge is the fact that they were not performing in a living, breathing, tangible ensemble,” says Oberholtzer. “An important part of the experience of making music in an ensemble is just that, you are part of a physical ensemble. While there are many important aspects of learning that can still happen as you complete a project like ‘Sunny Side,’ the act of physically performing live, with others, isn’t wholly replicated.”

With student-submitted audio files in hand, Oberholtzer became a digital conductor, weaving the pieces together into the finished product.

“While I didn’t log the hours as I worked on this recording, the process of sending out all the materials to the students, receiving the data files back from the students, editing, mixing, mastering and then ultimately producing a project like this is very time-consuming,” he says. “It requires a skill set that I, fortunately, have, albeit at a lower level than I found I needed.”

As any ears can attest, Oberholtzer and his students made it work — and beautifully so. While the experience of shifting to remote learning has some faculty considering the merits of teaching online, Oberholtzer says he prefers the in-person process of making music.

“Not that I’m much of a gamer, but one analogy might be that no matter how advanced the latest version of MLB has become for PlayStation — how much the player might learn about the game and how they might develop some serious hand-eye coordination — they are not out on the field playing ball,” he said.

By Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs

Katie Oberholtzer — Senior Jazz Vocal Recital

“Corcovado” by Antonio Carlos Jobim, featuring Clifford Cameron on Piano, Duane Edwards on Bass, Alex Ouellette on Drums and Chris Oberholtzer on Trombone.

Music performance major Katie Oberholtzer says the shift to remote learning presented her with the challenge of having to learn how to use the stock Apple software GarageBand to mix and master the music that she intended to perform for her senior voice recital. Organizing the effort required asking those accompanying her to individually record all of their parts on each of her songs and then recording her vocal part over the integrated tracks.

“Making the actual music something I was proud of and wanted to release to the world just became an entirely different process that I had never had to deal with before,” she says. “Everyone had to record their parts at a very specific tempo so I could then line them up perfectly afterward. It took some extra work, but luckily I was working with wonderful musicians who are very good at adapting to any situation thrown at them — and they gave me a very high-quality product to work with.”

Oberholtzer, who will begin work on a master’s in Jazz Vocal Performance at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music in the fall, says that she aimed to deliver “exactly as I would in a live setting” to match the “raw feeling and integrity” of a Corthell Hall performance.

“In jazz, a lot of the fun of the music is in the improvisation,” she explains. “You play off the other musicians and create the music as you go. This was obviously an issue as we were all playing this music in isolation. You can only do so much to try to give the music that ‘live’ feeling when you are alone.”

Benny Benack III and Veronica Swift's arrangement of “Social Call,” featuring Alex Ouellette on vocals and drums.

Absent the “energy that makes playing music thrilling and exciting” from a live audience, Oberholtzer says she still experienced “a rush of excitement and happiness” knowing that many more people were taking in her music — virtually and from afar.

“Through this process, I now have a very polished product for many of these songs that I would not have achieved from a live recording of my actual recital,” she says. “I have been able to post some of these videos on YouTube and share them with people who would have never been able to attend my initial recital.”

And to reach an even wider audience, Oberholtzer plans to curate her recorded recital pieces into an album for release on music streaming platforms like Spotify.

“It is certainly a different feeling from a live performance, but sharing the recorded music is satisfying in its own way.”

In addition to her School of Music accompanists, Oberholtzer says she’s grateful to her USM jazz vocal instructor, Taylor O’Donnell, for mentoring her through the process of producing her senior recital recordings.

“She was an incredible help in making this recital successful,” Oberholtzer says. “She helped me plan, gave me ideas of how to get through these recordings that I could have never come up with myself, and made sure I had a clear idea of everything I needed to do to make this happen. I would not be the musician I am now without her guidance these past few years.”

For Oberholtzer, one accompanist deserves special recognition: Professor of Music, Director of Jazz Studies, and Oberholtzer’s father, Christopher. Their performance of “Corcovado,” says Oberholtzer “is a recording I will cherish and keep with me for a lifetime.”

“You might think that having your dad as your advisor would be annoying. For me it was quite the contrary,” she says. “He was always there to give me the perfect advice. I am so very grateful to have been able to study with my father and include him in one of my final recordings during my time at USM.”

By Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs

USM Chamber Singers — “Gloria” from “Mass: A Celebration of Love and Joy” by Andre J. Thomas

Directed by Nicolás Alberto Dosman, Assistant Professor of Choral Conducting and Director of Choral Studies, and featuring Keillie Moody (Piano), Alex Oullette (Rhythm Section), Katie Oberholtzer (Soloist and Soprano I), Rachel Warren (Soprano I), Olivia Christopher (Soprano II), Caitlyn McGonigle (Soprano II), Mia Love (Soprano II), Emma Hallunbaek (Alto I), Chana Wingard (Alto I), Megan Mayfield (Alto II), Carly Poulton (Alto II), Molly Scott (Alto II), Jonas Rimkunas (Tenor I), Brandon Wong (Tenor I), Owen Ehrhardt (Tenor I), Ezri Donnangelo (Tenor II), Sabrina Gallego (Tenor II), Dylan Cao (Tenor II), Daniel Laverriere (Bass I), Louis Brechter (Bass I), Thomas McLaughlin (Bass II), Tyler Soucy (Bass II), and Ryan Geary (Bass II).

Dosman says he and the 23-member Chamber Singers originally planned to perform Thomas’ entire “Mass: A Celebration of Love and Joy,” for an in-person audience this spring, but had to scale back to “Gloria,” when the shift to remote learning necessitated recording and integrating individual vocal parts. They met via Zoom during class times to coach each other through the logistics of self-recording and later combining the individual parts.

“Musically, the students were prepared prior to online instruction, but they spent hours of their own time preparing their recordings for submission,” says Dosman. “I then spent time editing everything together to ensure that the product was cohesive and as close to a ‘real choir’ performance as possible. Caitlin McGonigle volunteered to make the video, which undoubtedly took many hours to create. Her video work greatly enhanced the performance and gave it a true ‘virtual choir’ feel.”

Dosman says that making music wasn’t the only core classroom activity that had to transition online. As the USM Chamber singers are a “really tight-knit group” and “strong bonding” within the ensemble underpins the group’s success each year, Dosman had to be intentional about building and reinforcing a sense of community after the students left campus.

“At the beginning of each rehearsal we would check in to talk about how we are all coping with online learning,” he says. “We would use virtual class time for some of the social bonding that is inherently part of the in-person learning and rehearsal experience.”

As for the lasting takeaways of performing “Gloria” virtually, Dosman believes his students “learned that nothing is impossible.”

“My motto for this whole experience was, ‘Let’s make lemonade out of lemons.’ Making the best of less-than-ideal circumstances is a vital lesson that can serve the students for the rest of their lives,” Dosman says. “And I think we all gained an appreciation for how valuable it is for us to be together — and how much we appreciate one another and making music together.”

By Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs

Oliver Waterman — Senior Guitar Recital

Moments before Oliver Waterman became USM's first music student to hold a senior recital online, his internet failed.

“I was nervous,” Waterman says of the inauspicious start. “The program is equal to everything you’ve done for all four years in college.”

Several members of the music faculty watched and waited for him to begin. Family and friends were in their homes, glued to TVs and laptops. A few long moments passed. Waterman’s computer indicated that his live video stream wasn’t reaching the internet.

“My connection was spotty and YouTube was somehow misrepresenting what was actually happening,” he explains. “It turns out that it was streaming just fine. But due to my inability to see what was happening on my end, I lowered the quality settings and forgot to do a soundcheck, ensuring that I had optimal mic placement. That's why the video and audio quality isn't quite as good as it could have been.”

The Maalox moment ended when a friend texted Waterman to say he was online and clearly visible after all. Dressed in a jacket and tie, he sat on a stool in his apartment and delivered an elegant performance that included works by Gasper Sans, Mauro Giuliani, Felix Mendelssohn, Johan Sebastian Bach and Stanley Myers.

When the live-streamed recital ended an hour later, he heard from his family, his girlfriend and the faculty: He passed.

All the practice and preparation paid off, he said.

School of Music Director Alan Kaschub agreed. “Oliver did a terrific job,” he said. “It was a wonderful recital.”

Waterman may have been USM’s first music student to hold a senior recital online, but he’s no stranger to having his performances recorded and heard by thousands. The classical guitarist has performed three times on the popular WCSH-6 television program 207 and has released several solo EP recordings, including his most recent four-track collection, Dim Bloom, available on Apple Music and Spotify.

Waterman was unaccompanied in his senior recital, but not without critical support, particularly from USM Concert Manager Marty Lawson and Applied Music Instructor Keith Crook.

“Marty helped with technical troubleshooting prior to the event to make sure that it aired on the school website effectively,” says Waterman. “And Keith was instrumental — pardon the pun — in preparing me musically and informing my interpretations of the music in my program. I’m grateful to both of them for their help with making the recital a success.”

By Dan Hartill and Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs

USM Chorale Singers — “Sing Unto God” from Judas Maccabeus by George Frideric Händel

Directed by Nicolás Alberto Dosman, Assistant Professor of Choral Conducting and Director of Choral Studies, and featuring soloists Emily R. Lescatre and Miles Eliot Obrey and pianist Jeff Coggins, as well as Emily Rose Bartley, Angie Jean Beaulieu, Natalie Ben-Ami, Blaine Bickford, Kirstie Anna Brown, Sarah Jane Campbell, Devin Mark Del Campo, Mikayla Jane Clifford, Clara Cecile Fauteux, Noli A. French, Angela Joan Garcelon, Rachel Elizabeth Goldstein, Aidan Calixtus Graham, Shelby L. Hagan, Maya N. Haley, Noah B. Hall, Ainsley Harrower, Bri N. Hull, Kaleigh R. Hunter, Mary Katherine Hyde, Josh H. Hyssong, Ryder Jackson, Dan R. Kaschub, Elli Areeya Kev, Walter H. Kimball, Sarah E. Larson, Josie S. Lawrence, Matt M. Legrand, Tori Rose Leonard,, Dani N. Longinetti, Madeline M. Love, McKenna R. McGrath,, Maddi J. Perry, Hannah G. Poland, Lydia Pulkinen, Kayla Helen Raleigh, Linea Marie Randall, Caleb Daniel Randall, Gabe J. Reed, Wanda Rounds, Janine Marie Rynkowski, March Amelia Steiger, River J. Stickney, Sadie Thomas, Kyle D. Vereb, Meg McCuin Walz, Emily Marie Welsh, Matthew Lucas Wiltshire, and Caitlin R. Zamboni.

Dosman says the rehearsal and virtual performance of the USM Chorale Concert paralleled the process for producing the Chamber Singers concert: Since the students were musically prepared prior to online instruction, the balance of their semester was spent discussing the logistics and technological challenges, recording individual parts, and then mixing multiple tracks for a “product that was cohesive and as close to a ‘real choir’ performance as possible.”

To top it off, Dosman and the Chorale overlayed the music with a slide-show presentation of moments from the Chorale's and the School of Music’s history.

As for takeaways from the experience, Dosman says all involved came to see high-speed Internet — and access to it — as precious resources.

“Equal access to it needs to be addressed in Maine, especially if virtual instruction is going to be part of education in the foreseeable future,” he says.

By Marc Glass/USM Public Affairs