Be intentional, be adaptable, be exceptional.
That’s been the unofficial motto and simple philosophy of the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University band program over the last year as it has navigated the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But after dealing with various protocols because of the pandemic, the CSB/SJU Wind Ensemble persevered – and finally received some great news. The 54-person ensemble has accepted an invitation to perform virtually at the 2021 Minnesota Music Educators’ Association Midwinter Clinic, one of five bands invited to perform via recording.
The CSB/SJU Wind Ensemble will perform at 11:45 a.m. Friday, Feb. 12. The performance can be viewed here.
“The ‘be adaptable’ part became really important because of how many ways we had to work to try and complete these recordings for this performance,” said Justin Zanchuk (pictured, left), associate professor of music at CSB and SJU and conductor of the schools’ Wind Ensemble.
“It felt very dire, when COVID first hit,” Zanchuk said. “The effect on education has been huge. The effect on the arts has been huge – not knowing when we would be able to come back and play.”
Two factors came into play (pun intended).
First, the Music Department had to abide by protocols established by CSB and SJU. The department also followed recommendations made by the International Performing Arts Aerosol study, commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the College Band Directors Association and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations.
“They came together to create a study to understand how aerosol disbursement works while playing an instrument or singing, to see what would be safe so that musicians could come back and make music,” Zanchuk said. “It required us to purchase musician face masks with slits in them and to put bell covers on all the instruments.”
But the biggest issue was separating the musicians at a socially-safe distance and limits to how many could practice together at a given time.
The fall semester began with two weeks of fully distanced learning, followed by two weeks of in-person pods of 10 people or less, broken down by instrument, meeting for 30 minutes a week. That was followed by six weeks of large-group sectionals of 25 people or less, followed by 10 in-person full ensemble practices at Escher Auditorium in the Benedicta Arts Center.
“We were spread out significantly across the entire auditorium. Only 15 members of the ensemble were on stage. The rest were spaced across the house floor, where the audience would normally sit. I was conducting from row ‘T’, which is about three-quarters of the way back in the performance hall,” Zanchuk said.
While the block schedule accelerated classes at CSB and SJU, members of the Wind Ensemble actually had to decelerate their time together.
“Through the mitigations of the COVID International Performing Arts study, it was recommended that we would rehearse for 30 minutes, but then take a 20-minute break to allow aerosols to clear the room through the HVAC system, and then come back in,” Zanchuk said.
Still, the conductor was pleased with the Wind Ensemble’s work with everything swirling around them.
“These students, they are incredible,” Zanchuk said. “They stepped up, they were willing to work, they made changes and they committed to the safety protocols. It was different, but we understood that we were fortunate to even have this opportunity to do anything in-person.”
The Wind Ensemble recorded five compositions for the Midwinter Clinic. Four pieces – “Clutch,” by Andrew David Perkins; “Shepherd’s Hey,” by Percy Aldridge Grainger; “Life Painting,” by Aaron Perrine; and “Come Sunday,” by Omar Thomas – were recorded in November. The fifth composition, “Into the Silent Land,” by Steve Danyew, was recorded in February 2020, at its last live, in-person concert.
Although “every piece holds a special place in my heart,” Zanchuk spotlighted two works.
“Omar Thomas is an incredible composer. We performed the second movement of his work. It’s challenging, and it’s really difficult technique-wise and rhythmically. When it all comes together, it’s just a joyous musical celebration, and I think that’s something that stands out,” he said.
“Into the Silent Land” is a work about the horrific 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook (Connecticut) Elementary School that killed 26 students and faculty members. Danyew attended Sandy Hook from grades 3-5 (but before the shootings), and the piece includes narration from Sophia Bohn-Gettler, daughter of Catherine Bohn-Gettler, professor of education at CSB/SJU.
“It’s an absolutely powerful piece,” Zanchuk said. “When we performed it live and in-person, there were very few dry eyes in the audience, just because of the power of the work – the beauty of Steve’s writing and Sophia’s wonderful narration.”
This the second recent honor for the Wind Ensemble. In February 2019, the group was selected to be part of the Small Band Program Showcase at the College Band Directors National Association. Zanchuk presented a recording of the ensemble to the group in-person.
“(The two honors) are a testament to the students’ work,” Zanchuk said. “These conference performances are presentations of their creative work on regional and national levels,” Zanchuk said.