Virtual virtuosos: Professional 7C performers reflect on community during COVID-19

Two female music professors stand on stage in front of two pianos.
On Feb. 14, Pomona College music professor Jennie Jung and Genevieve Lee hosted a virtual concert titled “Dancing in Breathtaking Beats: Music for Two Pianos.” (Courtesy: Genevieve Lee)

The typical on-campus performance begins with entering the chattering performance hall, finding an ideal seat and flipping through the program before the lights start to dim and a hush falls over the crowd. 

Music at the Claremont Colleges is one way for community members to bond over a shared interest, but this aspect of the 7Cs was disrupted last March when the institutions closed.

Now, virtual concerts are a way for people to find and maintain a musical community.

On Feb. 14, Pomona College lecturer of music Jennie Jung and professor of music Genevieve Lee held a virtual concert titled “Dancing in Breathtaking Beats: Music for Two Pianos.” 

But though the accessibility of online recording meant her loved ones in Canada could tune in, Jung’s performance was interrupted by technical difficulties on their screens — a problem new to her in musical performance.

“Listening from home, they did not have a good system,” Jung said. “Those kinds of factors will make a huge difference to the enjoyment of the concert.”

And though prerecorded performances make streaming across distances easier, the experience is wholly manipulated. 

“You don’t have the same kind of nerves and excitement, that adrenaline that you get from a live audience,” Jung said. “If something went wrong, you would have the opportunity to record it again. So, there’s a bit of that pressure which is taken off.”

Pomona College lecturer of music Maggie Parkins agreed, adding that recordings require a different type of spark in creativity.

“It is very challenging to find that electric energy that is felt on stage by a live audience,” Parkins said via email. “When doing a recording performance, you have to imagine it and just get inside deeper into all aspects of the music.”

A man in a suit sits and plays a piano.
Scripps College music professor Hao Huang recorded a piece in honor of Beethoven’s birthday. (Courtesy: Hao Huang)

Hao Huang, Bessie and Cecil Frankel Chair in Music, recorded a piece to honor Beethoven’s 250th birthday. He asserted that the work was not a performance but took advantage of his ability to prerecord and make artistic decisions with more visual facets of the piece in post-production.

“The difference between a recording and a performance is that a recording is a capturing of a particular time, Huang said. “… A performance is an act of life. This wasn’t a performance; this was a work of art that involved music.”

Every frame and second in Huang’s recording was intentional: the angles, the colors and the notes he chose to include.

“I had to decide what part exactly to cut,” Huang said. “I had to commit surgery on Beethoven — which is no joke.” 

The piece was cut down to 10 minutes, and Huang considered how this might upset his audience. But there was no way for him to gauge their approval during the editing process.

“Good performers always have sort of an invisible antenna,” Huang said. “You’re always negotiating with your audience. Online performance just loses a lot of that wonderful interaction.”

“We have to breathe together,” Dr. Jenny Soonjin Kim, a music professor at Claremont Graduate University, said of performing. “But [online], I cannot feel; I cannot breathe.”

“We have to breathe together. But [online], I cannot feel; I cannot breathe.” —Dr. Jenny Soonjin Kim

This “artificial setting,” as Jung called it, is tricky. Performers can never truly recreate the ambience of in-person concerts. However, Jung hopes that venues continue livestreaming or recording to keep music available to the public.

“The advantage of performing virtually or going to virtual performances … is that you have access to so many performances that you wouldn’t be able to go to previously,” Jung said. “This will allow more people to have opportunities to see and hear this music that they probably might have been shy [or] a little bit hesitant to go to before.”

Kim was also quick to underline the virtues of making and sharing music in a time where sound can travel but people can’t.

“Performance is very important for audiences and ourselves as musicians. Music can help nourish and engage,” Kim said. “Even though we cannot be together physically, music can make some fun for our community.”

“When I’m performing, I’m hoping that people can tell how much I love to play the music … [and] how much I love the music itself,” Jung said. “The fact that I’m feeling joy and excitement hopefully gets you excited.”

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