In this article
  • Faculty and students collaborate virtually
  • Alumni step up to give back during pandemic
  • Celebrating the Class of 2020

Though the College of Music completed work on its 64,000-square-foot expansion and turned 100 this year, it also found itself, along with the rest of the world, transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As coronavirus upended plans all over the globe, the performing arts on the CU Boulder campus were no different. But as a college, our artists have dug deep to find a way to keep our educational mission alive against extraordinary odds. 

From virtual classrooms to homegrown performance series to charitable efforts, the College of Music community surely did its founders proud this year. It laid the foundation for a second century of support and community as we look to inspire artistry and discovery—together—despite unprecedented challenges.  

horn studio virtual performanceMaking music together, apart

As the business world grew accustomed to virtual conference rooms and computer-screen meetings, the music world found a way to use these tools to its unique advantage. Take Associate Professor of Horn Michael Thornton’s studio. Students got together from the safety of their homes to play—and dance—their own rendition of “Hunter’s Chorus” from Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischutz (left).

Along with members of the Colorado Symphony horn section—of which Thornton is principal—the group danced its way to recognition. The video won the CU Boulder Center of Arts & Humanities Shelter-in-Place microgrant, which recognizes highly engaging remote-learning art projects. 

“What that says to me,” Thornton told CU Boulder Today, “is … that what we’re doing is viable and important during this time.”

The trumpeters of Associate Professor of Trumpet Ryan Gardner’s studio got a little extra motivation at the end of the spring semester in the form of their own virtual performance of John Williams’ “Fanfare Olympique.” Gardner says it was not only a fun project to put together, but it also provided a valuable learning experience for 21st-century musicians.

“Recording yourself is a vital component of improving, as it accurately reflects how you sound.  This helped us all to grow as well as to have the experience to play with a click track, which is a necessary performance skill,” Gardner explains.

The project was a true group effort. Teaching assistant Ryan Spencer arranged the piece, then the group collaborated on concepts like where to breathe and where to release. “[Audio engineer] Kevin Harbison was masterful in merging the audio into the final product and Phil Norman did an incredible job with the video editing,” Gardner says.

Meanwhile, with concert halls shut off to the public, the College of Music and the promotions team at CU Presents have spent the pandemic opening the doors to a virtual concert hall of sorts at CU Presents Digital. Live-streamed recitals, archival ensemble performances and content from past Artist Series presenters have given Boulder music lovers a sense of community and a reminder that the performing arts will be back.

“We hope the work of Artist Series guests, CSF actors, the Takács Quartet and the talented faculty and students of Theatre & Dance and the College of Music provide inspiration for you,” CU Presents Executive Director Joan McLean Braun wrote in a letter to patrons this summer.

Among the videos featured on CU Presents Digital are a series of Beethoven sonatas posted by Chair of the Roser Piano and Keyboard Program, Distinguished Professor and Helen and Peter Weil Faculty Fellow David Korevaar. Korevaar challenged himself to record all of Beethoven’s sonatas in single takes and post them one-by-one on his YouTube channel during the stay-at-home period earlier this year.

“I did 32 performances in my living room on my un-tuned piano with my limited equipment. In true ‘indie’ style, production values aren’t the point: It’s about the content. Some of the best piano music ever written by one of the greatest composers of all time. Variety, quirkiness, virtuosity, invention, beauty, drama, etc.,” Korevaar, above, explains.

A new way of teaching

Stay-at-home orders gave classroom experiences a new look and feel this year as well, and our creative educators were up to the challenge. Associate Professor of Saxophone Tom Myer invited his students to stretch their artistic legs with their end-of-semester juries this spring.

For example, first-year student Josh Sweeney recorded Paul Creston’s Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, Op. 19, and then shot a video of himself playing along with the piece in a creek in Pike National Forest (below). “He had his phone under his jacket, on his shoulder, pretending to play along with the recording,” Myer explains. He almost dropped his phone in the water!”

Several other beautiful works were posted on the University of Colorado Saxophone Studio’s Facebook page. Myer says breaking out of his normal teaching routine taught him a valuable lesson. “If you give students an opportunity to be creative, you may be very impressed with what they have to offer.”

As Musicians’ Wellness Program Director James Brody spent the summer preparing to move into a new space in the expanded Imig Music Building, he also hosted the 25th iteration of his popular Alexander Technique Course online for the first time ever. Course instructors Amy Likar and Ed Bilanchone joined from California and Virginia, respectively, to provide techniques and instruction on self care for the mind and body—something Brody says is needed now more than ever.

“Core concepts of the Alexander Technique and body mapping can be delivered remotely with good effect. What is not possible remotely is hands-on guidance of movement. We had to find ways that participants could do self-guidance through self-palpation and observing themselves in a mirror or on video.”

Brody says as the teaching team navigated the changes, they learned that some of the digital tools they used could be helpful even when the pandemic is over. “If we can meet in person again, we’ll likely continue to use some of the platforms for distributing information to participants,” he says. “We’re also considering offering a monthly refresher session and perhaps introductory classes spaced during the course of the year.”

Entrepreneurial instruction went online this year too, as the Entrepreneurship Center for Music partnered with several groups on campus as part of the HumanKind project. Founded by CU Boulder students, the organization helps facilitate local service projects during social distancing, connecting people who want to get involved with those who need help. 

ECM Director Jeffrey Nytch serves as head of the project’s creative group. “We’re working with the Dairy Arts Center, Boulder County Arts Alliance, City of Boulder and Boulder Chamber of Commerce to create instructional webinars about remote lessons and grant writing,” Nytch explains. “The hope is to connect faculty expertise, student volunteers and community members during the pandemic.”

Robbie Herbst outdoor performance

The ECM also provided Summer Assistance Grants to several students to launch innovative music-making projects during the pandemic. Among the projects were choral conducting doctoral student Raul Dominguez’ summer Choral Conductors Colloquium webinars, and violinist Robert Herbst’s Music in Martin Acres socially distanced neighborhood performance series, pictured above.

Associate Professor of Theory Yonatan Malin created a custom Jeopardy! game for the final days of one of his classes. Malin says the goal was to have some fun with the material. “I just found myself experimenting with different ways of engaging students in the online format, and this was one of them.”

Malin says the woodwind students in the class won the game and area chair, Professor of Bassoon Yoshi Ishikawa, recorded a video message of congratulations for them. There was even a greater good served by the game.

“I wanted to connect it with concrete action,” Malin explains. “So I donated the dollar amount of the winning score to Buffs Together, the Emergency Family Assistance Association, Feeding America and Direct Relief to help those struggling due to COVID-19.”

Music for a cause

Using music to make a difference has been a theme for many in the new virtual world brought about by the pandemic. The ECM’s Lullaby Project—which connects musicians and composers with new parents to create lullabies—took on a whole new life because of social distancing, becoming even more impactful. 

Other members of the college community used their platforms as leaders in music to do good. As commander of “New Mexico’s Own” Army National Guard Band, orchestral conducting doctoral student Silas Huff and 10 of his musicians have been volunteering to help people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I like to help people out, and I like to serve others. In times of crisis, I'm happy to help in any way I can,’ Huff says. He and his fellow 44th Army Band musicians have delivered food and medical supplies to food banks and hospitals and even spent time in New Mexico’s COVID-19 hotline call center.

Huff says he’s proud of his fellow bandsmen and women. “Senior leaders in New Mexico already knew how talented they are as musicians, but this campaign has demonstrated how competent they are at performing nearly any task, and how selfless they are when it comes to serving their fellow New Mexicans."

Celebrating the Class of 2020

Perhaps the hardest part about taking this year online was the loss of the college’s annual spring commencement exercises. Though distancing requirements meant the Class of 2020 could not take that final walk across the Grusin Music Hall stage in May, their accomplishments and excellence did not go uncelebrated. The college held a virtual commencement ceremony, the bands and a group of alumni recorded tributes to the class in stunning performances of the CU Alma Mater, and the Roser Piano and Keyboard faculty recorded their own at-home rendition of Pomp and Circumstance:

Read more about commencement and the Class of 2020 on the Commencement page.

College of Music proud

As we look ahead to a new year, in a new building—still settling into this new world—we’re reminded that nothing can be taken for granted. But as Senior Associate Dean John Davis said in an email to faculty and staff back in April, these trials give us opportunity to grow, to be resilient and to show who we really are. And the College of Music has done just that.

“It is easy to be collegial, calm and supportive during the best of times. It’s not as easy during challenging times,” Davis wrote. “Yet, our college is exhibiting all of these qualities at this time.”

Bringing joy through the accordion

alicia straka

By Olivia Lerwick

While the COVID-19 pandemic kept the world at home, Alicia (Baker) Straka (MM ’17) used her living room as a stage to support front-line heroes. Straka programmed at-home charity concerts over Facebook Live, raising funds for first responders and healthcare professionals. “My motto lately has really been to try and find ways of spreading joy through music,” says the voice performance and pedagogy graduate, who says she uses her voice and her accordion to create a fun and festive atmosphere for her viewers.

Straka began the project when she realized that there was a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“I knew that the best way to help was to stay safe at home, so I felt that charity concerts could be a way of keeping spirits up while also helping a greater cause,” Straka says. 

To her surprise, her first concert drew 150 viewers and generated more than 5,000 views. Encouraged by the response, Straka started programming two concerts a week—one for adults and one for children— raising more than $3,400 in the month of April for organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), No Kid Hungry and the International Rescue Committee. She continues to program her concerts every other week and has added the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to her list of charities in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I felt like these videos were a great way of bringing people together virtually to support important causes, even though we couldn’t come together in person,” Straka says. “It was also a great way for me to find connection and community, and I hope that I was able to give some of that back to my audience.”