The Silver Linings of Teaching Chamber Music in the Time of Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s life. It forged a way into a new territory where musicians had to rethink their careers and the way they made music. For the music students and Faculty at VCU, the past 1.5 years have been a time of adapting and finding new ways to learn, teach, practice, interact, or even think. This has been particularly challenging for small ensembles. Things that were taken for granted in the past, such as in-person rehearsals, had to be replaced with something completely new.

Dr. Magdalena Adamek, Assistant Professor in Collaborative Piano, has been adamant about turning the ‘impossible’ into the ‘possible’ right from the beginning. In her Piano Ensemble, Accompanying, and Advanced Chamber Music courses, she sought to go beyond the Zoom-based instruction. Her goal was to inspire students to get as close as possible to making music together by seeking engaging, meaningful, and detailed ways to collaborate, even if virtually.

Her Advanced Chamber Music course was offered in a new format in Spring 2021. This course, which is usually offered to the upper-level music majors after a successful audition, became a project-based engagement that served junior and senior-level instrumentalists who were in the process of preparing for their degree recital. Students received a unique opportunity to work with Dr. Adamek on a selected piece of their choice. With the exception of one student who chose to livestream his senior recital, the rehearsals, group meetings and discussions took place remotely and the final deliverable was a high-quality video recording.

Vladimir Peskin, Prelude No. 1, for trumpet and piano

Rhys Edwards- trumpet
Magdalena Adamek-piano

To facilitate high standards of performance, Adamek put herself in a position of both the instructor and the pianist-collaborator. The class was the time of tireless creative exploration, detailed discussions and endless hours of preparing and an exchange of ‘practice’ tracks between her and students. This format produced creative rehearsal methods, such as singing selected phrases over zoom to target small areas in the score to work-out rhythmic alignment of both the instrumental and the piano parts. While in the ‘in-person’ scenario, the aspect of anticipation and prediction in ensemble playing is somewhat a given, in the new, virtual scenario, it proved to be very challenging.

Richard Bissil, Song of the New World, for French horn and piano

 Stephen Deren- French Horn
Magdalena Adamek-piano

“It took a tremendous amount of hard work that I was not sure I could put forth, but through determination, I did it”, says Stephen Deren, French horn performance major (class of 2021). Another performer in the class and a recent VCU graduate, Rhys Edwards says, “I’m happy with the product as well and am so glad we were able to refine the piece to this high of a standard.”

It certainly has been a time of ups and downs but in the end, we collaboratively succeeded to creatively deliver beautiful music.

*Special thanks to Dr. Ross Walter for providing guidance and mentorship regarding technology and the recording process.