Performing music in a coronavirus-affected world
29 Sep 2020
The question of how music ensembles and orchestras are supposed to practice and perform during the COVID-19 outbreak is a tricky one with the need to maintain social distancing. But instead of compromising during this difficult time, musicians at HKBU found creative solutions to the challenges brought about by the pandemic, and thanks to their dedicated efforts, the HKBU Symphony Orchestra (BUSO) Annual Gala Concert was presented online for the first time ever in a triumph of technology and persistence in July.
Adapting to the new normal
This year's Gala Concert, which featured the renowned pianist Ms Colleen Lee Ka-ling along with the Collegium Musicum Hong Kong, was like no other. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the performance was recorded in the empty Concert Hall in the Hong Kong Cultural Centre on 30 June, but it was later presented digitally to the public through YouTube and Facebook from 3 to 31 July. Overall, the Concert was not only an experiment in adopting video streaming technology for a performance, but it also represented a journey for our young musicians as they continue their quest to lead a career in music.
With restrictions on the use of performing venues changing from time to time according to the pandemic's development, the rehearsals for the Gala Concert lasted for only two weeks. In a bid to get the BUSO ready during this unique time, Professor Johnny M Poon, Dr Hung Hin Shiu Endowed Professor in Music and Head of the Department of Music who also serves as the music director and conductor of the BUSO, introduced small group practice sessions for members of the BUSO before the final rehearsal. However, it was only on the day of the performance that the entire ensemble of around 80 members was able to meet on stage for the final rehearsal.
During the pandemic, another social distancing measure was introduced to separate musicians playing wind instruments, with transparent partitions installed on stage. Such arrangements required musicians to be even more focused in order to keep in time with others, because the partitions prevented not only the spread of the virus, but also the smooth transmission of sound.
"While we kept social distancing measures and worked with a tight schedule, rehearsals and practices became more challenging. But it is not something impossible to overcome. I am proud of the students who have shown good preparations, and demonstrated a high level of concentration in their performances. The experience of participating in this concert has equipped them with the skills to perform in a professional orchestral setting," says Professor Poon.
Besides, after a successful trial involving the use of 4K video streaming technology for the Gala Concert's production and broadcast, Professor Poon believes that the process has presented new opportunities for the Department to share students' performances with stakeholders and the community at large on online platforms in the future. As a result, the talents of HKBU's student musicians can be showcased to a wider audience more effectively.
Preparing for the future
With the pandemic continuing to affect Hong Kong and other countries around the world, the Department of Music will keep reviewing its teaching approaches with the objective of facilitating ongoing and effective student learning. In this semester, the Department will offer socially-distanced chamber music, which has been trialled by several foreign music groups recently. All the student performers and their teachers will meet online and discuss the technical and stylistic issues of the chosen works before recording them using a layering technique. The completed recordings will then be uploaded to YouTube as an unlisted video and submitted to the Department at the end of the semester.
Students have faced a lot of ordeals and frustration as a result of the pandemic. During this testing period, the Department has encouraged students to work especially hard at maintaining focus, discipline and intrinsic motivation without the physical presence of teachers and peers to push them along. However, by looking back to the time when the pandemic was not raging around the world, the students will find that they have learnt invaluable lessons that have helped them become mature professional musicians.