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Performance groups dance around rehearsal amid spike in COVID-19 cases

DTH Photo Illustration. Musicians at UNC have moved to virtual learning and virtual ensembles amid the pandemic.

It’s pretty hard to properly time up a performance on Zoom. High latency can throw off comedic timing, prevent musicians from syncing up their parts and make dancers do different steps of their choreography.

Because of this difficulty, some student performance groups are set to resume in-person rehearsals this semester.

“I'm very excited to get back on campus to have the opportunity to work with students, have them have the opportunity to do what they love to do and fulfill their passions,” Jeff Fuchs, director of University bands, said. “But at the same time, we are in the middle of a spike and it's going to require everybody to be very conscientious with how they live their lives to make sure that we can do it safely.”

Other group leaders believe that returning to campus will end in disaster.

“I think there's nothing scientifically even allowing for a decision like this to be made,” Nicholas Batman, president of a cappella group Carolina Tar Heel Voices, said. “If all of our decision makers at UNC were actually listening to science, we would be all online right now. I think it's very clear that UNC is going to embarrass themselves again, put students at risk, put the community at risk, potentially put lives at risk over the next few weeks, if not already.”

Tar Heel Voices attempted an outdoor, in-person rehearsal in the fall, during which members were masked and standing 10 feet apart. But Batman described the experience as uncomfortable.

“It was a little difficult to even sound like a musical or performing group,” Batman said.

However, the Tar Heel Voices plan to try again after they couldn’t find a way to make virtual meetings work, Batman said. The group will once again attempt outdoor rehearsals while taking the same precautions.

University Bands will also be returning to in-person rehearsals in the spring semester, limiting capacity to 36 people and spacing students eight feet apart. Bands will only play for 30 minutes at a time before clearing the room and allowing the air to recycle for an hour.

As far as how students will be able to safely make music, double-layered filtered bell covers will be placed on instrument bells, puppy training pads will be used to collect moisture from instruments and the department has developed a mask that will allow musicians to use mouthpieces while masked.

These rehearsals present an opportunity to do things that they’ve never been able to do. 

“Typically, in a spring semester, band and dance team are performing, you know, 25-30 times in the course of 12 weeks,” Fuchs said. “They're performing at least once a week. They only meet once a week for rehearsal. So it's really hard to do much new. It's more of a maintenance plan. But this year, without performances, we can actually learn new material and get deeper into what we're doing rather than just kind of maintaining it and polishing.”

To achieve those goals, seniors will be working to prepare the band for next year, meaning they may not get to see the fruits of their work. Fuchs is thankful for their work.

“I'm really proud of them for seeing the bigger picture and realizing their legacy is going to be making sure that, when we come back in the fall, we're ready to go,” Fuchs said. “They won't be able to participate, but their contributions will make it possible for us to do what we're expected to do. They're a great group of kids. Everybody thought last year’s seniors got a bum deal. But I think we're finding out that they had a mild inconvenience. This year’s seniors have really taken it on the chin.”

Unlike Tar Heel Voices and University Bands, Blank Canvas Dance Company will embrace a hybrid format this semester. Emily Huber, the company’s president, said the group will be split into two groups of 10 dancers. The two groups will alternate between in-person and virtual rehearsals each week.

Dancers will be required to wear masks and remain in taped-off boxes which will maintain proper distance. A company officer will be present at all times to monitor rehearsals and properly disinfect the room.

Additionally, all members will sign an agreement stating they understand all COVID-19-related rules and guidelines. The group is still working with their adviser to decide on penalties for those who break the agreement, but Huber thinks penalties could include members being blacklisted from rehearsal and possibly expulsion from the company.

Each group has a contingency plan in place should the University move to a fully remote format once again, including one that could prevent Blank Canvas from holding a livestreamed showcase.

“We will likely adapt fully to the Zoom platform that we utilize last semester and still give people the opportunity to finish out the dances that they started learning, and then hopefully, compose some sort of video to culminate the entirety of the semester rather than attempting some sort of in-person showcase that would negate the actions of returning to virtual,” Huber said.

The return to in-person rehearsals marks the culmination of a work process the company began last summer. Huber said she’s grateful to see how much the group means to its members during a global pandemic.

“Even though it's been such a different year, it's honestly been really rewarding for me and the other officers on the team to kind of like see this fall into place and see how we're still able to bring some sort of joy to all of our members,” Huber said.

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