Duke performers search for new audiences during the pandemic

Duke performers search for new audiences during the pandemic


By Xuanyu Zhou (interviewer)

A group of Duke University senior students in the capstone course of the Science and the Public certificate program spent the spring 2022 semester delving into how an array of artists, administrators, students, and musicians created and found community during the pandemic.

With instruction from Rose Hoban and Anne Blythe, from NC Health News, and their instructor Misha Angrist, a professor of the practice at the Duke Social Science Research Institute and senior fellow in the Initiative for Science & Society, the students collected oral histories that give a panoramic view of how individuals lost and found fellowship amid COVID-19 and what impact that will have on post-pandemic.

Xuanyu Zhou (Duke University, Class of 2022) interviewed performing artists who are also instructors at Duke. Zhou, who had a minor in classical voice performance, was keenly interested in how these artists found new audiences during the pandemic while keeping their usual audiences and serving them in new ways.

The artists also spoke about how they educated themselves on transmission of the virus and how to keep themselves, their students and eventually, their audiences safe during a time when many craved exposure to the arts. That included performing outdoors, where disease transmission was reduced, creating performances for online platforms, finding new means of distribution and learning about masks – and what types of masks – would work in their particular settings.

Zhou explores with her interview subjects how difficult it was to stop rehearsing with others, to stop performing, to stop teaching, and their intense joy at resuming live collaborations and performances after months of remaining at home without direct contact with colleagues, students and audiences.

Carla Copeland-Burns

Shows a woman holding a flute who is standing in the middle of a group of three students, some holding flutes, all standing next to music stands. The woman is laughing.
Carla Copeland-Burns both teaches and plays flute with a number of different ensembles both in North Carolina and internationally. Credit: Contributed photo.

Carla Copeland-Burns, originally from Florida, went to graduate school in Boston where she received a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory. She and her husband – also a musician – ended up in North Carolina where he is professor of bassoon at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, while Copeland-Burns teaches at Duke. They both also play with orchestras all across the region.

Listen to an excerpt of Carla’s interview here:

She said that students were able to pivot to learn different ways of studying, performing and receiving feedback. During her interview, she spoke about how even though she and her students creatively found new ways to study, performance was more challenging during a pandemic where air flow and respiratory droplets were vectors for infection. Instruments with a bend, such as a saxophone, produced relatively few aerosols, but straight instruments such as clarinets were more of a risk for others in a room. Instead, many musicians experimented with different kinds of masks.

Shows a group of musicians (pianist, flutist, bassoonist, drummer) standing in a room surrounded by audience members as they play.
Carla Copeland-Burns plays with a quartet in days before the pandemic. Credit: Contributed photo.

“It would require you to kind of play your instrument almost incorrectly in order to make it work with the mask,” she said. “It was doable… professional players could kind of deal with it, but for younger players with less experience, it was much more difficult.”

Once musicians got back to performing, they experimented with curtains, separate rooms for wind instruments and masking for both performers and audiences.

“The vast majority of our audience members have been right there with us and trying to do their part to keep it safe and be understanding of the situation,” Copeland-Burns said. “It’s been very heartwarming to see how much people wanted live music and that support has been fantastic.”

Listen to Carla’s full interview here:

Read Carla’s interview transcript here.

shows four musicians each in formal clothing, with their instruments slung over their shoulders walking down a set of steps.
Members of the Ciompi Quartet (l to r): Hsiao-mei Ku, second violin; Caroline Stinson, cello; Jonathan Bagg, viola; Eric Pritchard, first violin. Credit: Contributed photo

Eric Pritchard

“As the months wore on, people’s interest really kind of started to wane. I think people got tired of watching clever Zoom videos of musicians. So it became a little bit less fun to do.”

Eric Pritchard

Eric Pritchard made a peripatetic musical journey from a small town in New Hampshire, to Boston, to the New England Conservatory, to graduate school in New York City, to San Francisco, Ohio, finally landing at Duke University two decades ago. He is a half-time professor of the practice at Duke and a half-time first violinist with the acclaimed Ciompi Quartet, which is housed at the university.

The ensemble rehearses four to five mornings a week, he said, and they give concerts regularly on campus in the area, as well as touring nationally and internationally. All that stopped in March 2020.

“We had a sort of a whole series of concerts planned for the spring, I think all of which were canceled, everything after March 5 was canceled,” he recalled. “And the Ciompi Quartet actually stopped rehearsing at that moment.”

Listen to an excerpt of Eric’s interview here, where he talks about performing for video rather than live concerts.

Pritchard also talked about how the Ciompi Quartet used the time of the pandemic to beef up their social media presence and develop a mailing list.

Once students playing string instruments were able to come back to rehearsal spaces, he said he could tell these students were hungry for the personal contact that’s just not possible via Zoom.

“They were sitting in their dorm room, taking Zoom classes, and then come into the music building and taking in-person lessons, and rehearsing in person with kids their own age, and all of a sudden that felt like a real lifeline,” he said.

It was important to Pritchard as well.

“We’re very blessed and we’re living in an age where as things start to get back to normal, it kind of does lead me to feel a lot of gratitude about the opportunities that I have,” he said.

Listen to Eric’s full interview here:

Read Eric’s interview transcript here

The Ciompi Quartet recorded this rendition of Dvorak’s American Quartet (Mvt. 2) in May, 2020, in the midst of the extended lockdown.

Jules Odendahl-James

Jules Odendahl-James works as an actor, director and dramaturg in theaters based throughout the Triangle. She is also the director of academic engagement for the arts and humanities at Duke and works with actors at the university.

Jules Odendahl-James had just completed casting a show that would be performed at Duke, and the company was getting ready to go into rehearsal when the pandemic shut down the university. Personally, she was juggling care for her father, who had recently had surgery, a husband with a chronic disease and a child in a Zoom schoolroom. The pandemic meant she had to “recalibrate” her expectations of what theater would be at a time when no one knew how much longer the pandemic would stretch on.

Listen to an excerpt of Jules’ interview here:

“Here’s the thing about performance, if you disappear, your audience goes ‘where did it go,’ and they will find another product that’s in front of them,” she said. “So the idea of like, both, we’re kind of frozen, and if we don’t produce something new, we’re gonna lose our patrons.”

So, Odendahl-James and her students pivoted to experimenting with Zoom theater productions, pre-recorded and on demand performances. But those productions had limitations, including issues with copyright, recording and broadcast permissions. Not to mention that there was no audience to react to what actors were doing.

For many theater creatives the pandemic cut them off from something vital to their very beings. Odendahl-James talked about how being involved in freelance theater is always something of an act of love and how many people involved in the Triangle theater scene do it as a sideline, because they feel like they have to.

So, the return to live theater, even just rehearsing was an emotional act. Odehdahl-James related a story of how when some actors were finally able to gather for a reading, many were close to tears. They felt like “no one’s asked me to do anything. Nobody’s been doing anything. And I haven’t realized I just get up and I go to work, and I come home. I haven’t had this other dimension of what has kept me going as a creative person.”

Listen to Jules’ full interview here:

Red Jules’ interview transcript here

Bonus material!

Watch Xuanyu Zhou’s senior recital here:

Bonus: Watch interviewer Xuanyu Zhou’s senior recital, Spring 2022

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