Performing at a Distance: The Erie Philharmonic during COVID-19

Categories:  The Arts    Music
Sunday, November 22nd, 2020 at 5:41 PM

The venue of a concert can shape a performance. It’s more than just the space, or the amount of people in the room. It’s the energy of the performance, and the quality of the sound. The musical language is shaped by distance between the performers, and there’s emotions at play that can be hard to engage with from behind a mask. All of this makes it difficult for any orchestra to adjust to performing during COVID-19.

But for the players in the Erie Philharmonic, they’ve found some familiarity in their space.

Edinboro University’s Cole Auditorium, located near the Dr. William P. Alexander Music Center, is serving as a home for their return to music. Cole is where the orchestra rehearses for their concerts normally during seasons.

“Ironically, I would almost consider it the opposite of a challenge,” explained Steve Weiser, executive director of the Erie Philharmonic. “The Warner Theater is designed to be a vaudeville movie-type palace, so the theater of the stage is very wide, and very shallow. It’s basically like a rectangle.”

He continued: “When I used to be in the orchestra, if you’d play in the percussion section where I would play, and you’re trying to play with the trumpet player on the other side of the stage, that’s almost a quarter of a mile away from each other. Which makes it very complicated.”

Meanwhile, in Cole, “we could set up closer to each other and it was always easier to hear,” Weiser stated simply.

The auditorium was a natural choice for where the orchestra could begin televised concerts, aired on local PBS station WQLN and streamed to the organization’s Facebook and YouTube channels.

“We just had a very good relationship with them, at least for the past 10 to 20 years, where we advertise with them, and they give us support along with advertising,” Weiser said about the choice. “Tom New, their president and CEO, is on our board of governors, so there’s a lot of mutual connections there.”

Weiser said there were logistics that needed to be worked out, including how it would be filmed and how they would pay for it.

“We had to figure out how much it was going to cost to actually record and edit these TV programs. The concerts that have debuted starting at the beginning of October and continuing through April … are recorded using four to five high-def cameras. Those cameras needed to have a few different operators, and that footage is taken back to the studio and edited and synced up with the audio that is recorded separately.”

WQLN presents the Erie Philharmonic with a final product that airs on television and online. Only string players are playing in the first three concerts. 

“There’s no good way to have wind players inside playing without having a ton of plexiglass dividers onstage and making it look really cluttered,” Weiser said.

Upcoming holiday concerts will have limited percussion and a prerecorded brass ensemble. As well, starting in December, they will have solo wind players. 

“Because they were outside, they could spread out far enough, nobody had to wear a mask. We decorated the trees behind them to look like Christmas, and they played Christmas music. We had a drone involved. It’s really going to be cool footage.”

The effort to do these televised concerts involves a large amount of communication.

“We have to be open and transparent with our players. We all have close communications with the musicians,” Weiser explained.

For the musicians, the challenges lie on many different levels.

“We basically receive music far ahead of time, and we don’t receive it physically,” explained Sandro Leal- Santiesteban, associate principal chair for the Erie Philharmonic. “But what they did was send us the music electronically. And so we practiced our music at home with the parts we were provided electronically.”

Emily Cornelius is the guest concertmaster for the Erie Philharmonic.

“It was really difficult to rehearse over Zoom or FaceTime, because it’s impossible to play together,” she said. “We didn’t do any digital rehearsal. There were a lot of emails that went back and forth about bowings and phrasing and tempos, especially for the smaller chamber orchestras. We didn’t have a whole lot of rehearsal time due to the safety precautions; they tried to limit the time we spent indoors together.” She would send bowings to people in advance because of the limited rehearsal time, but allowed time for discussion in the smaller ensembles.

Cornelius spent many hours practicing, including how to play with a mask.

“If you haven’t tried it, it’s kind of surprising how difficult it feels when you have a mask on your face when you play the violin. It’s a lot of adjustment that you have to get used to.”

“It changes your peripheral vision, and then when you play with other people, it’s all social interaction," she continued. "There are so many silent cues that go on and so much information we share through facial expressions. For the most part, we still have our eyes visible, but that too gets blocked sometimes. There’s still a lot you can do with your physical body to express what you’re trying to communicate to the others, but it’s not as immediate.”

Santiesteban explained the procedure for how recordings would go. “Once we would arrive [at Cole Auditorium], the hard copies are sitting on our stand. So that way we could make annotations right before the recording … we were all required to wear a mask during the rehearsals and during the recordings at all times on-campus.”

Musicians were placed with proper social distancing guidelines, according to Santiesteban. “It was a bit challenging for us since chamber music is an unique experience in that we all have to be [closer] together. In this case, because we are in such a unique situation, we had to be far apart from each other just to keep ourselves safe.”

“Being 6 feet apart from everybody was startling. At the most, we would have 20 people on stage … every person had their own music stand and every person had their own microphone,” Cornelius said. “In a way, we were each soloists and [we were] trusting the excellent sound engineers to make a good blend after the fact. It was a strange combination of being an orchestra musician, chamber musician, and soloist all at the same time, all in the same piece."

Both Cornelius and Santiesteban credit music director Daniel Meyers as someone who helped them keep time despite the distance. “Having Daniel there definitely helped us to access how far ahead we needed to play,” explained Santiesteban. “It’s just the little details like the distance that we need to keep in mind.”

Santiesteban recorded before, but there are different challenges from performing with a live audience. 

“I feel that I use different muscles when I perform in front of an audience than when I perform [for a] recording. It’s a different pressure when you’re recording because you want the best product. When you have an audience, you also want a good product. But the performance is unique because you have that one chance to try to play [at] a really high quality, as with a recording … you have someone recording and you have the luxury to rerecord if you’re not satisfied with your take.”

Cornelius added one of the largest factors was the delay and echo, different for every piece. “The acoustics in that hall (Cole Auditorium) are lovely, so it was really a nice and resonant experience to play there."

For her, where the sound was being projected in Cole Auditorium helped the performance. “Normally, when we play a concert, we turn out. We want to project our sound out to the audience, and it took a good few minutes to get used to turning toward each other. In a way, even though we were playing so much further apart, it was possible to play much more intimately because we didn’t have to worry about projecting and making the biggest sound. We could be a little more sensitive and inward.”

This pandemic, says Cornelius, has shown to be unprecedented, with musical organizations around the world having to adjust. “We’ve never encountered anything like this, that prevents every organization large and small from doing what it does, and [we're] having to do this enormous pivot and find ways to stay afloat and stay relevant. For most of us musicians, it’s not just the job, it’s our whole identity, it’s our whole world, it’s an extension of our personality. So it’s quite a blow to have that taken away.”

“When you’re performing onstage and you have an audience that is really engaged, you feel it and that changes the way you perform,” Cornelius explained. “And that kind of chemistry is simply not possible when you prerecord something and then share it on a screen. That part of it is really irreplaceable for me.”

However, she also sees the other side of the argument.

“Even if you, the performer, don’t see the reaction, that doesn’t mean you’re not reaching countless people and making their lives a little bit better. In that way, it’s really beautiful to share music this way.”

Throughout this entire experience, Santiesteban expressed there is one challenge many musicians are going through as these virtual concerts become commonplace: keeping positive.

“It’s the aspect of being positive about it that's the most challenging part; it is quite easy to give up on that. For me, practicing, playing, and doing violin lessons. I think it’s what kept me going, probably playing and performing, and uploading videos to YouTube or Instagram. And keeping in touch with my fellow colleagues I think has also been a factor to keep doing what we love despite the virus.”

“I’m really encouraged by how the Erie Phil has tapped into the needs of its community,” Cornelius expressed. “What people really want to see and hear. They’ve done that through their programming and also through sharing these on the local PBS channel, which I think is fabulous. As well as online where anybody can watch.”

Thomas Taylor is a staff writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at This was originally published at The future of our world: Life during Covid-19.

Tags: covid19, music

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