DUNMORE, Pa. – The Annual Holiday Concert presented by Penn State Scranton’s musical ensembles has been delivering yuletide cheer to the campus and community at large for many years.
This year, the tradition continues, albeit a bit differently than usual.
Because of the restrictions put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, Music Director and Associate Teaching Professor of Music Sharon Ann Toman and the campus’ three musical groups – Penn State Scranton Chorale, The Roc[k]tet and Campus Jazz Band – are presenting the 2020 Holiday Concert as a pre-recorded virtual program instead of the usual duel performances held on campus and at Dunmore’s Grace Bible Church.
Presented as a series of videos, the concert can now be viewed at https://sites.psu.edu/pssnmusic, a WordPress website specifically created for the program by Instructional Designer Griff Lewis.
The concert’s performances were recorded over two days in early November in the Study Learning Center's Sherbine Lounge by Information Technology Support Specialist Jeremy Palko. That followed more than two months of on-campus rehearsals where Toman put a number of safety measures in place to protect the health of her student musicians.
Despite the atypical setting, the program features its usual assortment of holiday favorites, from renditions of “Frosty the Snowman” and “Sing Noel!” by the Chorale, to the Jazz Band’s interpretations of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra standard, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24.” Meanwhile, the specialized chorale The Roc[k]tet performed “Three English Carols.”
“Considering our limitations, it really is a quality performance,” Toman said. “It just goes to show we can still do a concert at Penn State Scranton during a pandemic.”
Senior business major and Jazz Band clarinetist Ryan Choa said he was extremely grateful that the show was still able to go on.
“The talented groups were able to be showcased at their best, and I’m very proud that our hard work and dedication paid off, despite the concert being virtual,” Choa said.
“I’m glad that we all got to sing together as a group,” added senior letters, arts and sciences (LAS) major Catherine Huggler, a soprano in the Chorale. “Even though we aren’t able to have a live concert, it was still nice to be able to see and sing with the people that I go to school with.”
Committed to Safety
At the beginning of the fall semester, Toman consulted with administrators from the University’s School of Music regarding the proper protocols for setting up and maintaining a safe rehearsal environment.
The Chorale and Jazz Band members enrolled in Toman’s general education music courses met on campus for their regularly scheduled rehearsals, while The Roc[k]tet met every Friday.
For air circulation purposes, Toman kept each practice limited to 30 minutes. And, to ensure proper social distancing of eight feet between students, she divided the Jazz Band into two sections.
In addition, the wind instruments were equipped with special blue masks with slits in them at the mouth – the same that members of the Penn State Blue Band are currently using, according to Toman. And, to collect the saliva produced by the brass instrumentalists, canine potty-training pads were placed on the floor.
Though it was certainly unusual to play with a mask over his clarinet, Choa said it was a small sacrifice well worth making.
“I felt very safe with the safety precautions that were taken. And Professor Toman would always remind us to wipe down our desks before we started practicing,” he said.
Toman also brought her laptop to every rehearsal so that students could attend via Zoom if they had to quarantine or were feeling under the weather.
“If they felt sick in any way, I told them, ‘I don’t want to see you here,’” Toman said. “I really enforced the COVID protocols and did everything possible to keep rehearsals safe. It was a real challenge, but everything worked out in the end. Life was semi-normal and the students were really happy to be on campus interacting with one another.”
“I was thrilled to be able to continue to meet in person to rehearse this semester,” said senior English major Micah Cameron, a tenor in the Chorale. “Compared to previous semesters, the rehearsal time was significantly truncated, we were all wearing masks -- which did make it a little bit more difficult to sing -- and we were facing away from Professor Toman. That said, choir rehearsals were the highlight of my week, not just because I enjoy singing, but also because it still resembled a normal activity, which was really nice to be a part of after so many of the things we loved were canceled altogether or moved to Zoom due to the pandemic.”
By the time of the two-day concert taping, the students were ready to go. The ensembles – which include not only students, but also several campus faculty members and local musicians – were positioned diagonally in the Sherbine Lounge, with Palko filming all of the performances.
From there, Lewis edited the footage, adding closed captioning to each video. For the website, he used a WordPress template with a festive red and green aesthetic.
“That made the website design simple,” Lewis said. “The majority of the work is in the videos. Jeremy shot them in one continuous take, which I then edited in Penn State’s Kaltura media management website, and then added the captions. The tricky part was getting the students’ names in an accessible layout for the site, so I used a Canvas page to build it and test accessibility.”
An accomplished musician himself, Lewis worked closely with Toman to ensure the videos had good sound quality.
The results speak for themselves, Toman said.
“Griff and Jeremy did a great job,” Toman said. “I think the website is really wonderful, and I think the students are going to be really impressed by it.”
“It was a real pleasure to work on, especially being a musician,” Lewis said.
Cameron said he’s looking forward to watching the concert.
“Not only am I excited to have our Fall 2020 concert available for everyone to enjoy in a virtual context, but I am pleased that the recording allows for greater accessibility for people who would not normally be able to make our in-person concerts,” Cameron said. “When the pandemic is over, I hope that Penn State will consider recording future band/choir concerts and make them available to the campus community online as well as in person.”
“There were lots of hurdles, but the students had fun,” Toman said. “They’re so happy that they were able to have rehearsals and a concert to share with their family and friends.”