In the midst of the global COVID-19 crisis, self isolation — though unprecedented and challenging even at the best of times — presents a unique opportunity for reflection. For fourth years in particular, this moment of pause in an otherwise busy and fast-paced world comes at a time when reflection on their time spent at the University is natural, as the end of one’s college career would usually be commemorated with a graduation ceremony. This year’s event is bittersweet in more ways than usual, and for performing arts students it serves as an opportunity to look back on the many joys and challenges of the programs and experiences at the University, both before and after the shift to online learning.
The University’s decision to move all spring classes to remote instruction introduced unique difficulties for performing arts classes — which rely on a significant amount of in-person coaching and feedback — as well as the cancelation of final performances. For some fourth years who have practiced this way for several years in anticipation of their performance, the switch was challenging to manage.
“[Switching to online] basically rendered all of my performance classes impossible to execute,” said fourth-year College student Zoe Gray, who will graduate this year with a double major in Media Studies and Music. “The learning environment for music or performance does not translate well online and is very difficult to replicate. For my voice lessons, coachings and Performance Concentration Seminars, the lag over Zoom, acoustic problems at home and lack of in-person accompaniment made lessons very challenging.”
Gray, who is a Distinguished Major Performance student, was preparing for a solo recital in April to mark the end of her vocal studies when the switch to the online format was announced, which caused all fourth-year recitals to be canceled.
“It was a heartbreaking adjustment, and [it was] hard to do my lessons without remembering what I had lost,” Gray said.
Along with the cancelation of solo recitals, many student-run music groups were forced to cancel performances as well. Graduating fourth-year College student Sarah Bryan, who spent much of her last semester as a vocal director for the student theater organization First Year Players, faced this problem as the performance of “Kiss Me, Kate” — planned for late April — was canceled.
“Our show this semester had to be canceled because of the pandemic,” Bryan said. “It was disappointing to not be able to finish and perform the show, but we were able to highlight some of the hard work that everyone in the organization put in through Arts on the Hill, and I am proud of what we were able to accomplish.”
Despite the challenges and losses of the unique past semester, the joyful experiences of music at the University extend far beyond the limitations of the current circumstances. Between taking influential and informative classes, forming close-knit student groups and delivering impressive performances, there was no shortage of musical opportunities for the Class of 2020. In reflecting on their time at the University, fourth-year students shared how various opportunities and quirks of the University itself — such as its iconic landscape — contributed to their experience. Old Cabell Hall in particular is familiar as a memorable venue for both performing and watching from the audience.
“Any performance on the Old Cabell stage was memorable for me, but I was especially moved by extraordinary musical moments where I became so swept up in the singing that I felt pure joy and internal validation that I was doing what I was meant to do,” Gray said. “Old Cabell was a powerful place to perform because I knew big voices had been on that stage, even if they hadn’t sung — like Martin Luther King Jr. or Hillary Clinton, whom I had the privilege of seeing here.”
Though more closely resembling a warehouse than a theater, even the Student Activities Building — in which First Year Players traditionally puts on a musical each semester — housed special memories for students.
“One of my favorite memories of performing arts at U.Va. is the FYP tradition where we sing the Good Old Song backstage at the end of every performance,” Bryan said. “It is a really nice moment of community that brings together everyone from all branches of the organization to celebrate our shared passion and dedication.”
As fourth year comes to a close and graduating students move forward from their time at the University, the lasting impact of the experiences and lessons from performing at the University endure. Though uncertainty looms in the current state of the world, there is still hope and joy to be found in the continuous haven of the performing arts.