A group of musicians is tasked with imagining the sound of joy. Or sorrow. Or a cat. Or a child playing. Then, individually, everyone picks up their instrument and plays whatever they’ve thought up for the group, resulting in an unpredictable sonic burst.

Tonight, viewers and listeners can experience the product of a semester-long experiment in improvisation. Through the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center’s Artist Partner Programs, UMD School of Music's Wind Orchestra has been working with composer Danny Clay and visiting artist the Living Earth Show to create “Music for Hard Times,” a new improvisational piece that brings together musicians physically separated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Throughout the semester, students in the wind orchestra have received “strategies,” or prompts, to create a specific mood or effect by employing tone, rhythm and more. Over video conferencing, students broke into small groups and improvise together. Next, on their own, they recorded a solo improvisation based on the group exercise. Clay, along with Travis Andrews and Andy Meyerson of the percussion-guitar duo the Living Earth Show, then stitched together the recordings and added visuals for a final piece that will be seen and heard tonight.

“You’re used to knowing what you’re supposed to be playing—you’re supposed to be playing the ‘right’ notes,” said Luci Disano D.M.A. ’22, a graduate assistant who worked on the undertaking. “One of the values for me of this project was getting to experience a performance where there are no right notes—the notes that I choose are correct.”

Michael Votta, professor of conducting and ensembles, and director of the UMD Wind Orchestra, had already been intending to work on improvisation with his students when the chance to collaborate with Clay, Andrews and Meyerson came along. 

The title of the roughly 25-minute piece, “Music for Hard Times,” is no coincidence. It’s “music that allows both the performer and the listener to feel calm and centered—a refuge from all the times we’ve been dealing with,” said Votta.

For students, the project represented a chance to sharpen both classical and improvisational skills at once. “These very open-ended prompts to think about and experiment with gave me a lot of freedom and helped me explore what I’m really capable of as a musician,” said flutist Selia Myers ’22. “My classical playing has gotten a lot better as a result of experimenting with all these ideas.”

Improvisation requires skills and practices that classical playing doesn’t, said Disano. Trying to remember and riff off a previous phrase, for example, is inherent to improvisation but anathema to classical playing, in which “it’s actually useful to forget the thing you just played because it can be a distraction from what you have to play next,” she said. 

The students have heard snippets of the final recording, but will hear the totality of the work for the first time tonight. “I was really surprised about how easily I could pick out my own sound from the rest of (the players)” in preview recordings, said Myers. “I’m really excited to hear how everything has come out.”