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Arts & Culture

During Pandemic, UMD’s National Orchestral Institute + Festival Changes Its Tune

Organizers of Acclaimed Event Compose Creative Virtual Experiences for Musicians

By Jessica Weiss ’05

Students play in orchestra

Photo by David Andrews

Musicians at the acclaimed National Orchestral Institute + Festival, shown performing at the University of Maryland in 2019, are participating virtually this year through intensive rehearsals, master classes and seminars.

For 33 years, the University of Maryland’s National Orchestral Institute + Festival (NOI+F) has welcomed hundreds of the country’s top musicians to campus each summer. Recordings of the performances are sold in dozens of countries. 

But this year, when the coronavirus pandemic made it clear there would be no group rehearsals or in-person performances, organizers at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center were forced to reconsider how to provide a rewarding virtual experience to the instrumentalists.

The new NOI+F at Home, which kicked off last week and runs through June, has students continue their orchestral training through intensive rehearsals, intimate master classes and insightful seminars, led by faculty from across the country.

“Music and the performing arts are really challenged by the current online environment because there is so much connection needed in this type of learning,” said NOI+F Director Richard Scerbo ’02, M.M. ’04. “We’re developing new tools that students can use in their learning process due to the virtual moment we’re in.”

Like many musicians, cellist Katie McCarthy ’19 has spent the last few months at home grappling with the future of her music career. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, McCarthy, who is pursuing a master of music (M.M.) degree in cello performance at UMD, divided her days between class, teaching music lessons, working as a graduate assistant and playing weddings or other performances in the area. Much of that became impossible in mid-March.

That’s why she’s especially grateful for a virtual coaching program currently being offered by NOI+F. Designed and facilitated by UMD's Academy for Innovation & Entrepreneurship (AIE), the program is helping participants navigate future career decisions. “It’s invaluable that they are able to offer this at a moment when 99.9% of musicians are rethinking the way their future careers will unfold,” McCarthy said.

In early March, Scerbo sent out admission letters to nearly 100 young musicians who had auditioned to take part in the 2020 institute and festival. But when classes transitioned online, Scerbo began to consider the possibility that there would be no in-person event.

He realized there are plenty of other creative ways to serve students and help them improve as musicians and professionals. “We began to ask ourselves: What if we use NOI+F to address and create space for discussion and topics we don’t usually get a chance to focus on?”

Collaborating with colleagues at AIE, which has partnered with NOI+F for the past four years, they began to rethink NOI+F using design thinking methods and tools—which Mira Azarm, innovation instigator at AIE, describes as “a human-centered approach to creatively solving problems."

They also surveyed music faculty and students from across the country about how they were experiencing the online teaching environment and learning music virtually.

The result is a dynamic event for participants and the public.

Last week, participants transcribed Mozart opera arias—self-contained pieces for one voice—for performance on their instruments, and discussed styling and interpretation. They’re also engaging in discussions about teamwork and leadership, the future of orchestras and music making and more. And perhaps most importantly, Scerbo said, they’re creating “community and connection.”

Audiences, too, can continue to experience the festival through weekly NOI+F at Noon streams, the virtual SPARK! Lounge and Saturday evening broadcasts of past NOI+F performances.

All of these offerings create opportunities to dive deeper into classical music, McCarthy said. That’s especially important during a global crisis and national reckoning over racism.

An upcoming student conversation will focus on protest music, while another will feature NOI+F's current and past Sphinx Fellows. And today’s NOI+F at Noon conversation will feature Liz Lerman ’70, MacArthur Award-winning choreographer, discussing creative responses during challenging times. 

“It’s important for musicians to engage in difficult conversations about how classical music can be relevant and not elitist,” McCarthy said. “Now that we’re not performing, we can really take a step back and reevaluate how to make it better—not just for ourselves but for everyone around us.”

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