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Pandemic Performance: How UVA Music Faculty Continue to Adapt to the Pandemic’s Challenges

Kelly Sulick photo
Photo by Jen Fariello


The show goes on thanks to the innovation, dedication, and collaboration among UVA faculty and student musicians! Kelly Sulick, Senior Lecturer in Flute at the University of Virginia discusses music collaboration and performance during the Pandemic as well as the exciting future for music performance at UVA.

Pandemic Performance:

How UVA Music Faculty Continue to Adapt to the Pandemic’s Challenges

Visitors to UVA’s Lawn may have noticed a new soundtrack to their walks this semester. While passersby are used to hearing birds chirping, students laughing or leaves crunching underfoot, this fall they have been treated to a brand-new musical accompaniment to their strolls: performances from the UVA Music Department. In fact, you’ve probably seen and heard me out there—I’m Kelly Sulick, Senior Lecturer in Flute at UVA. I teach flute lessons, coach orchestra sectionals, and conduct the UVA Flute Ensemble, among other activities. This semester, I’m doing all of that from the newest addition to our music performance spaces on Grounds: a tent outside Old Cabell Hall.

Unique Performance Venues

During the first few months of the semester, woodwind and brass ensembles were unable to safely rehearse indoors due to the ongoing pandemic. The show, as they say, must go on—so music faculty have gotten creative, making use of a tent on the Lawn to hold our classes. These performance courses, which allow us to interact with our students at a deep, individual level as we create music together—are the heart of what we do here at UVA, and we are committed to providing new and innovative performance opportunities for our students despite the limitations of the pandemic.

Of course, this new performance space is far from a permanent addition—but the Music Department has one of those to look forward to as well, thanks to the incredible generosity of Tessa Ader and her lead gift to fund a performing arts center. After the nearly insurmountable challenges that the pandemic has placed on our professions as performers and educators, we are more eager than ever to make music together in this incredible new space.

flute and clarinetOnline Innovations

For the previous 18 months, all woodwind playing at the university was conducted exclusively online. This was one of the most challenging undertakings music performance faculty faced pedagogically at the onset of the pandemic: how can we do what we do, and do it well, when we cannot gather? This question was especially challenging for ensemble directors. Musicians rely on hearing one another to make constant, minute adjustments in balance, timbre, and intonation. We lock our rhythms together, shape our phrases and musical gestures in response to one another, and share energy with our audiences and collaborators in a live performance setting.

Internet latency meant that we could not do this online at all. Instead, we had to play one at a time on Zoom, while all other instrumentalists played in front of their own computers while muted. Each ensemble member had the simulated experience of playing along with one other person who could not hear them—in a way, it was like karaoke, but without the joy and energy of the shared environment. Even applied music lessons, which involve one student and one instructor, were challenging to conduct exclusively online. We had to trust our musical instincts despite poor microphone quality, tried to listen for accuracy of rhythm and steadiness of tempo despite lagging internet connections, and—like the rest of the world—we had to face the challenge of working in our home spaces that normally aren’t taxed so deeply.

But there was something good that came out of this dark time: an appreciation that what we artists do is essential. As the world shut down so abruptly in 2020, people turned to their computers to seek that connection with others. Arts organizations found new and innovative ways to stay afloat, yes, but also to provide the healing power of music to their communities. And we in the UVA Music Department found a way to continue performing, despite these challenges.

Unexpected Connections

I had the distinct pleasure of reconnecting with several UVA alumni during the pandemic, embracing our ability to gather online and maintain relationships while gathering in person was not safe. To celebrate my tenth year of teaching at UVA, I invited alumni flutists to perform “virtually” with the Flute Ensemble in the Spring ‘21 semester. Members of the UVA Flute Ensemble worked tirelessly to prepare their individual parts for our online concert. We held weekly class meetings via Zoom, where we rehearsed as best we could despite the limitations of this brave new world. The students then recorded themselves playing their individual parts, and I spent many late nights—aided by a lot of caffeine—editing the video together for our final concert, which we premiered on YouTube instead of live in the Dome Room of the Rotunda as originally envisioned. Our alumni joined us for a few of these rehearsals, sharing their music and their wisdom from life after UVA. It was a joy to see flutists from different years, disciplines, and locations unite through their love for music. To be able to reconnect with so many cherished former students during this time of physical and social isolation was incredibly powerful, and I am so grateful to the students, past and present, who participated. If you would like to see the project involving the alumni, you can view it here:

UVA Flute Ensemble

                                                                        UVA Flute Ensemble with Kelly Sulick presents Auld Lang Syne

An Unprecedented Gift for the Future

This fall, we learned the phenomenal news that Tessa Ader has generously given a $50 million gift to help fund a new performing arts center at UVA. This is something that the music faculty have dreamed of for decades, as we have long outgrown our facilities. We cannot wait to teach and make music in this new space, which will become the heart of all that we do on Grounds. Mrs. Ader’s transformative gift will help us share the dedication and love for our craft that lends meaning to our lives and brings all of us together. And what a wonderful vision of harmony that will be.