Miriam Burns, conductor of the Ohio State Symphony Orchestra has adapted its in-person rehearsals for Zoom. Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Burns

COVID-19 has struck a chord with the Ohio State Symphony Orchestra, and members are moving forward one half-step at a time.

With in-person classes moved online, several departments that normally rely on face-to-face rehearsals and studio sessions have needed to adapt. Miriam Burns, conductor of the Ohio State Symphony Orchestra, has been adjusting her curriculum to accommodate the current situation. 

The orchestra is a credited course with rehearsals taking the place of class time, but the move to virtual instruction has thrown a wrench in that system. Although Burns has incorporated Zoom into many of her lessons, she said it has been challenging to create a cohesive orchestra experience on video.

“I so far have not found any way to replicate a live orchestra rehearsal, where we’re all interacting with each other and adjusting bowings, because we’re looking at each other and adjusting intonation, or adjusting articulation, or then reacting to a gesture that I’m showing them,” Burns said.

Regardless of these challenges, Burns said she has maintained her normal schedule as much as possible.

Orchestra rehearsals are scheduled at the same time every week to accommodate students’ other classes and exams, Burns said, but in place of in-person rehearsals, the orchestra has been focusing on individual coaching for different orchestra excerpts on Zoom.

With several of her students auditioning for professional ensembles in the near future, Burns said a lot of her coaching involves dividing the orchestra into instrument groups and coaching each group separately, replicating an audition atmosphere.

“It helps to have a conductor listen to the excerpts, not just your particular teacher. But, they want to know what the audition community is listening for behind the scenes, and that includes the conductor,” she said.

Despite the inability to rehearse as a group and the occasional technical issues with Zoom, Burns said there is a silver lining to this unconventional form of instruction. By coaching in small-group and one-on-one settings, she said she has been able to build relationships with students and gain familiarity with their individual playing.

“The ability to get to know each person individually, and the ins and outs of their playing, in a way that you just don’t get during an orchestra rehearsal when there are 65 people there in front of you, so I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said.

Violist McKenna Burke, a first-year in psychology, said there are challenges and benefits of individual coaching. Despite using video lessons in the past, she said they can be difficult when it comes to finding an acoustically suitable place in the home to practice and rehearse. 

Burke said playing the individual attention can be nerve-wracking, but hearing isolated sections has offered solidarity. 

“You don’t get to do that in a full orchestra rehearsal and hear every individual person, so just knowing that everyone goes through the same nerves as you do, and getting on and seeing that people are in the same circumstances,” Burke said.

Burns said it is important to have hope and creativity during this time.

“When this kind of unprecedented crisis happens, it’s a time where everybody is forced to come to a dead stop,” Burns said. “But to be able to pull together that sense of normalcy of being together as musicians and having to be creative — having to make the class still worthwhile and get something out of it —  we’re finding another way.”

Although the Ohio State Symphony Orchestra cannot rehearse together right now, Burns said she looks forward to when the orchestra is able to reunite in Hughes Auditorium.