Jason Shu (C ‘22) walked into the main concert hall with his cello on his back. Instrument cases filled the first few rows of seats as the musicians unpacked, bringing the first breath of air into their saxes or the first sweep of the bow across their violins. The stage, lined with row after row of black chairs and music stands, quickly filled as members began to warm up. At first, the sound was loud, chaotic: a flute here practiced a solo, a few trumpets there rehearsed another line of music. As Jason found his way to the cello section and gathered his music, conductor Thomas Hong took to his stand at the front of the stage, baton in hand.
Players tuned to the first chair oboist before flipping to the music, the shuffling pages echoing through the hall. For a moment, the orchestra was suspended in silence. Jason carefully watched the tip of the baton in Hong’s right hand, illuminated by stage lights.
Hong brought his arm up, then down.
Formerly disparate threads of sound came together as the orchestra erupted into music. Irvine Auditorium can seat over a thousand, yet the music of less than a hundred students saturated the space, from the hall’s carpeted floors all the way up to its high vaulted ceiling.
“The special thing was, you hear everyone else in the orchestra striving towards the same goal that you’re striving towards,” Jason says. “You're all trying to make this collective sound together ... It’s a really rich, warm sound, which I really love.”
Sitting in a sea of musicians, Jason was literally surrounded by the music. But this semester, the first rehearsal for the Penn Symphony Orchestra (PSO) felt different. Instead of practicing with his classmates in Irvine, Jason tuned into virtual rehearsal from his home in Blue Bell, Pa., his laptop stacked atop a haphazard pile of boxes and books in the music room. He pinned the conductor’s screen on Zoom as Hong conducted to a professional recording of their music, his baton a sliver of pixels on the screen. Jason and other students played along on mute. As he watched his classmates moving silently on his screen, he was hit with an awareness of the challenge ahead.
“Every rehearsal we’re not going to be able to hear each other, but we’re still going to have to play as if we could,” he says.
Like classical ensembles across the world that have struggled to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic, PSO has undertaken the mission of recreating the feeling of a live performance through digital means. The student musicians are in the midst of rehearsals for a full orchestral performance they aim to release in mid–November. But unlike professional orchestras, some of which have the luxury of taping performances in their empty concert halls, PSO has 65 students quarantined hundreds of miles away from Irvine Auditorium. Instead of in–person rehearsals, Hong has opted for each musician to record their part individually, allowing him to stitch the clips together to form the sound of a full orchestra. It’s a daunting task that requires musicians to endure technical hurdles, play their parts with the highest level of accuracy for the recording, and keep up waning motivation without the excitement of live performances.
For Anna Nguyen (C ‘22), unexpectedly moving back to her home in North Philadelphia created a number of difficulties, especially as a violinist in PSO. At Penn, she could easily reserve a practice room in one of the college houses. Now, she struggles to rehearse in a three–bedroom house with her parents, who work from home, and two other siblings, who also attend online classes.
“I have to find a place and a time where it's quiet, my family doesn't bother me, and I can actually sit here for a half–hour and record,” she says. Since there’s not enough space inside, Anna attends online classes and rehearsals on the patio, which she says has made it difficult to focus.
Anna is not the only student who has run into challenges while rehearsing from home. Alea Zone (C ‘21), violinist and president of PSO board, says that the first few rehearsals were “super hectic” and “overwhelming.”
“I had a ton of technical issues because my computer’s old. It couldn’t handle my conductor sharing his audio and all the people in the Zoom call,” she says. She also wanted to mirror the in–person experience by watching other violinists, but found it impossible to follow them on her screen.
“I really can't see anyone else except for our conductor and maybe one other person,” she says. “And everyone else is staring at their screens and trying to follow a thousand things at once.”
Rehearsals have gotten more manageable as people have settled into their routines. Alea worked with the conductor and the PSO board, the orchestra’s governing body, to reduce rehearsals by half an hour and increase sectional times in breakout rooms. But the effort the remote format requires remains taxing. Sherry Shi (W, E ‘22), a PSO flutist, says that during in–person rehearsals, she always felt motivated by the atmosphere Hong and the other musicians created.
“For orchestral music, the people who enjoy it most aren’t the listeners, but the performers,” she says. “Following the conductor, listening to people around you, playing your part, and seeing how everything fits together ... I always left the orchestra more energized than when I came in.”
But playing remotely gives Sherry the “exact opposite” feeling; even though she’s doing something she loves, she says she still experiences Zoom fatigue from long rehearsals. The meetings have also left her feeling isolated from the music and the other musicians. The two pieces PSO is working on, Dimitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony and Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, are “as exciting as ever” to listen to, yet Sherry is hard–pressed to name her favorite section to play.
“Because we’re not in person, no specific section is very exciting to play because you’re just playing your part by yourself,” she says. “That’s it. It’s not like your sound is integrated with everyone else’s.”
“My primary motivation for playing music is playing music with other people. And when I can't do that, I personally lose a lot of my drive for improving,” Jason says. “I play best when I have something to play off of. When you hear another player doing something that you like, then you steal what they’re doing and you do it too.” Although he’s hearing a professional recording through his headphones, he says the feeling isn’t the same.
“You’re not listening to your friends making music,” he says. “It’s not your orchestra.”
And their orchestra encompasses far more than practice and performance. When asked what they miss the most about in–person rehearsals, every player points to the little moments—the conversations with friends during breaks, jokes with the conductor—that made the experience complete. The collaborative aspect of the music only strengthened the community.
“We're all working on the same piece, and sometimes we all struggle through the same things. It's definitely a group effort, and you never feel like you're by yourself,” Anna says. The sentiment went beyond the music. When I ask Anna about her favorite memories of PSO, she surprisingly points to one of the darkest moments of her college experience. Last semester, after hearing that her grandmother was in the hospital, she came to rehearsal at Irvine in tears.
“I just went upstairs to find Mr. Hong, and he talked to me and comforted me and gave me a hug,” she says.
Anna’s story is just one example of the praises students give Hong, who has been PSO’s conductor for six years. He misses in–person rehearsals just as much, if not more than, the students. His favorite memories are “the times where I’m helping our stage manager fold up chairs and we embark in a little conversation about anything at all.”
“It’s those kinds of moments where I’m able to interact with the students a little bit more than in a huge group setting,” he says. “I’m motivated and challenged more to embrace those moments.”
Hong is soft–spoken and reflective as he talks about his students. As a conductor for an orchestra at a demanding university, Hong has always grappled with the unique task of pushing the talents of musicians who are primarily non–music majors. It’s a task that has become even more difficult as students deal with the added stress and instability of the pandemic, which has even made PSO—a passion project for many—harder to appreciate.
“I want to make sure the students are able to enjoy this activity on top of their extra academic activities,” he says. “So it’s a fine balance of being challenged but also having enough space to enjoy the music.”
In previous semesters, Hong had a reputation for pushing students’ limits. “He’s highly ambitious. He often chooses really professional–level pieces for us to play,” Jason says. “He really respects his musicians, not just as students, but in a certain sense like colleagues.”
Hong was infamous for sending last–minute emails to the players before concerts, reminding them to be careful in this measure, to play out in that measure. He laughs as he says he’s grateful to his students for “accommodating his neuroses.”
This semester, Hong has been forced to take a more relaxed approach to leading the orchestra from his home in Philadelphia. Conducting is a specific art, one where the strongest of emotions can be communicated by the speed of the arm, the sharpness of a single gesture. Much of that is lost over Zoom. Moreover, Hong can no longer hear the orchestra play in tandem. Instead of listening to the musicians in real time and helping them when they struggle, he conducts to a static recording and hopes that students follow along. The remote format not only disconnects the students from one another, but also from their conductor—a cause for concern when putting together a concert, even a digital one.
Still, Hong is relentlessly optimistic. When I ask if he’s worried about not being able to hear the orchestra this semester, he responds with full confidence.
“No. I have belief,” he says. “They have their own artistic standards, and I’ve come to believe in that.” He points to the years of successful PSO concerts as evidence.
Hong can no longer nitpick the music or send last–minute emails, but he’s embraced the leap of faith. Conscious of Zoom fatigue and the lack of social interaction, he views the next few months as “a good opportunity to be just a little more flexible than some of [the students’] other academic classes might be.”
And, although he says rehearsals have become more isolated, he’s pushed himself to look at the positives. The lack of in–person connection has made him more grateful for past PSO performances and more appreciative of the work students are putting into a difficult situation.
“It’s amazing and remarkable, the effort to connect, to be together,” he says. “I just find that so beautiful.”
At this point in a normal semester, Hong and the students would be putting on their fall performance in Irvine. On the night of the concert, hundreds of friends and family members would file into the seats in front of the stage, carrying flowers and posters cheering on the musicians. The lights would dim, and the students, dressed in concert black, would enter from both sides of the stage to rapturous applause. For Jason, the feeling was electric.
“There’s pride that you’re sharing something you’ve been working on for a whole semester. There's the adrenaline rush that comes, not with nervousness, but just being really excited to do something special,” he says. “Everyone’s there to hear you doing something you love.”
This year, Jason and the other students will wait patiently from home as Hong and other staff in the Music Department weave together 65 individual recordings into an orchestral performance, a challenging technical feat. Jason is looking forward to seeing the final product, but with no live performance to share with fellow musicians, the reveal will be bittersweet. Still, he’s glad that he’s been able to rely on PSO to anchor him during a chaotic year. Friendships and the drive to create music, he says, don’t end because of the pandemic.
“It’s important to keep this orchestra going this semester because it’s a community,” he says. “You don’t just put a community on pause.”