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March 30, 2020

Waiting out COVID-19, Facebook group harmonizes SVSU music community

Wika, NormanFor Norman Wika and Saginaw Valley State University's music community, nothing can stop the music.
Hunkered down in homes scattered across the state in reaction to a global pandemic, members of SVSU's extended music department are transforming a Facebook group into a makeshift recital hall. There, individuals are uploading videos of their vocal and instrumental performances, offering each other feedback and levity in trying times.
Norman Wika, SVSU associate professor of music, created the Facebook group March 15, the day before SVSU transitioned its in-class courses to online and remote learning sessions as a response to COVID-19. 
“There’s a social aspect to making music that’s just not possible in this environment, so I hoped the Facebook group would keep people interacting musically,” Wika said. “It’s become very therapeutic for some of us in these circumstances.” 
While the Facebook group initially was utilized by students and faculty, several long-since-graduated alumni eventually joined the group to contribute their own musical performances. More than 120 people are members of the group as of today, with nearly 250 videos uploaded to the social media platform.
Many of those videos feature performances from the garages and basements of homes where the musicians are practicing social distancing in isolation or with family members. Some of the productions are standard fare as musical rehearsals go; others display  a creative -- sometimes humorous -- flair. 
In one video, a student performs George Michaels’ “Careless Whisper” on saxophone, using the chimes of SVSU’s Julia Edwards Bell Tower as a stand-in partner. Other recordings show individual performers syncing two rehearsals into a single split-screen video, creating the appearance of a duet featuring identical musicians. In another video, a student tests the patience of a pet during a rehearsal: “This guy is not happy about the at-home practice thing,” read a message accompanied by a video of a seemingly-unamused cat, looking interrupted from a nap. 
Other videos showcase SVSU alumni brushing off skills and instruments left untended for years. Valori (Robinson) Darling estimated nearly two decades elapsed since she last revisited some of the musical sheets she performed for the Facebook group in the last two weeks. 
Using the same flute she played as an undergraduate, the Saginaw Township real estate agent said she has enjoyed the escapism offered by the project. 
“I’ve been itching to play again,” said Darling, who earned a bachelor’s degree in music from SVSU in 2000. “This group is a great way to keep our minds on something productive, and I’ve been impressed with the work ethic I’ve seen from these students.” 
The social media connections made between alumni and their successors at SVSU could lead to in-person musical relationships.
A former member of SVSU’s Concert Band, Darling said she hopes to play in-person with some of those same performers during a tribute concert dedicated to the late Mary H. Andersen, a beloved music instructor in the region and former adjunct faculty member at SVSU. A tribute recital originally was scheduled for April but was canceled because of the COVID-19 outbreak. There are tentative plans to reschedule the gathering this fall.
In the meantime, current SVSU students such as Kylie Hawkins continue to find joy in performing for the Facebook group. Nearly daily, she uploads flute rehearsals recorded in her parents’ home in Flushing, where she temporarily re-located once SVSU transitioned to online and remote learning. 
“The group has helped me hold myself accountable,” said Hawkins, a music education major. “I try to make it a goal for myself to practice every day. If I were still at school, I might not practice as much.”