Research News

Molly Barth and Vanderbilt Blair Community adapt to performance, teaching challenges catalyzed by COVID-19

Molly Barth, associate professor of flute
Molly Barth, associate professor of flute

By Jenna Somers

“Falling Skyward” is a flute piece written by Andre Myers, assistant professor of composition at the University of Redlands. Molly Barth, associate professor of flute at the Vanderbilt University Blair School of Music, said, quoting Myers, that the aptly titled piece “focuses on integrating contrasting sonorities in a way that models strength, harmony and repose.”

As part of a solo audio/visual recording project she embarked on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Barth recorded herself playing works by under-sung composers, including “Falling Skyward,” which, by its title and theme, seems poetically symbolic of the adjustments that Barth and many of her colleagues at Vanderbilt Blair have made to performance and teaching since the pandemic began.

Once music venues recognized the need to close their doors earlier this year, notifications of canceled and postponed performances appeared in Barth’s inbox like a falling line of dominos. Refusing to allow the pandemic to silence her flute, she devised creative ways to continue playing. Among these was the solo recording project. Over the years, Barth had accumulated a stack of solo pieces she had long wanted to play. In the midst of a pandemic seemed like an opportune time.

Along with Myers, Barth featured compositions by Adolphus Hailstork, an African American composer who teaches at Old Dominion University; Katherine Hoover, an American composer and flutist whose biography addresses gender disparities and difficulties for women in her field; and Samuel Zyman and Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon, two Mexican composers living in the U.S. whose compositions reflect their heritage. Barth pre-recorded the audio of these works and then recorded videos—much like popular music videos—in various Nashville locales, such as Radnor Lake State Park and on the pedestrian bridge downtown. “The solo recording project has felt like a good use of my time and energy, giving me a sense of satisfaction and reward in the creative process,” Barth said.

She and her colleagues were also clever about recording an album as a chamber group in the Martha Rivers Ingram Center for the Performing Arts in mid-June, funded by a Vanderbilt Research Scholar Grant. Ensembles of two to four musicians performed the songs on the album, physically distanced quite far apart from each other in the spacious hall. They wore face masks when it did not inhibit their playing and faced in opposite directions for utmost precaution. “In a way, the distance between us made the recording more successful because sound didn’t bleed into the microphones from one instrument to the next,” Barth said.

The disparate sounds coming together as one created a harmony akin to the synergistic culture at Vanderbilt Blair School of Music. “We’re featuring compositions by Vanderbilt Blair faculty and alumni who are now notable composers in their fields,” Barth said. “I am excited that we can showcase their work and the ingenuity of our community to remain productive during these difficult times.”

Barth’s positive outlook has continued well into the fall as she prepares a historic piece that the New York Flute Club will air in November. In 1936 composer Edgard Varèse wrote “Density 21.5” at the request of flutist Georges Barrère, who wanted a piece to debut his new platinum flute (the density of platinum is about 21.5 grams per cubic centimeter). According to Barth, Varèse made substantive improvements to the score in 1946, and since no recording of the 1936 version existed, musicians and historians thought that the 1946 version was the original. That was until Felix Meyer, a Swiss historian, revealed in a 2006 publication that he had discovered the 1936 score. According to Barth, she will be the only person to have performed and recorded the original version since Barrère performed it in the late 1930s. That accomplishment represents just another way that Barth continues to find the silver linings in persevering as a musician during the pandemic.

It is a lesson that she and her colleagues teach their students as they navigate what it means to be a musician and a performer during a time when performance venues and organizations have closed their doors, concerts have gone online, and personal connections with audiences and the sonic reward of performances have been diminished. “Our students look at the future and wonder where the field is headed and what opportunities will exist,” said Barth, “but because they are Vanderbilt students, they channel that anxiety toward problem-solving and putting pieces together to forge a path forward.”

Barth asks her students to examine the nuances and complexity of identity and their role in society as performers. “It’s not enough anymore to just pick up the flute and play and hope that we’re going to succeed,” Barth said. “And it has becoming increasingly relevant that students start to think about their role in our culture, in our social environment. If we could think of anything good to come out of the current state of our society, it’s that we start to rethink our roles as human beings within it—in all fields—but for me, as a musician, how do I train my students to think about that?”

One of Barth’s students, Helen Cho,  recently took on the challenge of that question by collaborating with a percussionist, Joshua Weinfeld, on a video project for Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. They are using music to increase people’s awareness of food insecurity and critically needed donations at a time when food insecurity is on the rise in the U.S. since the pandemic began.

Running parallel to the existential question of what it means to be a performer in today’s world are the technical difficulties of remote performance. The Vanderbilt Blair community has risen to the occasion of finding solutions, including using a 3D virtual reality camera in a recent performance of the Blair String Quartet.

Before returning to the classroom for the fall semester, all music lessons were held through Zoom, which presented several technical idiosyncrasies related to how musical sound is processed. For instance, the Zoom software perceives sounds from the trombone as ambient noise, leading it to drastically reduce the volume. As a result, instrumentalists have relied on advancements such as Cleanfeed to enhance the audio connection from one computer to another. Zoom lessons also diminished the instructors’ ability to assess their students’ physicality, such as posture and embouchure placement. “Even with all the technological advancements,” said Barth, “you can’t rely on technology to fully replace the classroom experience for teaching and learning an instrument.”

Returning to in-person teaching during the fall semester, Barth has held 30-minute one-on-one lessons with her students in Vanderbilt Blair’s largest rehearsal room. She opens the rehearsal room’s doors to reduce aerosol buildup, and students use flute masks with a little hole that allow them to play their instruments while practicing appropriate safety precautions. Additionally, all voice, wind and brass faculty are tested weekly for COVID-19, as are all undergraduate students.

There are approximately 10-12 students in each Vanderbilt Blair instrument and vocal studio, and Barth’s class meets together once weekly in the Steve and Judy Turner Recital Hall. They minimize playing their instruments during studio sessions to reduce aerosol spray, and instead use these meetings mainly for discussions.

Even though the Vanderbilt Blair faculty have largely returned to in-person teaching, remote lessons remain an option for many, including Barth, who says faculty have enhanced their online pedagogy through training seminars, since remote learning will continue to play a role in music education for the foreseeable future.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly deleterious impact on the performing arts, challenging musicians like Barth to think outside the box to express themselves creatively. Faculty and students at Vanderbilt Blair continue to adapt to the changes of the performance and teaching landscape, and like the contrasting sonorities in “Falling Skyward,” their actions “model strength, harmony and repose.”

This story is part of a series highlighting Vanderbilt University researchers who have returned to in-person research activities on or off campus. More than 3,000 Vanderbilt research personnel have returned to in-person research activities through the Research Ramp-up process spearheaded by the Ad-Hoc Research Ramp-up Working Group and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, although Molly Barth returned to campus through the larger Return to Campus plan rather than through the Research Ramp-up process specifically.