For Stewart Bridgeforth, innovation sounds like a trombone in a parking garage.

“It just sounds amazing in there,” said Bridgeforth, a junior studying music performance and music technology in the School of Performing Arts.

Bridgeforth is one of about 120 Virginia Tech music majors whose performances during this year’s Convocation meetings look a little different than years past.

A weekly meeting of all music majors, Convocation traditionally provides students with an in-person opportunity to perform for and connect with their peers of all ages, as well as visit with guest speakers from the industry. In the wake of the global pandemic, the group has had to get creative to keep this critical element of the program while also maintaining public health guidelines.

“One of the things that’s so important to being a musician is meeting and getting to play for other musicians,” said Annie Stevens, an assistant professor of percussion who co-chairs the meeting with Hsiang Tu, an assistant professor of piano. “We just had to find a way to make it work online.”

The students, professors, and occasional guest speakers now meet weekly over Zoom. Students record performances wherever they please. Virginia Tech senior Jordan Thompson, who works as a Convocation assistant, builds the performances into a playlist for the entire group to watch together.

“We really wanted to keep that feeling of community and camaraderie as much as we could through this,” Tu said.

Not only did the online setting replicate the feeling, but it also improved upon it in some ways.

“You would think it wouldn’t be as engaging to watch the performances online, but having the chat function has really helped,” Stevens said. “The students are really cheering each other on in there.”

Thompson, who has performed in-person in years past, said the chat feature had indeed enhanced the experience.

“If you’re all sitting in a concert hall, after a performance, you just clap and nobody says anything, but with the chat, everyone is talking,” he said. “It honestly feels like we’re more together and connected, which I think is a big positive.”

As one of a handful of music majors with a concentration in music technology, Thompson also provided the students with a video of tips on how to get the best recordings.

“Being in music technology, it’s easy for me to forget how little other people know about recording each other and stuff like that,” Thompson said. “The biggest thing is gain, which is basically not playing too loud for your mic to handle.”

Another helpful innovation has been the creation of faculty mentoring groups, which are composed of about 10 students and a faculty member and feature a range of industry-related topics.

“We’ve found a lot of value in these mentoring groups,” Stevens said. “I realized, especially with the first-year students, it’s really important for them to be able to meet at least one faculty member and their fellow music majors, in a format that allows for open dialogue in small groups.”

Both Stevens and Tu said they expect the mentoring groups, as well as an expanded format for performance feedback, to continue in the post-COVID-19 world. They also said the widespread comfort level now associated with Zoom should allow them to tap into guest speakers who might otherwise be too expensive or too busy to travel to Blacksburg.

“We’ve been able to bring in people from different parts of the country, which has been great. We had one from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York who wouldn’t normally have had the time to take off and deliver an in-person lecture. This format has allowed us to bring in a wider variety of guests,” Tu said. “Everyone is so good on Zoom now, if we’re able to get a guest speaker we don’t have the resources to fly in, I think that’s a possibility now.”

Time will only tell if the same is true for the parking garage concerts, but Bridgeforth, who began practicing his trombone there this summer to avoid upsetting his neighbors,  said it does have its perks.

“I’ve had a bunch of people walk by or drive up and say, hey, that sounds great,” he said.

— Written by Travis Williams