The Northshore Concert Band Finds a Way to Safely Make Live Music Again

Mike Lawson • News • October 6, 2020

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After COVID-19 canceled their season, the Northshore Concert Band found a way to safely make live music again. A leader in community music since 1956, the Northshore Concert Band (NCB) is internationally known and respected for its musical excellence and commitment to music education.

The Evanston-based organization performs a four-concert subscription series at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.

The pandemic forced the Northshore Concert Band to cancel the second half of their 2019-2020 season and suspend all operations. The void felt by the absence of their weekly rehearsals and making music together was taking its toll. Their desire to maintain their musical community despite the circumstances set in motion a plan to find a way to return to making live music together again.

“My concerns immediately about the band were threefold. Number one, I wanted to make sure that we took care of everybody’s health. Number two, I wanted to try to care for the membership in some way. And number three, I wanted to make sure that the organization would be viable after we come out of the pandemic” said NCB artistic director Dr. Mallory Thompson.

The first concern was for their membership. It was critical from the beginning that all members of the musical ensemble felt empowered to make their own decisions about returning to rehearsal. The return to rehearsals began with a series of questionnaires distributed to the NCB members. It allowed them to have full information and agency over their degree of involvement.

The next step was finding a rehearsal space. Being a wind band, NCB studied ongoing scientific research regarding the safety of playing wind instruments during the pandemic. We estimated we would need approximately 9 feet between each musician to reduce the risk of infection.

“As more research, information and regulations surfaced on COVID-19 during the early summer months, two things became very clear. First, a formal gathering of 100 people was neither advisable nor likely permissible for some time.  Second, ventilation became a more critical factor—and the concept of “safer outside” became our operative strategy,” said Northshore Concert Band chair Peter Gotsch. NCB pivoted to the small group concept and looked for outdoor venues that might be workable for groups of up to 50.

Due to health guidelines and government mandates, health and safety protocols and procedures needed to be created and put in place. Group sizes of 50 or less meant that the ensemble, whose current membership numbers 97, needed to be divided for rehearsals. Smaller groups meant Dr. Thompson needed to rethink the musical repertoire as well. “When I created the three groups, I tried to make them equal in terms of ability level, the repertoire is as balanced as I could make it – everybody’s got a march, everybody’s got a medley, everybody’s got a British piece, everybody’s got a project piece, everybody’s got a slow piece.”

The first experiment with a socially-distanced rehearsal included Dr. Thompson and the NCB trombone section. They met in the parking lot of a local high school to rehearse and record “Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I didn’t really know what to expect, but that left me feeling very optimistic. It could be a positive musical experience, even though it was under difficult circumstances,” Thompson said of this rehearsal.

After researching over 50 locations the Northshore Concert Band held its first socially-distanced rehearsal on August 26, 2020, at the Ed Rudolph Velodrome in Northbrook, Illinois. “It felt so great to be back. It’s been way too long,” said Nancy Golden, a flutist who has been a member of NCB for 41 years. Subsequent outdoor rehearsals have been held at The Grove National Historic Landmark in Glenview, Illinois.

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