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Escaping empty stages: Bringing performances online

Through online musicals and digital jam sessions, ASU student musicians are finding ways to keep the music alive

vu reyes 021221

"The lively crowds and grand stages of last year's audience have been replaced with expressionless cameras and dim rooms." Illustration published on Friday, Feb. 12, 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic swept through the music scene, shutting down venues, festivals and concerts, leaving musicians to find their sound in a completely new environment. 

It has been over a year since COVID-19 arrived on campus, and student musicians are still struggling to find a sense of community. For many students, music has been a constant comfort in life and though they've faced obstacles, they are determined to save their stages and keep performing by finding new ways to share their passions.

Colin Killeen, a sophomore studying aerospace engineering, said meeting other musicians to play with has been one of the biggest challenges throughout the pandemic. 

Spending his last year in his hometown of Philadelphia playing gigs with his band before leaving for college, Killeen was eager to explore the local music scene around ASU.

Since the pandemic hit however, he said he hasn't "been able to tap into the Tempe scene the same way" as he did back home.

"COVID has made it virtually impossible to find new people to play with," Killeen said. "You're not meeting people in your class the same way that you used to. You're not meeting people in your dorms or apartments like you used to, so it's just harder to find people in general."

Drawing inspiration from artists like The Beatles, Ray Charles and Queen, Killeen has recently found himself playing bass and keyboard to his favorite British Invasion hits.

Sending chord progressions or melodies back and forth online as opposed to in-person jam sessions makes recording original music much more difficult, he said.

'A form of escapism'

Sophia Balasubramanian, a freshman studying biomedical engineering, said her silver lining during the pandemic has been finding her sound as a musician.

Though she's spending more days at home than before, she said it's given her the time to focus on writing her own songs she hopes to eventually perform live.

"I think now is an important time to do a lot of introspection and figure out who you are as a musician and experiment with a lot of different things," Balasubramanian said.

"It's been a journey of figuring out what kind of music I like and then realizing that I don't have to be just someone who listens to it, I can be a part of it," she said.

Ever since she started playing guitar freshman year of high school, she knew music would become a part of her personality.

"I think that it's a form of escapism," she said. "I would listen to music and kind of live vicariously through those songs and imagine myself in situations that I've never been in, like a whole other world."

 READ MORE: Instruments are striking a chord with ASU community members

Balasubramanian was hoping to meet more musicians upon starting college, but with remote classes and online events, she realized it'd be tougher than she thought.

"It's just been very hard to get in touch with other people who are like-minded in the kind of music we play and the kind of projects we want to do," Balasubramanian said. 

Being a local music fan, Balasubramanian hasn't let the closure of venues and concerts stop her from supporting her favorite local artists. 

Though coming together in an audience isn't possible at the moment, she shows her support for local artists on Instagram and other social media.

Taking the stage online

Recent graduate Sara Matin and senior music composition major Anthony Procopio met as student workers at ASU Gammage. Today, the pair is eagerly preparing for opening night of their online musical production.

Procopio and Matin spent the last year writing, composing and directing "Leading Ladies: a new musical," which is set to premiere digitally on Feb. 26.

Though the two have been working on the musical for over a year, they could have never planned for an opening night quite like this. 

With the closure of theaters, the two knew they had to pivot their project to adhere to COVID-19 safety precautions, which would scratch their original plan to debut the show in a theater last fall.

In a matter of five weeks, the team transformed its entire production into a movie musical to be streamed for an online audience.

The endeavor would lead to outdoor, socially distanced rehearsals, a masked ensemble and even turning a room in Matin's family home into a recording studio. The show's lead, who lives in Tucson, tunes into meetings over Zoom to rehearse with the cast.

"It was definitely an experience that led to a lot of adapting," Procopio said. "We learned that this story for us as writers and students has been such a great opportunity to make an impact and share that with people, as well as ultimately providing a little help and support."

The project was made possible with the help of student videographers, sound engineers and many more. Matin said the collaboration opened the door to a bridge between different forms of media and art.

"We are entirely reliant on our film people to make our things happen," Matin said. "And it's also supporting each other and giving each other things to do.

"Artists can't sit for very long," she said. "Music is like part of the soul, it's part of your life. Music allows you to live while you're still here."

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