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Headphone Series: A Sonic Pivot for COVID Times

Music Professors Come up with Entertaining Substitute for Recitals

Garrett Michaelsen, an assistant professor of musicianship and music theory, ran the first of the spring semester’s “Headphone Series,” hour-long evening listening and discussion sessions. He focused on jazz from the 1920s and 2020.
Garrett Michaelsen, an assistant professor of musicianship and music theory, ran the first of the spring semester’s “Headphone Series,” where he focused on jazz from the 1920s and 2020.

03/03/2021
By David Perry

Garrett Michaelsen is taking students on a 100-year tour.

Less than a minute into Maria Schneider’s sumptuous large ensemble jazz piece, “Sanzenin,” the comments pop up in the Zoom chat.

“My bird loves it,” writes Shaleigh Brooks, a sophomore music studies major whose cockatiel is singing along to the melody.

The students love it, too.

“You never know what they’ll respond to,” Michaelsen says. “It’s fascinating.”

Michaelsen, an assistant professor of musicianship and music theory, ran the first of the spring semester’s “Headphone Series,” hourlong evening listening and discussion sessions where music faculty take students on journeys of sound, history and inspiration.

The series, inaugurated successfully last fall, is meant to compensate for the dozens of recitals once available to music majors before COVID-19 restrictions took hold. The students are usually required to attend 10 recitals per semester.

“There was always something available to choose from,” says Music Department Chair Gena Greher, “but since COVID, ensembles obviously can’t happen in person and they don’t really work virtually. So we tried to figure out something that would be of interest to students that could be informative and interactive and could also be a social function.”

Visiting Faculty Lecturer Jonathan Richter had the answer.

“Live music is one of the things people are missing right now,” says Richter, who teaches choral music and music education. “So why not have faculty present some of the pieces they found influential and have a listening session?”

Each faculty member takes a different approach. In some sessions there is more listening, in others more discussion.

“The social interaction is the post-performance discussion that would have happened outside Durgin Hall,” Richter says.

Among the most popular sessions from the fall semester was Prof. Alan Williams’ “Five Moments of Musical Joy,” which was crafted around songs that were particularly influential to him. (Williams reprises the theme with Assoc. Prof. Alex Case on March 31.) 

This semester’s inaugural “Jazz in the ‘20s” session turned out to be the 1920s and 2020s. Michaelsen boomeranged back and forth, from James P. Johnson’s 1920s stride piano, Duke Ellington’s large ensemble and a Louis Armstrong/Earl Hines duet on “Weather Bird,” to Schneider, African guitarist Lionel Loueke, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and guitarist (and 2019 MacArthur Grant winner) Mary Halvorson. 

Along the way, Michaelsen discussed the art and artists. It was late in Black History Month, and he noted the legacies of pioneers like Johnson are often, in the words of musician and race scholar Philip Ewell, “colorased,” unrecognized or erased, “because of their skin color.”

Brooks, the sophomore with the jazz-loving cockatiel, says she loves the “informality” of the series.

“I can spend an evening listening to an informative, intriguing and relevant presentation that is as entertaining as it is educational, in the comfort of my home,” she says.

Brooks hopes the sessions continue post-COVID. 

For now, it will continue via Zoom, and will be available via YouTube Live on the UML Music channel. All sessions begin at 8 p.m. See the complete schedule in the Music calendar.