Staccato Synergy

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020 has affected every student differently. Universally, time management efforts have stepped up and new interpretations of language have formed due to masked communication. One particular discipline permeated my thoughts once the effects of the pandemic hit Arkansas: music. As a former musician, this naturally came to mind. However, it doesn’t take a former musician to see the issue here – creating music with an ensemble requires the very aspects that the public should avoid.

Once August began and no end to this public health crisis was in immediate sight, my musical roots grew too curious and my empathy swelled. I texted Dr. Daniel Belongia, Director of Bands. He came through with more information than I could hope for and one particular music student rose to the top of conversation: Michael Barker.

"Meet Michael Barker" graphic. Michael Barker, the subject of this story, is playing his bass guitar during the annual Jazz Brunch.

We are all a part of a living and breathing performing arts program.

Barker, a 2016 graduate of Van Buren High School, has only known the rigorous, community-based and sometimes unconventional practices that come with being part of an award-winning music program. ATU has been no different. “In these ensembles we learn to adapt towards one another, we learn to hear and respond, and we learn how to collaboratively strive towards the common goal of artistic excellence,” says Barker.

Collaboration within the music community has historically occurred live, in-person. In the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, this collaboration couldn’t just come to a halt for everything that Barker had built with his fellow musicians over the last four years. “The synergy that we used to share on a daily basis has been drastically affected by the pandemic and we are now tasked with finding new ways to still collaborate in our music community,” Barker said.

Barker is involved in jazz ensemble, marching band and symphonic wind ensemble (the top tier concert instrumental ensemble at ATU.) Aside from the instrumental talents that brought him to the university, he’s got a knack for composition. That experience as a composer and his in-depth knowledge of the software that accompanies that skillset is what has made him an invaluable member of the instrumental music department’s success this fall semester.

"ATU Jazz Ensemble" graphic. Michael Barker plays bass guitar outside of the Witherspoon Building on the ATU Campus.

A large part of Barker’s academic experience is also the one that’s changed the least since March: Jazz Ensemble.

We are thankfully still able to meet this semester, we have gone from meeting in the band room to right outside its doors…

“In this ensemble we listen and respond to each other in real time through the unique art of American music and improvisation,” Barker said.

"Arkansas' Band of Distinction" graphic. The back of a sousaphone player during the opening number of a football game.

The Band of Distinction has been a huge part of every instrumental music major’s life here at Tech.

Numbering over 200 members, Arkansas’ Band of Distinction was destined to look, perform and interact differently in the Fall 2020 semester and Barker played an important role in the ensemble’s success. Aside from his leadership as a teaching assistant on the field, he took on the responsibility of recording audio of each section as they rehearsed outdoors.

After the recordings were engineered by Michael Cotton (a friend of the band,) that cohesive track was played while individual sections marched their drills on the field at Thone Stadium.

[Once finished at] Thone Stadium, [We] pieced everything together for a performance.”

The 2020 ATU Marching Band’s halftime performance.
"Symphonic Wind Ensemble" graphic. Michael Barker plays euphonium during an indoor concert in 2019.

The Symphonic Wind Ensemble has looked a lot different this year.

“We cannot safely meet as the large group that we used to be, so we have been split into sound teams to create socially distanced electro acoustic musical compositions,” Barker said. This required ATU students to flex muscles that many were uncomfortable with: that bridge into STEAM.

They had help from world renowned composer, Alex Shapiro. Shapiro held virtual sessions with the Symphonic Wind Ensemble to guide students through the steps to create music in this “digital quilt” style.

Students recorded themselves in their residence halls, apartments and the ATU band room, if their instruments weren’t portable. Many would schedule one-on-one times with Barker for feedback as they created their digital compositions.

With the help of Shapiro and Barker, the Symphonic Wind Ensemble was successful in their initial dives into distanced composing:

SWE Round 1 Composition: Percussion student, Allison Spears
SWE Composition: Tuba/Euphonium student, Avery Langston
SWE Composition: Flute student, Diana Nava
SWE Composition: Saxophone student, Zontray Kendall
“A Mixture of Some Sorts:” Trumpet student, Sanders Hillburn

Practically everyone in our wind ensemble this semester has become a composer and it has been really inspiring to see this group thrive through adversity and to still be able to collaborate under these conditions.

Our students’ diligence and commitment to their craft is inspiring. Our faculty’s ability to pivot what traditionally have been immersive, in-person experiences proves their deep-seated innovative natures. Synergy exists, however staccato it needs to be for now.

Liz Chrisman is the Director of Photography for University Marketing and Communication at Arkansas Tech University. Starting in the 6th grade until graduating her senior year, she played the trumpet in marching and concert bands.