Courtesy of Prof. James M. Spinazzola

James Spinazzola lead students during rehearsal under a tent on the Arts Quad for his Music 3631 Wind Symphony class.

October 13, 2020

Cornell Winds Carrying on the Tradition of Live Music Outside This Semester

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Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misframed a conversation with a source. Changes have been made to reflect this.

You may have heard them playing while walking in the Arts Quad, or maybe you’ve just seen the massive tent. Either way, it’s hard not to notice that the Cornell Wind Symphony is up and running this unusual fall semester.

Live music was one of the first industries to be impacted when COVID-19 restrictions began in March. Musicians at every level still find themselves stuck without opportunities to perform for the foreseeable future. But for Barbara & Richard T. Silver ’50, MD ’53 Assistant Professor James Spinazzola, music, making music was too important to let go.

“It was a situation where, without live music-making, the campus culture would be drastically and adversely affected,” says Spinazzola, who waited throughout the summer, along with many other members of the Cornell community, for word of the campus’s reopening. Once it became clear that students would be studying in person, preparations for a socially distanced, COVID-safe ensemble could begin. Starting with, of course, the tent.

The tent, currently erected in front of Lincoln Hall, features wooden flooring and six space heaters. This is because many instruments are sensitive to changes in temperature that can cause them to go out of tune. Although the space is big — nearly 3200 square feet — the largest group rehearsing within consists of only 20 people, to ensure that every player can keep the recommended six-foot distance. In addition to distancing, the wind players are provided with special masks that allow for a mouthpiece to be inserted while keeping the rest of the mouth relatively covered. And as wind instruments by definition expel air, covers are placed over the bells of many instruments — including the French horn, which needs to be played with a hand inside the bell. In that case, the covers come attached to a glove.

“I think they’re handling it beautifully,” said Spinazzola when asked about his students. “I’m so impressed. And I think that’s keeping in line with the rest of the Cornell population. And now that they’ve gotten into the groove of things, the level of the music is really impressive as well.”

While a wind symphony can normally have more than fifty players, distancing requirements mean Spinazzola has pivoted to chamber groups for this season. One piece, “Rhapsody in Blue,” will even feature an acoustic grand piano that must be carefully wheeled outside. “It’s all about adaptation.”

The class will go fully online soon in order to preserve the health of students and instruments. The plan then is to present a series of lectures and speakers from Haiti, where the wind symphony has traveled twice in the last four years. The last class of the semester will be presented by AD White Professor-At-Large Wynton Marsalis.

When asked about the coming semester, Spinazzola remains optimistic. “I’ve just stopped trying to predict things because every prediction has been wrong,” said Spinazzola. Depending on the state of COVID-19 in the United States and Cornell’s own plans, the spring semester could see a flipped version of the fall, with players starting online and transitioning to in person as the weather warms up. “We’ll just roll with it as we have been, [and] keep trying to make music.”

You can listen to the Cornell Wind Symphony perform pieces by Richard Strauss, Scott Joplin, Kurt Weill and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with soloist Xak Bjerken on Saturday, Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. in the Arts Quad.


Miriam Canter is a freshman in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at [email protected].