COVID-19 pandemic forces UI pianists to adjust to new dynamic

The COVID-19 pandemic leaves no keys unplayed. With the University of Iowa’s decision to conduct classes online, piano accompanists have also had to adapt to the change and confront the unknown.




When Gustavo do Carmo heard that the University of Iowa decided to continue instruction online, he began to record himself playing English, Italian, and German songs, including opera arias and musical theatre pieces, and email it to the voice studio soloists he works with.

The UI music-arts doctoral student and Brazilian international student works as a staff accompanist for choir ensembles and privately accompanies music students working on solo pieces. This isn’t his normal way of doing business, but rather is the result of closures and restrictions on social gatherings because of the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“What is interesting about these recordings is that I have been making many different versions of the same song — for example, a slower version, a version with a click track, a version with the vocal line on top of the piano accompaniment. etc., so the students have more possibilities to practice at home,” he said.

Do Carmo is one of several pianists at the UI whose work has been disrupted as the COVID-19 pandemic has burdened the health-care system, upended education and businesses, strained the economy, and torn its way through the livelihoods of millions.

Several departments at the UI require live music for students to practice their art. For many facets of live performance, including opera and vocal rehearsals, dance classes, or musical theatre rehearsals and productions, accompanists from the School of Music are brought in to play piano for a wide variety of university activities.

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With restrictions on crowd-gathering nationwide, the University Choir and Camerata — the choirs do Carmo accompanies for — are now unable to practice. Do Carmo said playing for the choirs is half of his income. Do Carmo was one of the many student employees at the UI whose pay status was unknown until March 27 when the UI announced its workers would continue to be paid through the spring semester.

Do Carmo received an email on April 4 from his human-resources director stating that biweekly employees who are unable to work because of COVID-19 are eligible for up to 80 hours of paid time until the end of the semester.

The income from his choral accompanist job, do Carmo said, will tide him over until the end of the academic semester, because it was an on-campus position and paid hourly. He only lost one week of his income.

Along with his two jobs, do Carmo also worked at the Trinity Episcopal Church as a choral accompanist, but the church canceled its activities because of COVID-19.  The recitals that do Carmo would have played for his private students would have meant an additional $2,500, but they were all canceled. The musician had planned on using the extra money to pay his living expenses for the summer, when he planned to focus on writing his dissertation. Do Carmo is an All But Dissertation graduate student.

“During the semester, I’m working so much that I don’t have enough time to write,” he said.

While the paycheck from the UI will keep do Carmo afloat until the summer. The musician said he is a little relieved that the university announced it will have a fall semester, but an uncertainty remains, as he still doesn’t know the UI’s plans for recitals and concerts.  Depending on the decision, returning to Brazil in the fall is a possibility  for do Carmo, in order to save money.

“Nobody knows how long [the COVID-19 pandemic] is going to last and how it’s going to keep infecting people,” do Carmo said. “So there might be a chance I go back home and I will not be able to come back for a while. Travel is just not recommended.”

The one positive aspect of do Carmo’s situation, he said, is that he has more time to work on his dissertation, and is keeping busy by working with voice students virtually.

Other pianists such as Minji Kwon, the professional staff accompanist for the School of Music, echoed this sentiment.

As a professional staff pianist at the School of Music, Kwon is paid on salary, because she is not a UI student. Kwon works with soloists and performers for musicals such as the upcoming performance of *The Light in the Piazza.* The show is to be presented by the School of Music and Department of Theatre Arts in the fall, after its original premiere date of April 15 was pushed back because of the pandemic.

Kwon still works with students on a virtual scale, but has found that even with platforms such as video-conference tool Zoom available, practicing with singers can be a challenge.

“I actually tried to work with my singer — she sang while I was playing,” Kwon said. “It was a total disaster because she hears, I think, 0.5 seconds later? It was a whole mess. I’d rather just play my part and listen to the singers and they can listen to it with their devices instead of live streaming. So I learned that it’s not going to work collaborating at the same time.”

Bogyeong Lee, a piano-solo graduate student, also works with students virtually. In addition to her studies and accompanying private students, Lee has worked for the UI Pre-College Piano Conservatory since 2016, a program that gives piano lessons to children while giving the experience of teaching to graduate students.

Partaking in the program is not required to graduate, though Lee is still paid on salary for the  lessons she gives online. However, the cancellation of the concerts she was slated to play for has reduced her income.

Lee was assigned to teach a group theory class and individual lessons, but said she is trying to adjust to teaching lessons over FaceTime.

“Interestingly, the kids are very concentrated to use, to see me through the cell phone. Pretty much, they were OK, unlike me. I’m not very technical,” she said with a laugh.

Be that as it may, Lee emotionally missed in-person lessons because she lacked the essential tool her teaching method requires: a piano. To accommodate this problem, the School of Music collaborated with Coralville instrument company West Music to deliver pianos to students without their essential tool.

Now, graduate piano assistants and students can use uprights, keyboards, or electric keyboards in order to continue their own work, said piano Professor Rene Lecuona, co-chair of the piano area. Lee received her piano on March 30, and has been able to continue the lessons she teaches and receives from her piano professor.

With work happening from home and virtual accessories available, the one thing left to do, it seems, is to play piano, keep in touch, and hope for the best, Lecuona said.

“If there’s nothing that  I can do tangibly right now, then the best thing I can do is connect with my students,” Lecuona said. “I’m very connected to the piano area. It values a high level of artistry, but we also are supportive, like a family.”