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Hugging the Cactus

VCU music students and teachers have done their best during the pandemic.


For jazz students at Virginia Commonwealth University, 2021 is not quite a lost year. But it is close.

For juniors and seniors just stretching their wings on the live scene, the simultaneous loss of in-person instruction and venues to find a place in the local flock is a double whammy.

“It was one of my most jarring experiences,” saxophonist Nathan Fussell says. “I came from Danville, where nobody is playing but in church, to Richmond, where there was every kind of music you can imagine, every week, every month. Then, suddenly, it was like being back home.”

Trombonist Tye Profitt had just landed a shiny spot in Andrew Randazzo’s big band when the scene went dark. “The first six weeks were insane, so much paranoia, not leaving your apartment. I was in three VCU ensembles. We tried to rehearse over Zoom, but [with internet latency] there was no way to synch up. So, we gave up.”

Last March, third year jazz pianist Lilian “Lulu” West was a regular at Calvin Brown’s Monday jam sessions at the Dark Room and occasionally sat in at Emilio’s. “I got cut off at a hard moment,” she says. “I was getting my skills up, holding my own with more advanced players. Planning on gigs playing originals. It set me back by a whole year.”

Meanwhile, their instructors were scrambling to adapt to the new reality. “Everything has gotten more isolated,” Taylor Barnett says. “The course load has increased and every day it feels like there are a million buttons to push. The best part of teaching, connection with students in real time, is so much harder. But the worst parts are all still there.”

“Music is personal and intimate,” says saxophone instructor – and Richmond jazz hero – J.C. Kuhl. “To make a human connection is more than just notes. It is the subjective parts, the nuance of tone, timbre and sound production. It’s hard to tell if someone’s tongue is in the wrong spot over Zoom.”

The virtual approach has its pluses. Famous musicians are more accessible, and a master class doesn’t require in-person expenses. Theory comes alive with multimedia presentation, marking up the screen while the music is playing. Every seat can see the fingers as the notes are played. And recording and watching yourself can be an uncomfortable revelation.

“Nobody likes to hug the cactus,” Profitt says. “But you need to embrace what you are bad at to improve.”

Even in a shutdown, creative people are going to find new ways to create.

Profitt, who didn’t think of himself as a singer, found his ability to imitate Frank Sinatra was a big hit at outdoor Westminster-Canterbury retirement community gigs. West delved deeper into composition and started exploring recording technology at the VCU-aligned program at In Your Ear Studios. Fussell is building his technique and preparing for an upcoming performance with virtually visiting guitar great Kurt Rosenwinkel and mastering the technology for the new era. “It’s like when you live in New York City, you don’t need to know how to drive a car,” he says. “But when you are going to live in the South, you have to drive everywhere.”

It’s too early to know whether the new skills gained over lost time has put musicians ahead or behind. As the landscape is revealed in the dawn of the post-coronavirus era, they are all impatient to find out.

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