Pandemic Leads Wind Ensemble into New Musical Territory

Horn on piano
Rhode Island College Impact

At RIC, a pandemic doesn’t stop innovation and creativity.

COVID-19 was bad news for the world, but good things came out of it for student members of the RIC Wind Ensemble, like learning recording techniques and taking part in the creation of an original composition.

“Most of our students had never been involved in the composition of new music before,” explains Ensemble Director Joseph Foley. “As musicians, we’re primarily taught to play the notes on the page.”

But because many of the students were having various degrees of difficulty adapting to courses online, Foley used it as a learning experience. He called on adjunct faculty member Michael DeQuattro ’96, an eclectic artist and composer known for fusing acoustic, electronic and improvisational elements.

DeQuattro had the students break up into small groups over Zoom and work together on improvisational techniques while watching public domain films. From their recorded improvisations, he created a composition titled “Protocols and Ports.” This “artful piece of music,” DeQuattro says, shows that “a pandemic cannot stop innovation and creativity.”

However, online learning remained a struggle for many, including trumpet performance and composition major Teddy Mason. Mason confided to Foley that he wasn’t enjoying school and music as much anymore due to his classes being online. Foley suggested he write another original work for the ensemble as he had in 2019.

Teddy Mason
RIC student Teddy Mason

In 2019, as a freshman, Mason wrote a piece for the Wind Ensemble called “Sea of Clouds,” with the encouragement of Foley and his RIC music composition teacher Roger Cichy. That piece won second place in the Collegiate Composition Division of the American Prize National Competition.

Mason’s latest work is titled “Promise of Tomorrow,” which he wrote during winter break. “Up until then I wasn’t really able to write or keep up with practice,” he says. “But over winter break, I sat down at the piano, free of worries about the rest of the world, masks and COVID. I wrote ‘Promise of Tomorrow’ in five or six days. The piece can be very grandiose and heroic at times. It’s my way of looking forward to the time when we can be together again, making music together.”

Mason orchestrated the piece for each instrument and sent the parts out to each member of the ensemble to record; those recordings were mastered together to make one recording.

“The students were excited to take on this project in large part because it was one of their colleagues who had written the piece,” Foley says. “All the students love Teddy. Even more, it’s a great piece.”

The ensemble’s final project of the year was the performance of “An American Hymn,” written by Tom Vignieri, an old school friend of Foley’s. Foley says, “I chose this work as a tribute to medical, frontline and essential workers who gave so much during the pandemic.” Between 80 and 100 current students, faculty and alumni of the RIC Wind Ensemble and the RIC Concert Chorus perform remotely.

“It’s a very beautiful, moving piece,” Foley says. Vignieri wrote it as a look back on 20th-century America and as a homage to his parents, who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. “It’s meant to evoke the quiet strength and nobility of that generation which came from hardship and went on to rebuild the country and their lives,” writes Vignieri. The piece reflects the best in us – the courage, the strength and the hope that we all have – even in difficult times.