The Power of Music

When the pandemic hit last spring, the ability to experience live music was suddenly lost as concert halls and theaters went silent. But the importance of music in our lives cannot be overestimated. Educators across the country, including Portsmouth Abbey Music Director Jeff Kerr, grappled with the challenge of teaching and sharing music during a time of social distancing.

In the fall Mr. Kerr referred to CDC guidelines and found that fourteen feet between each student musician was the protocol. Thankfully, the Abbey has enough space so that performers could spread out and practice in three different areas around campus, using the auditorium, the lecture hall, and the administration building lawn.  Students who were distance learning were also able to take part in music instruction. Each student vocalist received an individual speaker to use while at home. 

Bo '23 has been distance learning this year and was thankful to be able to practice the French horn from home, following along with a masterclass created by Joe Bentley, who teaches in the music program along with Mr. Kerr.  "We haven't had a chance to perform formally, but the masterclasses we did helped me to come out of a year of distance. While I still haven't experienced the feeling of being in a grand performance, I do feel like I have eased back into the world of performing under pressure."

A silver lining to COVID-19 is the abundance of virtual collaboration and new opportunities for singers and performers to join together.  The Abbey Singers took part in a virtual ensemble, singing "Alaska" by Maggie Rogers.  The Rhode Island Choral Directors Association created an honors Vocal Jazz Ensemble directed by Mr. Kerr, and two Abbey students, Dierdre ' 21 and Jamie '21, are part of the 25 person group. A video of their November performance is below.

Lily '21 is a vocalist in both Enharmonix and the Abbey Singers. She overcame the challenges of singing with a mask and using the new technology this past year. She says, "I gained a better appreciation for the music tech side of things and the work and attention to detail that has to go into it, but I think now I just have a greater appreciation for live music, for being able to sing in groups and hear other people's voices with yours. It's something I've always loved but now I appreciate it even more because of how long we've been without it."

Although this has required much additional time and effort, Mr. Kerr is thankful that the School has been able to offer music instruction throughout the year. "We had fun, and we made it work."

We asked several of our student musicians what music comforted them during the past year. Christine '21, who plays the Chinese zither, enjoyed "Folklore" by Taylor Swift, "Maniac" by Halsey, and the Velvet Underground, in particular.

Lily '21  recollects, "The song 'My Future' by Billie Eilish really resonated with me this past year, specifically during the summer when I hadn't see my friends in so long, and it felt like there was no tangible end to the pandemic in sight. The song frames solitude as a time for personal introspection and has an optimistic hopefulness for the future that really was what I needed at the time. Also, it's just a really beautiful, simple song!"