Music professor stages 'unconcert' for Abington choirs and band amid pandemic

Abington pandemic concert

Penn State Abington students perform in the parking lot of the Woodland Building.

Credit: Provided

ABINGTON, Pa. — Kim Robson, lecturer in music at Penn State Abington, was firm in her desire to have her students perform this semester despite the pandemic.

“I wanted them to have something normal, and normal includes performance. I wanted at the very least to have them perform for each other. I wanted them to have a moment of community that we won’t have for a few more months,” she said.

Circumstances this year made an indoor performance too risky, said Robson. But the outdoor performance in the fall chill brought its own challenges: instruments go out of tune and fingers become stiff from the cold, and the wind interferes with the sound. 

“My first thought was performing during the day so at least some people could walk by and enjoy it, but we are only allowed to have one event at a time on campus. So I said we’re going to have our concert Monday night during band rehearsal. I invited my students to be there and put on their concert clothes,” Robson said. 

The plans had to be last minute because the performance would be weather-dependent.

“I knew it would be outside and wouldn’t last long. The students were ready. We needed to be outside with lots of space. We needed a safe opportunity. We just waited for a day when the weather looked decent. We didn't invite anyone,” she said.

Each student used a personal amplification device, and they bought special masks from the person that makes them for the Penn State Blue Band at University Park.

So on a cool and windy Monday night the Abington concert band, chamber singers, and campus choirs took to the blacktop outside the Woodland Building for the fall “unconcert,” as Robson referred to it.  

Abington music lecturer

Kim Robson, lecturer in music at Penn State Abington.

Credit: Penn State

“It was not easy and not comfortable,” she said. “Anyone that was there to pick up students listened. Everyone just stayed with their cars.”

Despite the hazards of outside performing, “None of us will forget the joy of being able to play and sing together this semester,” Robson said. 

The theme of the concert was resilience, featuring the Appalachian folk song “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” as well as “The Saints Go Marching In” and “Respect,” which was performed by the choirs and the band.

“I tried to find a number of pieces by African-American composers. The concert band played the blues, which is a significant form of resilience in the American tradition,” she said. 

“One of the most remarkable things about Penn State Abington students is their desire to be welcoming to each other and their transparent desire to embrace diversity."

— Kim Robson, lecturer in music

During the pandemic, Robson believes it is more important than ever to find things that are normal and find ways to make art. 

“Art can be the main source of comfort. Art is where we find our solace when things are bad," she said. “The parents were absolutely thrilled. People were yelling though their car windows. It was inspiring seeing students make music that was still good despite being in a parking lot and being masked.”

Resilience has carried Robson and her students throughout this challenging semester. She suggested to the band that they move to online rehearsals in November. 

“They said ‘We’ll just wear layers and rehearse in the parking lot of the Woodland Building or under the parking deck,’” she said.

This fall the choirs practiced outside, behind the Sutherland Building. 

“The hardest part of the semester was the basic logistical questions. Where are we allowed and comfortably able to rehearse? I had to find an outdoor space to plug in my keyboard, and we couldn’t block foot traffic,” Robson explained.

The music will continue this spring semester, though, with rehearsals in-person whenever temperatures allow and online when necessary. 

Robson, for her part, finds Abington students to be extraordinary.

“One of most remarkable things about Penn State Abington students is their desire to be welcoming to each other and their transparent desire to embrace diversity. They are a warm, supporting, loving group of students,” she said.

About Penn State Abington

Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 4,000 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 22 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics and more.