How Sweet the Sound

By Danica Fisher ’05, December 15, 2020
Close to 300 students perform “Amazing Grace” in virtual tribute to all impacted by COVID.

IC Students perform "Amazing Grace".

At a time of year when people usually gather to celebrate the holidays with loved ones, the pandemic is forcing people to instead find alternative ways to celebrate. In order to lift spirits, and to pay tribute to those who have been affected by COVID, Ithaca College’s School of Music is offering solace and comfort in the form of a beloved song — “Amazing Grace” — performed by nearly 300 students.  

Ithaca College’s School of Music produced a version of “Amazing Grace” that premiered on YouTube on Dec. 15. The video featured nearly 300 student instrumentalists and vocalists who came together, virtually, from locations across the nation for a unique performance.  

Maria Vincelette ’22

Maria Vincelette ’22.

“In a time like this when we are unable to play and perform live together, collaborating virtually is something that is really special,” said Maria Vincelette ’22, a music performance major and clarinetist. “The pandemic has been very challenging for people in the arts, but the creators and administrators of this project have done so much to help every student continue to create music together, despite being miles and miles apart.” 

The performance is dedicated to the memory of those who have lost their lives in the pandemic, as well as to their loved ones and to the healthcare professionals and other essential, frontline workers who continue to take risks to serve others in their communities. 

"I'm so proud of our students, faculty and staff for sharing their hearts and their music with others during this trying time,” said Keith Kaiser, interim dean of the School of Music. “We are hopeful that the power of music will bring comfort to others as we move into this holiday season." 

This moving performance is a collaboration of School of Music faculty and ensemble directors, music students and two alumni—the composition was arranged by Oliver Scott ’19 and the video was edited by Matthew Brockman ’18. Aaron Witek, assistant professor of performance studies, was the producer of “Amazing Grace” and organized a committee to help with the production. 

“A full music school performance would be a strong statement, and it would also give us a sense of community,” said Witek. 

Witek started thinking about some kind of performance for students this past August when the college decided to conduct instruction remotely for the fall semester.  

“I thought it was important that we still offer our students some performing experience and to make sure they are the stars,” said Witek.  

"Amazing Grace" score.

"Amazing Grace" score.

Witek said that Mike Titlebaum, associate professor of performance studies, suggested an Ithaca College alumnus to be the arranger of the piece. He said that if they wanted to include all music students, they needed a custom arrangement, as usually not all instruments are included in an orchestral arrangement, like electric bass, saxophone and euphonium.  

“What people may not realize about the video is that we have all the instrumentalists and vocalists involved,” said Witek. “We wanted to make sure that we are including everyone in the music school.”  

Witek said it was important to pick a piece that people could connect too. 

“If we look at the history of ‘Amazing Grace,’ it has been used and done by so many artists in a non-religious way,” said Witek. “In the lyrics that we use, ‘grace’ can be referred to in all different ways.” 

Enter alumnus Oliver Scott ’19, who had done other arrangements for the School of Music before but was asked to make an arrangement that included everyone for “Amazing Grace.” 

“A lot of artistic freedoms were given to me,” said Scott. “I think they trusted me to do something good with it.” 

The effort took Scott four to five weeks, as he balanced classwork for his master’s degree studies in the Eastman School of Music during the day with his work on the arrangement at night.  

“I think the biggest thing that makes this arrangement different is just the amount of people involved,” said Scott. “I mean, it's absolutely spectacular.” 

Scott was thankful for the opportunity to participate in this project. 

“A really big piece of my heart is at Ithaca College, and I love the faculty there,” said Scott. “I got such good opportunities when I was at Ithaca College, and this is just another great opportunity that I got to do for the school.” 

Students of the music school were emailed their part of the arrangement and given instructions on how to perform and record their portion of the piece. It seems as though “Amazing Grace” had the impact that was intended for the students in particular. 

Mahum Qureshi ’23

Mahum Qureshi ’23.

“It was nice hearing everyone in a large ensemble, since we have been so isolated lately. It reminds me of why I came to study music,” said Mahum Qureshi ’23, a music education major played the viola and sang for the performance.  

“I hope others can take away that while it’ll never replace in-person rehearsal and performance, what we are still able to create is still music, and it’s still beautiful and powerful,” said Matisse Boor ’21, a performance major and vocalist. 

Matt Brockman ’18

Matt Brockman ’18.

Since they were all made separately, the School of Music still needed someone to put together the nearly 300 recordings. In stepped Matt Brockman ’18, a musician in the U.S. Army who had started creating virtual performances for fun about a year ago. Brockman said the project involved taking large amounts of video files and collaging them together. 

“Everyone has to look like they’re playing in sync,” said Brockman. “I had to synchronize up all the videos, and I had to storyboard out what I wanted the video to look like. I had to analyze the score, because I have to know what's going on in the piece like who's playing when. There's a lot of logistics that go into it, a lot of planning.” 

music storyboard

Matt Brockman's music storyboard for editing together "Amazing Grace."

After setting aside everything else on his schedule, putting the piece together took Brockman a full week. 

“Seeing everyone just so excited and really hardworking and compassionate about this project, it was really uplifting,” said Brockman. 

Witek felt the same way and noted that this performance was important for the students, especially since the decision to go remote for the semester meant that they wouldn’t be playing in ensembles and wouldn’t be seeing their friends. 

“We owe it to the students to give them this; they need to be proud of what they do; they need to be proud of where they go to school, and I think they are,” said Witek. “We have to provide them with experiences that make them feel that and let them express it.” 

“This has been an incredibly challenging year—a year that has made visible the importance of valuing our shared humanity and valuing the beauty and the power of the arts,” said Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado, who called the performance “an expression of gratitude, and of the college’s commitment to serving the public good.”