Shelbie Rassler’s senior year at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston wasn’t supposed to end like this.
If not for the coronavirus outbreak effectively cutting her semester short, she would have conducted a 60 piece orchestra playing an hour of music she wrote herself, a perfect end to her studies as a music composition major.
Instead, she was on a plane back home to south Florida on March 14. For Rassler, who plays multiple instruments including piano, guitar and trumpet, not playing music with her friends wasn’t an option.
After landing, she posted to Facebook looking for classmates to contribute to a project: if they all recorded parts of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now,” she would edit them together into one final ensemble performance to close out her college career.
Now, close to 1.5 million people have watched Rassler and her classmates call for more love in the world. The video is one of many virtual concerts going viral across social media with a worldwide audience hungry for grace in a time of pandemic.
In California’s Chino Valley, high school choir singers stitched together 19 screens for a version of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow.”
In Round Rock, Texas, high schoolers sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in digital collage. Students ages 6 to 15 from a private school in Wellington, Florida, recorded a version of Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World” dedicated to coronavirus first responders.
The specifics change from video to video, but the arc remains the same: a binned performance, each hunkered down musician playing alone in front of a smartphone, a stitched together video and waves of digital applause.
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As nice as the recognition is, Rassler can’t help but think about what she’s lost. She started playing music when she was 7 years old. Nothing makes her happier than feeling the connection between band members and the audience, be it in a concert hall or a Boston basement.
That connection has now been lost. In Colorado, gatherings of 250 people or more were banned by Gov. Jared Polis on March 13, and the musicians in the Colorado Symphony went home with flutes, cellos and more in hand to wait out the crisis.
The symphony frequently performs at the open-air Red Rocks Amphitheatre, one of the most recognizable concert venues in the country. They’re supposed to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 there on July 26, a plan now threatened by the coronavirus.
Chief Artistic Officer Anthony Pierce said that with the possibility of the concert’s cancellation becoming real, the symphony’s artistic team decided to coordinate a virtual performance.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 is one of the most famous classical works in history. It contains the “Ode to Joy” theme, a musical representation of the brotherhood of man recognizable to millions.
“We said, well, that’s a perfect thing to start with,” Pierce said.
About 50 musicians contributed to the project, Pierce said. In the video, they play in their own homes, upright basses and violas next to family pictures and fireplaces.
The rendition of “Ode to Joy” isn’t the symphony’s only pandemic performance; four horn players recorded a social distancing-embracing cover of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”
It’s a tongue-in-cheek pick; these viral videos typically showcase sweet arrangements longing for a simpler time or sweeping anthems to better the world.
Rassler picked “What the World Needs Now” in part because it had once inspired her.
In 2016, she was in Orlando when 49 people were killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting. A recording of the song by Broadway stars to fundraise for LGBT organizations made Rassler optimistic in the face of so much darkness.
Rassler gets overwhelmed sometimes just thinking about the number of people who have seen something she stitched together on her laptop.
Videos such as Rassler’s resonate with viewers beyond being just temporary distractions. Watching so many people lift their voices and break the isolated quiet of quarantine can be mesmerizing and emotional.
“For four minutes, someone can turn off the news and watch this, and it puts a smile on their face,” she said. “They’re happy, for just a moment.”
This story was produced in partnership with The Media School at Indiana University.