In early April, Tobi Baisburd logged on to Zoom for her music theory class at the University of Miami. Her professor, Laura Sherman, had said there would be a surprise that day.
“She emailed us the night before and said, ‘Please tune in to class. Make sure your camera is working,’” said Baisburd, a freshman studying musical theater, from her home in Maryland. “Me and my friends were texting, ‘What could this be?’”
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In a recording of that class at UM’s Frost School of Music, Sherman started the lesson with an introduction over the static-y fizz – which has become its own constant musical note accompanying this new normal of distance learning.
“This audio clip is specifically for you all. It’s for our class,” she said.
Barbra Streisand’s speaking voice then emerged from the digital void.
“I wanted to send you lots of encouragement in this tough, very strange time,” she said in the message. “I hope your class is going well. At least you have Zoom so you can all still learn together.”
These students reacted as if Broadway’s patron saint had answered their prayers. And in a way, she did.
“The highlight of my life!” one student said.
“This is a daily reminder to get out of bed!” another student said.
The optimistic message countered the current bleakness that surrounds education and other sectors upended by the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus cut short campus life for college students. Arts and music majors face their own challenges. They now practice monologues and take movement classes via video conferencing platforms from basements, bedrooms and backyards.
The pandemic has taken a toll on the professional performing arts world, too. Theaters and concert halls are closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. Many Broadway stars have been performing online to share their art and bring some joy during this bleak, uncertain time.
“My favorite part of all of this was to see their eyes light up again,” said Sherman, who also teaches harp courses at Frost.
Sherman has longtime connections to Streisand. She is her touring harpist and has been on four tours with her since 2006.
“We played in these arenas all over the world where there are thousands of people, and she really made it feel as if she was singing into each individual person’s ear,” Sherman recalled.
Sherman’s partner Chris Carlton has also been Streisand’s sound engineer for the last 20 years.
Sherman said Carlton overheard the students’ anxiety over the changes that were happening in March, when coronavirus shutdowns began to take effect. So he sent Streisand an email to tell her about the class.
“I was very touched that Chris would do this as a surprise for me and also for our students,” Sherman said.
Baisburd, a Streisand acolyte from an early age, said Streisand’s note cheered her up.
“To hear from someone so acclaimed, it’s so encouraging to keep doing what we’re doing even if it’s in our basement,” Baisburd said.
Baisburd, who’s the first performer in her family, said her parents instilled a love of musical theater in her. She grew up watching Babs’ starring roles in the films “Funny Girl” and “Yentl.” In a middle school talent show, she sang “Don’t Rain On My Parade.”
Baisburd misses the stage but hopes online audiences present new opportunities for artists.
“It’s obviously hard not to have an actual audience because it’s awkward and weird and you miss that energy and adrenaline,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s so rewarding because you know someone is watching what you’re doing and you’re still giving something to them during this time of isolation.”