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students perform

Lessons Learned

By Brian Wise

Photo: Claudio Papapietro, via the Juilliard School

Educators reflect on the silver linings of a deeply challenging year.

The flutist Anne Harrow started each morning last winter by nervously scanning the University of Rochester’s online Covid-19 dashboard, knowing that it could be the day when the Eastman School of Music shifted to all-remote learning and the seven wind quintets and one flute quintet that she coached would be effectively mothballed.

“We were under a threat of a possible shutdown the entire year,” says Harrow, who chairs the school’s chamber music program. As the numbers climbed, students monitored one another. “There was a lot of really good peer pressure like, ‘Come on, let's all keep our school open. Put your mask back on.’” Though Eastman reported a handful of Covid-19 cases, they were linked to off-campus social activities and not music-making, says Harrow.

Juilliard Students

Photo: Courtesy of Eastman School of Music

In a most unsettling of academic years, conservatories turned to regimens of virus testing and quarantining, “room rests” for air recirculation, and 6- to 12-foot physical distancing in rehearsals. Online learning, meanwhile, pressed ahead using Zoom, which introduced a “high fidelity music mode” at the request of more than two-dozen college music schools.

Some music students took a gap year rather than face the uncertainties. About two-thirds of colleges across the United States reported that their undergraduate enrollment decreased last fall from the prior year, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. A handful of already financially struggling music programs were downsized or forced to merge with other departments. Ohio Wesleyan University consolidated its music department with those in other arts disciplines. Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY announced plans to discontinue four graduate music degrees. The 169-year-old Mills College in Oakland, CA, said it will award its last degree in 2023.

But as campus life brought fewer opportunities as well as fewer distractions, educators came away with new insights on everything from mundane scheduling tasks to the value of chamber music itself.

Sharpened Rehearsal Skills

“The need for chamber music was almost exaggerated this year,” said Eastman’s Harrow. “It was a time of isolation, worry, and depression, and chamber groups gave students a sense of belonging that I can't describe in any other way.” Yet the sense of togetherness was offset by an awareness of the risks of gathering in an enclosed space.

Alan Baylock

Alan Baylock
Photo: Michael Clements

Instead of facing each other, students in Eastman’s wind quintets were each seated 12 feet apart and arrayed in a straight line. (The configuration relaxed to a semi-circle later in the year.) Instrument bell covers that inhibited droplets and aerosols as well as specially tailored masks were compulsory. Rehearsal rooms had to be vacated and aired out after 30 minutes of use. Harrow believes the dramatic measures sharpened students’ senses and collective ethos.

“The greatest thing that I'd like to be able to maintain from this year would be the sense of teamwork, urgency, and commitment that comes with having to overcome adversity,” she said. “Grit is really important for students who want to make some kind of living in music. I think those lessons will serve them really, really well.”

Alan Baylock, an associate professor of jazz studies at the University of North Texas College of Music, experienced similar protocols when directing the school’s 20-member One O’Clock Lab Band, with nine-foot spacing among wind and brass players, bell covers, and masks. “We created art at the highest level we could,” Baylock says. “But in terms of ensemble balance, blend, and intonation, being that far apart was a real challenge. However, when we go back in the fall, our ears will all be bigger.”

Baylock notes that while a dozen students in the jazz program opted to take a gap year, he hasn’t heard from any who plan to leave music because of the pandemic. “It might alter how they make a living in music,” he says. “Maybe they’ll teach more. Maybe they’ll write more, understanding that performing opportunities might be less for the time being anyway. But I don’t think it scared anybody out of music. It was a wakeup call for students in terms of being more resilient and multifaceted.”

New School Students

Photo: John White, via The New School

On some campuses, chamber music was one of the few disciplines that didn’t move online. At the University of Michigan, opera and orchestral programs were curtailed and academic courses were taught remotely, but some 55 chamber ensembles gathered in the vacated classrooms. “No one was pressured, but for students who felt safe, they could be in person,” said Matt Albert, chair of the chamber music department. “We just watched our social distancing. We watched our room-rest.” Makeshift alarms were deployed, alerting students when it was time to pause their rehearsals and allow for air recirculation.

Albert acknowledges that many students deeply missed campus traditions like football Saturday or gathering in coffee shops, and stress levels ran high. Still, the distancing protocols served to enhance alertness in performance. “What I saw by the end of the year was people cuing so much more clearly, knowing the scores more, making their gestures communicate across 12 or 24 feet of stage,” he said. “That kind of work is only going to pay off.”

Remote Learning Across Continents

Conservatories that opted for virtual learning included The New School’s Mannes School of Music in New York, where violinist Rebecca Fischer teaches a chamber music seminar. Fischer developed a Zoom-based approach in which she divided students into four duos per each five-week session. Each duo prepared a piece and recorded it remotely.

Tesla Quartet Quarantunes

Courtesy of Eastman School of Music

Because the latency, or lag, inherent in video conferencing platforms prohibits clear, simultaneous live performances, Fischer offered a work-around: When members of a duo would perform before the cameras on their computers, one muted their speaker to avoid hearing the delayed audio signal. The roles were then reversed. “This was the most effective way to get really good collaborative work done,” said Fischer. “I found that students had to be a lot more present to the score all the time. Some of the more advanced players were able to do some pretty subtle and advanced work, which would lead to some pretty gorgeous recordings.”

With some students overseas, Fischer had to periodically schedule coaching sessions at difficult hours. “I definitely got yelled at by our neighbors,” she says. “I was trying to be quiet, but demonstrating at 7:00 am, even with my violin practice mute, led to some run-ins.” She was especially heartened when the members of two string quartets capped the semester by traveling several hours to a central location to record their final project in person.

Juilliard Students

Photo: Erin Baiano

Not every instructor reported an ease with video technology. Though the Juilliard School gave students a $150 credit to purchase USB microphones, headphones and cables in the Juilliard Store, the gear was perhaps best suited for one-on-one lessons. “Working with socially distanced groups over Zoom is tricky,” said Juilliard String Quartet cellist Astrid Schween. “As the teacher listening in, it’s hard to hear the blend. It’s hard for them to hear one another and then hear the comments through the computer. I could see that was really draining for the students.”

Schween plans to continue using Zoom for remote master classes and meetings with distant colleagues. Still, when she reunited with newly vaccinated students this spring, “I was really moved by how emotional it was for them to meet at the end of virtual time.”

Astrid Schween

Astrid Schween
Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

At the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where some 60 percent of students opted for in-person learning this year, 30 practice rooms were connected through Dante, a new audio networking platform. Using this set-up, students could enter a room containing a microphone and set of headphones and connect with colleagues in other rooms with the same gear, and perform synchronously. Latency is said to top out at 10 milliseconds, or the equivalent of spacing musicians 10 feet apart in a common space.

“This turned out to be a critical tool for us to be able to continue our chamber music program,” says David Stull, the school’s president. Though Dante is an audio-only technology, the conservatory’s rooms are also linked through a closed-circuit television network, allowing for visual interaction, though image and audio synchronization is imprecise.

“While clearly playing together in a room is something for which there is no substitute,” says Stull, “students started to listen very intensely in what they were doing. They were relying more on what they hear and sense than visual cues in a chamber ensemble.” Stull plans to continue using Dante post-pandemic, “at least in short bursts” to hone listening skills.

Graduate Student Turned YouTuber

For many faculty, staff and students across the field, Zoom-based approaches improved as the year progressed; long-winded lectures gave way to smaller, more interactive workshops. Martina Smith, a second-year master’s student in horn performance at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, said she initially felt the stress of deadlines while struggling to record herself properly. But by the spring, she decided to embrace the opportunity to build new production skills. “I've really enjoyed getting to learn how to record myself because I've had to do it so much this year,” she said. “I never would have had the time for it normally.”

Along with posting solo videos to her YouTube channel, Smith joined colleagues in filming a brass quintet by Victor Ewald by layering parts and using a flexible click track. The film was screened during Curtis’ online gala. But for all of Smith’s hard-won successes, she will defer graduation and return as a third-year master’s student in the fall. “Everyone who can is trying to stay an extra year,” she says.

Martina Smith

Martina Smith
Photo: Courtesy of Curtis Institute of Music

Curtis is one of a number of elite music schools that will require students to be vaccinated against Covid-19 upon their return to campus this fall. A smaller number are requiring the same of faculty and staff, but as the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, political fault lines have emerged: Of the more than 500 schools with vaccine mandates, a vast majority are in states that voted for President Biden. Baylock, of the University of North Texas, notes that a statewide executive order prevents him from even asking students about their vaccination status. “Politics aside, it’s bizarre that it’s even an issue,” he says. “But the cream of the crop here got vaccinated as soon as they could, understanding that it would give them more opportunities.”

Several professors say the undisputed silver lining from the past year has been the enhanced connectivity. “Zoom, for all its issues, is a great resource,” said Ken Schaphorst, chair of the jazz studies department at the New England Conservatory. “If we have a snow day, and there’s a project due next week, let's all meet on Zoom. I can't imagine that we're not going to continue to use that technology, particularly now that all the schools have it.”

Increased technological acumen may also play an outsize role for students graduating into an arts economy shaken by Covid-19. “The pandemic has accelerated a process that rewards people who are highly creative about how they connect with their audiences,” says Norman Fischer, director of chamber music at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. He points to students who have learned to record and distribute their work online. “The question is, how do you monetize that so that you can actually live off of it?”

New School Students

John White, via the New School

David Geber, who teaches cello and chamber music at the Manhattan School of Music, says that he advises students who may be anxious about deepened career insecurities to stay inspired but to live within one’s means. “If you feel with all your heart that this is what you want to do,” he advises, “try to find a way to underwrite your own creativity. It may mean serving food in a restaurant, playing weddings, or bagging groceries. But if you feel that you can do it without it compromising your ability to keep practicing, and to keep yourself intellectually and artistically engaged, then do that. We've all been there at one time or another.”


Brian Wise writes about music for outlets including the Wall Street Journal, BBC Music Magazine, and Musical America. He is also the producer for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s national radio series.


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