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FEATURE | Back To School Changes Post-COVID For Music Students In Professional Programs

By Robin Roger on October 19, 2020

Ryoko Hou (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Ryoko Hou (Photo courtesy of the artist)

When we all scrambled to adapt to the first wave of the pandemic last March, three-quarters of the academic year had passed, making it relatively straightforward to finish music programs remotely. At that point it wasn’t clear what would happen when September rolled around and a new academic year began. Ludwig Van checked in with music students and educators at every level, from amateurs to elite performance programs, to see how the first full academic year since COVID began is going.

All learning is a step-by-step, incremental process that depends on steady effort for the best results. So the interruption to education posed by COVID is a serious problem for every student at every level in every domain. But, music education is one of the trickiest to adapt because of the aerosol transmission of COVID. Students and teachers can no longer work in close proximity with fully exposed faces. Yet, to achieve the best results, they need to be in the same space at the same time, experiencing the same acoustics.

Music educators worked at a fever pitch over the summer to innovate new ways to make in-person instruction safe, and to expand and upgrade the use of remote instruction. There were three main areas of change: adapting the physical environment; establishing safe protocols and ways to enforce them; improving remote teaching technology to provide optimal acoustics.

By September, faculty and students were able to resume meeting face to face — so long as those faces wore masks.

Adapting Bricks And Mortar

The bricks and mortar of the music facilities were not drastically reconfigured. Rather, the spaces in the buildings have been repurposed. The number of people allowed into the buildings has been reduced, and access is limited to authorized faculty, staff and students. Movements and procedures are almost choreographed, they are so specific. For example, in the Paul Davenport Theatre at Western University’s Faculty of Music, ensemble students rehearse on stage, and the conductor remains in the audience area, wearing a face shield. Trombone students stand nine feet away from the next person at all times. Practice rooms are vacated every 45 minutes, and left empty for 15 minutes, during which time the doors of the rooms are left open. To ensure that this schedule is strictly observed, students fill out a form every time they enter a practice room, specifying what time they start and end practice, and in the case of pianists, verifying that they have wiped down the keys and bench afterwards.

In every performance space at every music school, six-foot distances are measured and marked with a taped X, and tall rolling Plexiglas barriers stand ready to be positioned. Voice students are separated from their accompanists by this barrier so they can remove their masks to sing, while the pianist remains masked. In piano master classes, the barrier is positioned between the two pianos. The student plays alone on stage, wearing a mask, then the teacher approaches the second piano, also masked.

Before COVID, music faculties regularly hosted performances for the public to give music students experience with an audience. For now, the public will have to stay home, so many music programs are livestreaming performances.

This is a complicated technological production. For the Faculty of Music at University of Toronto’s livestreamed master classes, taught by renowned tenor Lawrence Brownlee, each student, along with a pianist from the collaborative piano program, pre-recorded his or her aria on the stage of an empty Walter Hall. This was projected on a screen at the back of the stage during the master class. The performers stood in front of their projected performance watching, while Brownlee viewed it from his piano in Florida. At the same time, a number of students and faculty sat in correctly distanced seats in the auditorium. When the recording was finished, the student removed his or her mask and began live interaction with Brownlee. Brownlee, projected on the screen behind the piano like on a Jumbotron, spoke into his computer camera, communicating directly to the student, who had to chose between turning away from the live audience to speak to him on the screen, or turning toward the audience in Walter Hall with their back to Brownlee’s image. The public watched from home, using the link provided on the Faculty of Music web site the morning of the master class. The classes are now posted on You Tube here.  Upcoming events open to the public can be found on Faculty of Music website here.

Murphy’s Law reigns supreme on Zoom, so Brownlee suddenly disappeared from the screen when the service cut out, and there were unexpected sound distortions and unbidden muting of one party or another. At one point, when Brownlee froze on the screen, the student improvised, “at least he left on a B-flat”. This is good practice for the on-stage snafus that fill the annals of opera history.

Every music school the world over had to arrive at a solution tailored to its own location and circumstances, including the urban density around the campus, the adaptability of the buildings, the availability of student housing, the transit available to the campus, and even the quarantine, border restrictions, and visa needs of students and faculty. The fabled Berklee College in Boston, for example, remains completely remote this semester, while Juilliard is operating online, with access to the campus buildings as a resource where feasible for the first half of the semester, gradually transitioning to some in-person instruction on site. The Glenn Gould School is teaching all academic courses online, while offering instrumental and voice classes on site. The other children’s programs which usually fill the Royal Conservatory Building occupied by Glenn Gould are being held online for the Fall semester. It leaves a lot more space for GGS students and faculty to move around the building, and to use the Temerty Theatre and Mezzolini Hall for wind and brass classes and vocal instruction.

Music students and faculty used to travel back and forth across borders to teach and perform. Several members of the Glenn Gould faculty flew into Toronto from the U.S. twice a month before COVID. Closed borders and quarantine requirements prohibit this, so the school invested in high-end equipment in five studios. According to James Anagnason, dean of GGS, the computers, audio interfaces, stereo condenser microphones and audio transmission software have produced great sound quality.

There are 78 Glenn Gould students on site this semester, out of a total enrollment of 106. Anagnason reports that all the protocols and retrofits, including installing extra air filtration in the HVAC system, twice daily electrostatic foggers sanitizing every studio in the building, plus the social distancing and mask wearing have gotten great results.

Midori Koga and James Anagnoson
Midori Koga and James Anagnoson (Photos courtesy of the artists)

How Does It Feel?

“We didn’t obligate anybody to come back in person, although almost everyone has opted for in person instruction when possible,” Anagnason explained. “It is great to see the students back and clearly loving the in-person lessons and the chance to make music together again, even in slightly altered ways.”

This is as true for Anagnason as it is for his students, though it took some adjustment. “The first day I went back to the building it was very strange because there was nobody in the Atrium or in the hallways — it felt like a ghost town. But as soon as I went to the G-level hallway of 13 studios where I teach, I realized that every studio was being used — all the wonderful energy of our students and teachers is still in the building — but behind closed doors until we get through this pandemic.”

It’s the chance to be together again that the students and teachers value the most. Pianist Linda Ruan was in her first year at Juilliard after graduating from GGS when the pandemic forced her to move back to Vancouver.

“What I miss the most is hanging out with colleagues and playing chamber music of course,” she says, “but I’ve managed to reach out to a few friends in Vancouver to play together again. Otherwise, for me, the virtual learning experience has been quite alright.”

Ryoko Hou, who was only days away from giving her first recital for the Advanced Certificate in Piano Performance at the University of Toronto when the lockdown cancelled it, is so delighted to be back doing her Master Of Music in Collaborative Piano that she feels playing with a mask on is a small price to pay. “The fun part of being a music student, to play with classmates and to perform in the classroom, is possible again because of all the ways the Faculty of Music is keeping us safe. Each classroom was examined by medical inspectors and there’s maximum occupancy signs. The building entrance is locked. Only authorized Faculty of Music faculty, staff and students have fob keys. There are directional arrows everywhere on the floor, and on the staircase.”

At those schools that could not bring students back, the social deprivation of an all-virtual program is palpable.

“The personal relationships suffer the most,” observes Debi Adams, who teaches Alexander Technique for Musicians at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. “I mean this for teachers and students, and teachers and teachers, and most obviously, students and students.”

Both students and teachers report that virtual and in-person instruction each have their strengths and weaknesses. Much as he enjoys teaching in person again, James Anagnason states that he was, “amazed at how much I was able to get done with my students with online lessons. I had three undergraduates who I taught from March 13 until early June entirely online — they each did recitals in June from their living rooms, and I am convinced that they would not have played better if we had been able to complete the year with normal in-person lessons.”

Virtual group classes are a different matter. According to Adams, who is teaching everything remotely, preparation is more complex, because materials have to be made screen-ready and organized in a variety of different formats in advance.

“It is great to see the students back and clearly loving the in-person lessons and the chance to make music together again, even in slightly altered ways.”

Without hands-on demonstration in real classroom time, she has to use words to describe things that used to be shown with movement. This poses an extra challenge for students who speak English as a second language. Many of the international students had to return to their home base, resulting in complex time zone scheduling issues. Debi Adams’ Chinese students join her course very late at night, and can’t play in class because it would disturb their family and neighbours.

Midori Koga, Associate Professor of Piano and Piano Pedagogy at the Faculty of Music of University of Toronto is also dividing time between in-person and online teaching involving various time zones.

“I have an international student who hasn’t been able to get back to Canada yet due to visa delays, and we have continued Zoom online lessons. Since she is in Bangkok, we meet early in the morning for me, which is late at night for her. She sends me video recordings of the pieces she wants to work on, and I view them and make notes before the lesson. When we meet, we talk through typical musical and technical issues and she plays small sections. We position our phone cameras right at keyboard level which gives us both a close view of each others hands, and we have our computers placed a little further to give a side head-to-toe profile. It’s nice to have the two-camera viewpoints. The sound is delayed, but we’ve gotten used to communicating this way.”

Koga would definitely prefer to give lessons in person, which she does with the students in Toronto, where she has a Plexiglas barrier between the two pianos in her studio, and an air purifier running. Masks are worn, hands washed frequently and the pianos are disinfected between each student. “The students have been really good sports, and have accepted these changes in stride and with good humour,” Koga observes. “I miss having closer contact with my students for tactile and kinaesthetic learning approaches for demonstrating release of tension, but I feel safe, and my students are staying healthy and that’s the most important thing.”

Bravi Tutti

It’s often said that for a sensitive, significant, complicated high stakes event to go well, it has to be carefully orchestrated. For music schools, orchestration has gone from being a subject of study to the type of management that allows musical study to take place. It’s not an accident that a field that teaches individuals to work in harmony could pull together so productively under such extreme pressure. Let’s add to our appreciation of music as an art form our admiration of it as an impressive means of getting things done. From stage crews building Plexiglass barriers to piano technicians working out detailed disinfecting protocols, to Deans leading these teams of experts, they all deserve a standing—thought virtual—ovation.


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Robin Roger
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