College in the Age of COVID: With No End in Sight, Music Programs Prepare For a New Educational Landscape

By Miranda Wilson | From the September-October 2020 issue of Strings magazine

No doubt you’re wondering what college will look like for music students this fall. As we go into our seventh month of social distancing, Zoom lessons, and concert cancellations, the question weighs on the minds of educators like me (I’m a cello, bass, and theory professor at the University of Idaho’s Lionel Hampton School of Music), administrators, students, and parents alike. In a profession whose success depends on assembling large groups of people, how do we move forward when a global pandemic has brought events to a standstill?

Coronavirus shelter-in-place orders hit quickly and dramatically in March 2020, closing schools and sending the education world into a scramble. Music faculty and students had to drop everything and switch to online learning platforms, causing huge disruption to those who weren’t familiar with them. Many lacked reliable internet, working devices, or even a private space in which to teach or study. We were blindsided by the lost gigs, lost income, loneliness, and anxiety. When the semester finally ended, we collapsed onto our couches, thinking, This pandemic’s got to be over soon. Right?

Summer arrived, but the pandemic showed no signs of stopping. University administrators’ inboxes began to fill up with messages from the parents of students. What are you doing to keep my kid safe? The students themselves, dreading a repeat of last spring, are asking hard questions, too. Will any classes be face-to-face? What happens with orchestra? Will we still perform? Where will I practice? Should I take a year off and come back when the pandemic is over? Does the music profession even exist anymore?

In this strange new reality, there are still more questions than answers. What’s different this fall is that universities have had time to plan for pandemic-related disruption. Back in spring, faculty had to pivot to remote teaching at a moment’s notice, whereas now they’re receiving intensive training in online platforms and pedagogy. If and when universities have to shut down again, this time they’ll hit the ground running.

Many schools plan to go online-only from Thanksgiving on to avoid the risks associated with holiday travel, while others are opting for a flexible hybrid of face-to-face and remote instruction.

Leaders, such as University of Northwestern–St. Paul music department chair Kirk Moss, have turned to the latest peer-reviewed science to make plans. In his widely circulated risk management guidelines for music educators, Moss discusses the pros and cons for music programs of ventilation, masks, social distancing, rehearsal spaces, and frequent handwashing. With firm protocols in place, he’s optimistic about his school’s plans to reopen. “With what we know now,” he told me, “with everybody masked up and practicing standard distancing as recommended in school and state guidelines, that puts us in a good position in terms of mitigating risk.” To this end, universities nationwide are creating and implementing safety protocols to protect students and faculty from infection. Many schools plan to go online-only from Thanksgiving on to avoid the risks associated with holiday travel, while others are opting for a flexible hybrid of face-to-face and remote instruction. Other provisions include hand sanitizer and cleaning products in every room, strict social distancing, and improvements to HVAC systems.


Because air circulation is a concern in schools with older facilities, experts now advocate opening windows whenever possible. Another option is holding classes and ensemble rehearsals outside. “Younger students always ask if we can play outside today,” jokes Moss. “Wood, humidity, and sunlight are concerns depending on the type of instrument, but where it’s feasible, I’d give a hearty yes!” Kevin Lefohn, who teaches violin at the University of Portland and Pacific University, took outdoor learning to a new level with what he calls “Rapunzel lessons,” where students stand outside the open window of his teaching studio.

Of course, some climates are too hot or cold for outdoor music making. When indoor is the only option, orchestra rehearsals can pose significant safety concerns when the usual venues aren’t big enough for social distancing. All the faculty I interviewed described plans to split orchestras into smaller ensembles for at least part of the fall semester, using regularly scheduled orchestra rehearsal times to work on chamber music. 

Bob Hasty, associate director of orchestras at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, will limit the size of orchestras by separating them into string and wind ensembles. At Penn State University, string faculty propose organizing students into multiple string quartets, all of whom will prepare Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 separately before coming together “to play it en masse as a string orchestra,” says violin professor James Lyon. Nikolas Caoile, director of orchestras at Central Washington University, will use technology to get around the problems of social distancing: “Rather than do a live performance,” he explains, “I am going to explore either doing a streamed performance or create professionally mastered audio recordings.”

“It’s a different modality, and you have to redefine it.”

Some music classes make the transition more easily than others. With its famously large program, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music is tasked with managing literally hundreds of students. Frank Diaz, a professor of music education there, feels positive about the changes to instruction. “We are going to have some element of online,” he says. “Classes that don’t require live interaction, such as theory, musicology, and music education, can go online. On one hand, this is a huge experiment. On the other hand, this can be done. It’s a different modality, and you have to redefine it. Quality is relational—it depends on the medium, the context, and the situation. What is quality for online? You can still have a fantastic class.” To this end, Indiana will be offering a hybrid of online and face-to-face classes, lessons, and ensembles, complete with safety precautions.


The challenge of managing the flow of students around university buildings is universal regardless of the size of the program, and every school whose faculty I spoke with plans to create schedules for practice rooms to ensure that students have a chance to practice. Most facilities will enforce breaks between the bookings to clean and air out rooms. Central Washington University department chair Todd Shiver will make first-floor practice rooms available during odd hours and second-floor rooms during even hours. “For those with slow or no internet,” he adds, “several practice rooms will be available for virtual lessons.” Ethernet plugins and other technology will be installed in the rooms for students who need them. Like most other schools, Central Washington will provide disinfecting supplies for students to use before and after practicing, and only one person at a time may go into a room. 

Practice space might be at a premium, but none of the faculty I spoke with were concerned that students might not practice enough this fall. The pressures of self- isolation may even have inspired them to do more. “Music is a reflection on our lives,” says Lyon. “It can be an escape. Time with their instruments can be a wonderful escape from the dark side of the pandemic. I don’t need to nudge anyone to practice; they need to get away and be in that other sphere.” 

Bienen School of Music students performing remotely, photo: courtesy of Bienen School of Music
Bienen School of Music students performing remotely, photo: courtesy of Bienen School of Music

Lefohn agrees: “We can’t control what’s happening in the world. We can control one thing, and that’s what’s in your hand right now—your instrument. This component is predictable and doesn’t change. Our students are doing better work right now because there are fewer distractions.”


Whether we like it or not, the post-pandemic music profession is evolving rapidly. Trends that were already emerging—such as long-distance lessons, online content, and self-recording as pedagogy—have become universal by necessity. Some music teachers struggled greatly with making the switch to videoconferencing technology, but for Lefohn, who had been using it in his private studio for years, business boomed. “My teaching world is expanding. I have more private students than ever. It’s blown up norms and expectations.” During lockdown, Central Washington violin professor Carrie Rehkopf Michel fulfilled a long-held goal of creating the YouTube channel Kairos Practice Pals as a teaching resource for the correct practice of scales, arpeggios, and études. James Lyon built self-recording into his studio curriculum after patchy internet connections disrupted remote lessons, reaping such positive results that he plans to keep assigning it even when the pandemic is over. And for Bradley Hawkins, who teaches cello and computer music at Seattle Pacific University, existing technical expertise went a very long way when ensemble-director colleagues needed help making videos. Hawkins helped them with mixing and production, training a team of students to assist him as part of the curriculum. Everyone involved now has a whole new skill set to use in their post-pandemic careers.

Now that the profession is changing, faculty are modeling different kinds of careers for their students.

Music professors everywhere have adapted quickly to the need to prepare students for new career pathways. A couple of decades ago, when the career gold standard was a position in a full-time symphony, music-degree courses were designed to prepare students for that goal. Now that the profession is changing, faculty are modeling different kinds of careers for their students. Areas that might once have held less prestige—music technology and private teaching studios, for example—are flourishing as never before. The world might have shut down, but video games haven’t, and Hawkins, who composes soundtracks, describes that side of his business as “going gangbusters.” Moreover, the anxieties of the pandemic have unleashed a deep need for creativity in thousands of people—people who are now contacting music teachers for remote lessons.

College music students can take encouragement from this. The pandemic may have turned all of our lives upside down, but if one good thing has come out of the upheaval, it’s that geography is no longer an obstacle to music study or career building. Even if we have to go back into self-isolation mid-semester, college students and graduates can still have valuable learning experiences and enter the profession using technology they already own, and from the privacy of their parents’ basements. “It’s part of the new normal,” says Hawkins. “Think of your computer as a musical instrument as well as a concert stage.” 

“This has opened up the world,” agrees Lefohn. “This is a brilliant model. The shutdown created opportunities. It took away physical barriers.”