By Miranda Wilson | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The years 2020 and 2021 will be forever etched in the memories of college music educators. Before COVID-19, the idea of a global pandemic seemed like a surreal throwback to the Middle Ages, not something that could happen in the age of modern medicine. And yet, spring 2020 saw us center stage in a traumatic event that made us fear for our lives, our health, our loved ones, and our jobs.
For music in higher education, a lot was at stake: continuity of practical instruction, student retention, and in some cases, the funding of entire programs. When universities asked faculty at short notice to pivot to online teaching modalities, panic spread in music departments. The idea of working remotely seemed alien to many musicians, since bringing people together in person is cardinal to what we do. While remote teaching sounded like an adequate substitute in subjects where “sage on the stage” lectures are the norm, what about practice-based fields like music? How would we do our jobs? On a broader level, would our profession even survive the pandemic?
For Saeunn Thorsteinsdottir, a professor at the University of Washington, existing expertise in remote teaching technology smoothed the transition. “I had already been doing some online teaching before the pandemic when I was traveling to keep tabs on my students if I had to be away for more than a week or ten days,” she says, “so when the pandemic hit and we went completely online, my students had encountered these kinds of lessons before.” Educators like Thorsteinsdottir, who were skilled in technology, were quick to teach colleagues how to optimize the devices, apps, and settings to make remote music instruction possible. Universities chipped in, helping faculty and students acquire the microphones, computers, and other technologies needed for teaching and learning. Department chairs and deans kept faculty morale up with their reminders that “We’re all in this together.”
With this comforting thought in mind, we helped each other through the challenges, albeit from separate rooms. The bizarre “new normal” had its share of technology hiccups, some funny, some frustrating. According to Benjamin Whitcomb of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, “It’s a myth that young people are automatically good with technology.” While they might be experts with video game chat, unfamiliar learning systems were a different story. The solution? “A certain willingness to embrace trial and error,” says Whitcomb. “We all got over a learning curve to where some of my students who previously might have gone four years without recording themselves with pedals and apps developed the willingness to explore other technologies. A lot of performance dried up and we needed something to keep filling our time in a way that felt productive.”
Summers are usually a time for faculty to relax, reflect on the past year, and plan for the next. Summer 2020 was different. Instead of vacations, faculty went on back-to-back online training courses in technology and pedagogy for socially distanced, hybrid, “hyflex,” and/or fully online modalities. This technological support emboldened many faculty—some of whom had never taught outside of traditional settings—to get creative. How might we adapt music curricula for the times? Could we make them even better than before?
For some, the pandemic provided the impetus to accomplish longtime goals. Julio Reynoso, a cello professor in Guadalajara, Mexico, dreamed for several years about expanding his chamber-music curriculum to create composite ensemble videos. Under lockdown, he created virtual recitals of his students playing duets and trios. These collaborative projects became a helpful retention tool for his studio: “It made them so happy,” Reynoso says.
Amy Catron of Millikin University had a similar experience in reimagining the curriculum for her cello choir. “This is a different way to maintain a sense of community,” she says. “It reinforced shared social identity and belonging, nurturing reciprocal learning. Without technology, we would not have functioned during the pandemic.” Catron made PDF scores and MP4 practice tracks for her students to help them prepare for recording at home. The group chose pieces by consensus, used Zoom meetings to plan tempi, dynamics, and other expressive parameters, then recorded themselves asynchronously as schedules permitted. Members who knew how to use video software worked together to produce group videos. The result? “Performance levels improved,” Catron says. “Members assessed their own recordings and worked to make strong submissions to the best of their ability.”
For studio lessons, several professors I spoke to enthused that the constraints of online teaching resulted in improvements for students and teachers alike. Anthony Arnone of the University of Iowa found the picture-within-a-picture Zoom interface pedagogically useful. “I really enjoyed the fact that the students could see themselves while they were playing,” he recalls. “I think it’s human nature to watch yourself when given the opportunity and this seldom happens in person.” At Seattle Pacific University, Bradley Hawkins found that online lessons took the performance anxiety out of lessons. Students accustomed to the modality “can feel more comfortable with the teacher on a screen rather than in person. I don’t perceive that I’m intimidating, but who knows,” he says jokingly.
While some string teachers were trepidatious about teaching on screens, Karla Hamelin of Texas State University found it revelatory. “The biggest takeaway for my students, young and old, is that their capacity for troubleshooting went through the roof. There was no pedagogical touch,” she says. “We couldn’t play together. They really had to make decisions all the time on their own.” As the year progressed, Hamelin found herself carefully considering word choices in her explanations of technical concepts. “I’m very sensitive to the wording I use,” she says. “In the past, if something didn’t work, I would pivot to find some other way to help a student accomplish a goal. On Zoom, I had the patience to sit there and really let them try it and experience it.” In doing so, her own powers of observation improved: “I can spot tension just from looking at a student’s head on a screen. I can tell without even seeing it that the torso is locked.”
There were, of course, dark moments. “The biggest challenge was keeping morale up,” says Hamelin. On top of the emotional stress of living through a pandemic, college students had to bear disappointment after disappointment. Many were unable to play in orchestras or chamber ensembles; degree recitals took place in an empty hall with a video camera as the only audience. Professors often found themselves in the position of coach or cheerleader. Hamelin, an avid runner, tried to encourage her students to go outside and exercise, but some were reluctant even to leave their dorm rooms. When Whitcomb tried to cheer up his students by telling jokes, “They (the jokes) fell even flatter than I would expect, because everyone’s got their wooden game face on.” The mood seemed to get brighter in the spring semester, however. “They showed greater focus,” Whitcomb says, “and acceptance of the situation.”
With an international vaccine effort underway, it may seem that the end of the pandemic is in sight. When it’s finally over, will we return to the “old normal” in the music studio, or will educators choose to keep some of the new skills we learned along the way?
Hamelin is adamant. “We aren’t going back to how things were before,” she says. She plans to use her new passion for remote pedagogy to help more students. Before the pandemic, a long commute, the number of students in her studio, and the difficulty booking rooms on campus made it impossible for her to teach makeup lessons in person. These days, teachers and students have the technology and know-how to reschedule a lesson online, saving everyone time and gas.
For Arnone, videoconferencing has led to increased connection with colleagues all over the world. Like many professors nationwide, he invited guest professors to his weekly studio meetings—a benefit that provides more master classes than most college students would have had the opportunity to attend in a pre-pandemic year.
For Catron, this year’s technological achievements are just the beginning. “We plan to continue to maintain a virtual presence once we resume in-person meetings,” she says. “I hope to continue to provide access and inclusivity by providing both in-person and virtual collaborative opportunities, perforating geographical, cost, and transportation boundaries.”
Hamelin sums up the feelings of many when she says, “There’s no silver lining to a pandemic. People have lost loved ones.” Still, she adds, “I’ve learned from the pandemic that crisis reveals character. There are so many ways that we’ve learned to communicate, work, and function. I taught lessons in Mexico this year. That couldn’t have happened before. You teach all over the world. This isn’t going to go away. I think technology and sound are going to get better and better, because we want to do more of this.”