Students, Faculty Staying Together While Kept Apart

Scattered horn students of the Colburn School in Los Angeles participate remotely in an online teaching session.

Berta Rojas had never done remote lessons before a couple of weeks ago, and the associate professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston was skeptical that she could teach articulation, phrasing, and other nuances of classical guitar in such a way. But the process has turned out to be more rewarding than she ever imagined.

She came up with the idea of asking her 15 students to submit videos prior to their lesson that showed them playing the pieces they were working on so that she could assess their progress, and the caliber of the videos made it possible to hear their playing with first-rate sound quality. “It was so beautiful,” Rojas said. “I received these amazing videos of my students from different parts of the world that took the challenge so seriously.”

Rojas is one of hundreds of faculty members in music schools and conservatories across the country who have been forced to switch to online teaching because of restrictions surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of grudging acceptance of such methods, Sel Kardan, president and chief executive officer of the Colburn School in Los Angeles, has seen excitement among his faculty as they work to turn a negative into a positive. “It’s really been amazing,” he said. “This is what they do. They want to teach. They want to be connected to their students.”

Berklee College of Music faculty guitarist Berta Rojas (Natalia Ferreira Barbosa)

Being physically apart from teachers and fellow students isn’t always easy, said Shelbie Rassler, a senior composition major at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, but she and her peers are making adjustments and adapting. “I think we’re all on the same page,” she said. “We’re trying to make the best of it, and everyone in the entire world is dealing with the same thing right now, so that’s comforting in a way. We’re all just trying to figure out what’s going on together.”

When state shelter-at-home rules and other restrictions began to go into effect in mid-March in many countries, the first order of business for music schools and conservatories was to help get as many students home as possible. About 40 to 50 percent of Colburn’s 125 college-level students are international, and not all of them could return to their families, so the school found other lodging for them, even renting Airbnb quarters in some cases. At other institutions, some stranded students have remained in their dormitory rooms.

Next, the schools began making preparations for online teaching – adjusting syllabuses and academic policies, making sure faculty members had the necessary equipment, and offering technical guidance where necessary. “Everything about the academic enterprise had to be assessed quickly,” said Peter Swendsen, senior associate dean for academic affairs at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

While some faculty like Rojas are new to online instruction, others such as Helen Callus, professor of viola at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., are veterans. Callus, who has 18 students each quarter, has taught remotely during school breaks, when students were sick, or when she had to be away from campus. “I actually feel there are more pros than there are cons,” she said.

In addition, schools had to make sure that students who couldn’t travel home had the necessary instruments since they no longer could use those on campus. The University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory checked out percussion instruments and moved electronic pianos from its keyboard labs into the apartments and dormitories of remaining students so they could continue to practice and take their online lessons.

Northwestern University Bienen School of Music faculty member Helen Callus teaching a remote viola lesson.

Schools have even found ways to teach musical courses that would seem almost impossible online, such as orchestra and chamber music that require joint rehearsals and performances. Depending on the school, those students are being asked to work on composition excerpts needed for graduate or professional auditions, submit recordings of individual parts for feedback, or do comparison listening among notable performances of major works. “So, it’s trying to find ways to stay true to the spirit of whatever that experience that is,” Swendsen said, “to stay in the world of being an orchestra musician even if they can’t get together and play as an orchestra.”

Remote teaching, using such platforms as Zoom, FaceTime, Kannu, and Google Hangouts, has some drawbacks, the most obvious being not sharing the same room with a student and offering guidance in person. “The arts are deeply personal,” said Diane Petrella, dean of the UMKC Conservatory, “and collaborative relationships are the heart of any conservatory, so losing those interactions through lessons, rehearsals, classes, and performances is very difficult to accommodate and accept.”

But there are notable advantages as well, starting with the simple efficiency of not having students arrive late or take time to set up. “You can get a lot done in 60 minutes,” said Kardan of the Colburn School, “when it starts right at the top of the hour. The student’s there, the instrument is tuned, the music is out and it’s go.”

At the same time, students are not hampered by stressful commutes or other distractions, and may not feel as anxious or intimidated as they might if they were in the same room as their teacher. “In some ways, I feel like I get better attention from them when I’m teaching remotely than when I’m in person,” said Callus of Northwestern University. “It sounds counter-intuitive, but it really isn’t.”

In other cases, faculty members and students have found innovative approaches to online teaching that probably wouldn’t have been possible using conventional methods:

  • Rojas of Berklee has an Israeli student who expressed interest in learning about zamba, an Argentinian folk dance, so the professor asked a friend, a well-known Argentinian folk guitarist named Ernesto Méndez, to join an online lesson. The three guitarists on three different continents gathered on Zoom in a way that would not have been feasible — at least not easily — in person. “He was showing us the beauty of the rhythm from somebody whose identity allows him to understand that rhythm in ways that we cannot,” Rojas said. “It was such a beautiful moment.”
  • Rassler, the senior composition major from South Florida at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, has become something of a celebrity. Even before classes resumed following her school’s spring break, she enterprisingly got into the online spirit by forming a virtual orchestra of fellow students to perform “What the World Needs Now.” She edited the resulting video, which has gone viral and has been featured in the New York Times and on Good Morning America. “I wanted to create something that would bring the whole community back together in a creative way and get everyone playing their instruments and having fun during these challenging times,” Rassler said.
  • The Northwestern University Opera Theater is planning to proceed with its production of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in late May no matter what. It is conducting coachings and rehearsals online, and if the campus has not opened in time for the performances, the program’s director, Joachim Schamberger, plans to collaborate with his students on a video version of the production. It would start by recording the instrumental and vocal tracks remotely using a software known as GarageBand and then adding visuals. Schamberger, who attended film school along with his other education, is not sure what problems he and his students will encounter, but he is sure they will be able to solve them and have fun along the way.

Despite the campus shutdowns and academic disruptions caused by the pandemic, all the schools are making sure that seniors will graduate on time and the academic trajectories of other students will not be interrupted. “That’s the first commitment we made,” Swendsen of Oberlin said. “Especially in the conservatory environment, if any single milestone gets delayed, it can really compress things later on.” If, for example, a junior were to push off his or her recital until senior year, that would mean performing two recitals and a concerto performance while simultaneously preparing for graduate auditions, a workload that the dean described as “untenable.”

Oberlin College’s Peter Swendsen

It helps that many schools had finished or nearly finished the first half of their semesters by the time the coronavirus shutdowns began, which meant that many orchestra and chamber-music students had already taken part in at least one major performance and fulfilled many of their academic protocols. Although not exactly as originally planned, the Oberlin Opera Theater was able to present a live-streamed performance of Così fan tutte, one of the program’s two main productions of the year. It took place March 13 with no audience in the theater because of early virus restrictions.

But making sure students graduate or proceed to the next year does not mean just waiving requirements. It means being more flexible and sometimes focusing on different skill sets. Thus, instead of presenting live recitals, students might be asked to create and upload a video version of such a performance. “You do need other skills,” Callus said. “You need to be able to write and communicate. There is a lot of video these days. There’s YouTube. There are so many formats that students could be successful in or use for a successful career. And this could be the opportunity where they start to think about that. So, it’s not the end of the world, and it could be part of the curriculum of the future.”

Everyone is hoping that the coronavirus restrictions will be lifted before the end of the academic year, but in the meantime, music schools and conservatories are trying to make the best of a bad situation and take a few strides forward innovatively at the same time. “Now is the time for us as faculty,” Schamberger said, “to respond with creativity and courage to a challenging situation. It will teach us all things we would never have thought about doing if we would have been in person there on campus.”

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.