The COVID-19 pandemic has altered much in the way universities are running classes, but there is one group facing particularly unique hurdles: music students.
“To not be able to work collaboratively, which is our whole entire major, it takes a part of you away that’s so hard to do online,” said Jonna Dwyer, a senior music student.
Dwyer has found the transition to online instruction especially disconcerting as technological needs outpace her financial means.
“You have to have specific technology to pick up the recording of your instrument,” Dwyer, a trumpet player, said. “I have a little microphone that was $200, and it’s still not good enough.”
On top of subpar mics, Dwyer has also had trouble rehearsing in her apartment.
“Having to practice in an apartment with three other roommates gets annoying for them,” Dwyer said.
The uncertainty and frustration unreliable Wi-Fi can create for any online student is also a concern of hers.
Robert Webster, a senior music performance student, has dealt with similar technological limitations as a vocalist using a backing track.
“Unlike having a person playing piano with you, a backing track won’t adapt to the stylistic choices you or your teacher might want to make with your performance,” Webster said.
Some music educators are more optimistic about the situation. Jared Sims, director of jazz studies at WVU, is seeing the current reliance on technology as an opportunity to teach students how to be good musicians in today’s world.
“The skills that they’re learning now are going to help them as composers, as teachers and as recording artists even,” Sims said. “I see it as an opportunity to do something new.”
An element in Sims’ classes is the digital audio workstation, a device used widely by musicians, which allows for recording, mixing, and editing of musical performances.
Lately, Sims has been having his students record their performances for him to splice together into a full arrangement of a piece.
“I think we’re reevaluating what a concert is — now a concert’s a recording,” Sims said.
Additionally, Sims feels that his students are rising to the challenges of online classes by being more mindful and proactive.
“In terms of evaluating, I think the students are self-evaluating more,” he said, before adding that his students are taking on more leadership roles by helping other students. “I see that as a positive too.”
Voicing a similar line of thinking is Erin Ellis, an assistant professor of cello at WVU.
“There are certain advantages to Zoom lessons or any online platform,” Ellis said.
Among those advantages are ease of recording and sharing, as well as the ability to acclimate students to these modern practices. Ellis said there is varying audio quality of a Zoom recording, but she uses it to her advantage by tuning into other elements like intonation or articulation.
Still, not everything is as it was.
“The biggest thing we miss is the community aspect,” Ellis said.
Past calamities, including wars and even worse pandemics, have proven similarly difficult for the performing arts world. However, Ellis believes that the passion of her students will ultimately get them and other artists through this trying time in their education.
“We have survived this far and it’s because of the commitment to the craftsmanship of expression — I feel like we’ll be okay,” she said.