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From muted rehearsals to plexiglass barriers — how the pandemic has overhauled the Faculty of Music

One of U of T’s smallest faculties was hit hardest by move to virtual learning
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On March 13 before U of T President Meric Gertler sent the announcement that U of T would be calling off all in-person classes Benjamin Storm, a third-year student majoring in trombone performance, was sitting in the Geiger-Torel Room at the Faculty of Music, trying to work through a piece he had never seen before. 

This Friday in particular had been relatively unremarkable for him. In the trombone class he had attended before, he had heard rumours that this could be the last class they had together, but there hadn’t been any definite decisions yet.

Storm recalled how, even with the pandemic looming above them, it still felt good to be playing a new piece with other students.

“You’re all reading together and kind of figuring something out together and really trying to make the most of something that you’ve never seen before,” he said. “It can feel really collaborative and satisfying to see that really, really work.”

At the end of the rehearsal, Storm remembered his conductor saying that this might be the last time they would all meet. He thanked them for a good year and told them to take the pandemic seriously. 

When Storm walked out of his orchestra rehearsal, he didn’t know that this would be one of the last times that year he would be playing in a room full of people without masks or plexiglass barriers. He didn’t know that later in the afternoon, through Gertler’s announcement, his in-person exams would be cancelled, and the performances he had been preparing for would be postponed indefinitely. 

And he didn’t know that after March 13, as students gradually left campus and didn’t return in the fall, his U of T experience — along with many other music students’ — would be fundamentally changed. 

“There’s no other faculty that can really compare to the difference… that the Faculty of Music is going through,” Storm said.

A virtual approach to a hands-on education

On Saturday afternoons over the summer, Alana Ng, a fourth-year student studying music education as a flute major, angled her laptop on a chair so her student could see her hands on the piano. This has been a typical setup for Ng since the pandemic hit, as she has had to video call her elementary school students for music lessons. The student she was teaching that Saturday was new, and Ng was going over the basics while adapting to the online format.

Communication was one of the most notable barriers to Ng as an instructor. Little details had to be explained carefully, such as telling beginner students which bar to start playing from or how to curve their fingers properly and press the keys. 

“I think the rate of improvement, or just what you can teach, is a lot slower than in person, when you can demonstrate or show them more clearly,” Ng said.

The Faculty of Music’s transition to online learning has yielded similar effects for those on the receiving end of lessons. Ng characterized her pre-pandemic student experience as very hands-on and practical.

“We would take trips to schools, or schools would come to U of T, and we would do workshops with them or just take turns teaching each other in the class,” Ng said. “When [COVID-19] hit, obviously, we [couldn’t] do that anymore.”

Instead, labs and projects turned into written or video-based assignments. “It’s definitely less useful in terms of skill because we didn’t get to practice teaching or practice conducting in the way that is the best,” Ng said.

This year, like most faculties, the music faculty had originally planned a mix of course delivery options such as online synchronous, online asynchronous, and in person, which includes hybrid classes that allow some students to attend in person during certain times. 

According to the Faculty of Music’s guide for incoming students in 2020–2021, yearlong and winter courses had been intended to be delivered in person. However, given the spike in Toronto’s COVID-19 cases, the Faculty of Music wrote to The Varsity that academic courses will be delivered online next semester.

Even before the school year began, classes originally scheduled to be in person switched to online. Ng noted that over the summer, she thought around half of her classes would be in person, but now, a large majority of them are virtual. Some courses have changed delivery methods with very short notice as well. One of Ng’s classes was moved online only two days before the class started. 

Gabrielle Turgeon, a third-year student studying vocal performance, had also expected most of her classes to have an in-person element in July. But by the time the semester started, most of those classes had moved online as well.

“I’m already moved into a new place, and I’m already locked into a lease,” Turgeon said. “But I think ultimately, at the end of the day, I am just happy to have some semblance of what feels like my life back.” 

These morsels of normalcy have been few and far in between. Other sweeping changes have been introduced, such as the entire ensemble process. The ensemble experience is crucial for music students because it trains them for their future careers, as many may go on to collaborate with other players in professional ensembles.

However, this summer, rather than holding blind live auditions, students had to send in a taped audition instead. Storm found that certain factors could present major challenges. “If you have really terrible mic quality, and then just everything is distorted, it’s going to be really hard for the panel to be able to tell how you actually play,” he said. 

Students could then be placed in an ensemble that they don’t suit. Storm’s observation about the importance of recording quality also reflected the current mounting expenses for music students.

Although these costs may be potentially offset by the faculty’s reduction in tuition fees this academic year, recording and editing high-quality audio require specific equipment. 

In the Faculty of Music’s guides for incoming and returning students, it strongly advised that students have access to an external USB microphone, which costs at least $120 to $150, and high-quality headphones, which easily run upward of $100. First-year students in certain majors are also recommended to have an electronic piano keyboard, which goes for around $100 or more. 

Current ensemble rehearsals are unrecognizable compared to pre-pandemic times as well. Since it’s impossible for so many students to be in one room given physical distancing restrictions, all rehearsals are completely virtual.

Although the Faculty of Music officially lists ensembles as in-person hybrid sessions, Ng and Turgeon both said that their respective ensembles haven’t met in person yet. The Faculty of Music’s told The Varsity that large ensembles are confirmed to be only online next semester. 

According to Storm, who is in the UT Symphony Orchestra, his conductor uses rehearsals to show videos of other professional orchestras. Then, students are sent to breakout rooms to discuss those performances. There’s usually no playing involved.

“All of us are really wishing that we could have that hands-on experience and play,” Storm said. “Several times on the call, the conductor said, ‘This really isn’t ideal.’ ” 

His roommates, who are in Wind Ensemble, had a muted rehearsal the other day, where they all played their instruments but couldn’t hear each other. Though this allowed them to play, being muted mitigated the key experience of collaboration that ensembles provide. 

“We’ll take it for what it is — I think we all kind of understand that,” Storm said.

Regardless, playing music in an ensemble is an experience that cannot be replicated or repackaged. 

“Analyzing videos is good to a certain extent,” Storm said. “But yeah… there isn’t much of a substitute. It doesn’t really measure up.”

How do in-person classes compare?

When Storm enters the Macmillan Theatre for his brass quintet rehearsal, he has a specific routine in mind. He sanitizes his hands, goes through one of the stage doors on the upper basement level, and walks onto the stage with his mask on. 

Only when he reaches his seat can he remove his mask. Between him and the other players, the stage is divided by large sheets of framed plexiglass that form make-shift barriers between them while allowing students to see each other. 

“It’s a bit more difficult, especially in something like a brass quintet scenario,” Storm said. “It’s harder to hear each other, especially since you’re so spread out, and you’ve got barriers in between you. And then it’s also a bit harder to see each other.” 

Although this might affect the quintet’s playing, he’s glad to have the in-person opportunity. “Ultimately, it feels a bit refreshing to actually be playing with other people again,” he said.

The Faculty of Music also has specific safety measures in place for in-person rehearsals. After each brass quintet finishes up in Macmillan Theatre, the janitorial staff wipe down the barriers, switch out the music stands, and sanitize everywhere. 

“It really feels like we’re doing all that we can in order to prevent the spread of [COVID-19],” Storm said. “I feel pretty comfortable with the whole thing so far.” 

Aside from these rehearsals, Storm also has in-person lessons. He noted that they aren’t very different from previous years, although he does have to play for his teacher from the opposite corner of the room.

For those with online lessons, like Turgeon, lesson quality depends primarily on the instructors. Turgeon initially had reservations about virtual lessons because. For a vocal performance student, in-person guidance can be especially useful.

“I think with singing it’s more common to have that physical component because singing is an instrument where you can’t see the mechanisms,” Turgeon said. “It’s more based on feeling.”

As a result, singing involves a very physical component that is difficult to replicate online. In person, when a teacher demonstrates certain breathing techniques, they might ask students to feel their diaphragm. Sometimes Turgeon’s teacher had to hold her neck in place for proper alignment as well. 

However, Turgeon found that her virtual lessons have exceeded her expectations. “Given that they’re online, they’re still really good, which is amazing,” she said. “Even though [my teacher] probably can’t hear exactly what my voice would sound like if she was in the room with me, I feel like she’s still able to really hone in on what I’m doing wrong.” 

Her positive experience can be partially attributed to her prior experience as a third-year student. She had been working with her teacher for two years prior, which she considered to be an advantage that first-year students may not have because they have to adjust to an entirely new teacher and course delivery method. 

“I know her style… whereas when I was in first year, she was a new teacher for me, and that was harder,” Turgeon said. “I can’t imagine that for first-years who are coming into this year, online. That’s probably harder for them than it is for me.” 

The overhaul of the Faculty of Music experience for students

Before the pandemic, on any given day, you would see people running around the Faculty of Music lobby. Students would likely bump into professors while waiting in line for the café, and on the third floor, people sat on couches and chatted in between classes about music.

Now, it’s a ghost town. When Storm walks into the faculty, he only sees a few people sitting distanced in the lobby, keeping to themselves. 

“It’s totally dead,” he said. “It’s kind of depressing.” 

Although he’s noticed that some people are more talkative during online orchestra rehearsals, he knows that it doesn’t entirely match up to his experience the years before.

While many faculties have seen their facilities depleted of student socialization, the Faculty of Music is known to be an especially close-knit group. Being one of the smallest faculties on campus, students typically see the same people repeatedly on campus.

“Everyone knows everyone basically — at least in your year,” Storm said.

Nevertheless, Turgeon observed that through the pandemic, the general feeling of closeness among students has survived. “We’re still a big family,” she said. “It’s nice that we’re all going through this together — this experience of doing Zoom music school.” 

The transition to virtual gatherings has also impacted music clubs, such as Surround Sound, a student acapella group. In order to follow physical distancing restrictions, the group has taken to rehearsing outside at a Faculty of Music courtyard with masks on.

“This gives us some shelter from the wind and an easy, on-campus meeting spot each week, and we’ve found it to work quite well so far,” Abby Chase, a fourth-year student studying book and media studies, English, and creative expression and society, wrote in an email to The Varsity. As the president of Surround Sound, she has been especially focused on how to best transition the group from in person to online.

Although she expressed some frustration at the Faculty of Music’s responsiveness to the pandemic, citing a lack of reliable information and safety guidelines for groups like hers, she is trying to preserve the in-person element of acapella as long as possible.

“We will likely have to move virtual once the temperature hits freezing, with the increased restrictions in Toronto, but for now, we are enjoying the chance to sing in person however we can,” she wrote. 

However, even though clubs have hosted picnics and rehearsals have helped members bond, COVID-19 restrictions have undoubtedly altered how clubs can interact, especially music clubs like Surround Sound that rely on the creative and collaborative experience of singing together. 

“We can replicate a lot of the musical side of the group outside, but it’s much more challenging to safely plan socials, so that has impacted the group a lot,” Chase wrote. 

Another aspect of student life that has been indelibly affected by the pandemic is networking. Turgeon spoke about how limited socialization has impacted a vital part of music students’ experiences this year. 

“[For] every friend you make at the Faculty of Music, in a sense you’re networking because they’re your friend, but also in the future, you might collaborate with them,” Turgeon said. “In the future, they might be a conductor, or they might be a director… you never know how the people you know will influence the career you have.”

Beyond the LinkedIn quality of making connections at the faculty, Turgeon also noted that at the end of the day, she misses the people the most. Storm seconds this opinion. As both of them are performance majors, the specific style of education they chose at U of T is dependent on being around people and creating something alive and ephemeral for an audience and with each other. 

“Whenever a family [member] or friend asks me why I went into a performance stream in the faculty and maybe not an academic stream, it’s just because I love performing,” Storm said.

It is uncertain if Storm and Turgeon will get the opportunity to perform next semester. The Faculty of Music wrote to The Varsity that currently, recitals and juries — which are final performance exams — are intended to be delivered in person in the winter term, but that is subject to change. 

For now, although recorded auditions and recitals may give students multiple tries to perfect their final take, there is an irreproducible quality of being given one shot, one moment, to get it right. 

“I don’t know what the word is,” Turgeon said. “But when it’s a live performance, there’s a kind of excitement to knowing that maybe someone’s going to make a mistake. That kind of adds to the performance — it adds to the rawness and realness.” 

As a singer, she found that the experience of being on a stage is irreplaceable compared to the limitations of online learning. 

“As a performer, I feel so much more energized in the way that I’m able to express myself when there’s actual physical people watching me,” she said. “I kind of feed off of it — I feed off of that energy.” 

Recording herself instead is entirely different. “It doesn’t feel the same… you’re just making a video,” she said. “You’re not actually performing for people.”

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