Being a music major during COVID-19 – What should I be doing?

What should I being doing? Should I take a semester of leave? My student teaching placement just fell through – what are schools going to do? How can we even have ensembles or chamber groups?

These are the thoughts that my colleagues and I have been discussing for months – mainly as a coping mechanism since there is really nothing we can do to change the situation. I live and go to school in New Jersey so I can only speak on what my experience has been here – I can not speak for other states and countries experiences with quarantine and the process of reopening things.

When everything shut down in March 2020, my school was on our spring break – which got extended an extra week when our governor, Phil Murphy, mandated that universities cease in-person meetings. It was scary – a recital was looming, our first spring concert was only a week away, and I am a graduate performance student… how was I meant to perform if we couldn’t be together? I managed to preserve through the Spring 2020 semester. My recital (originally a chamber music program scheduled for April 1st) drastically changed to all solo repertoire and was moved to May 13th. Our orchestra concerts didn’t happen… chamber groups didn’t happen… At the time, I thought to myself that there must be another way for us to create. We can’t just stop performing. But we did, at least for that semester. And now as we are rapidly approaching the Fall 2020 semester I am left with more questions than answers:

Are ensembles going to happen at all? Are auditions happening at all? Are lessons going to continue online? Are chamber groups going to be formed? Are my classes going to be remote or hybrid? Will those classes be asynchronous? Are recitals happening? Will I be able to work? How am I going to survive? Should I just take a semester off?

I hope someone out there can relate to these feelings and know that you are not alone in this.

In New Jersey, we are still trying to figure out what to do with schools come September. Our governor left it open for K-12 public school districts to determine their communities’ needs on a case-by-case basis, but with state universities there is a much larger pool of students. International students and out-of-state students will not have to determine whether or not they feel safe or supported enough to continue their education or wait until some breakthrough allows people to feel safe meeting again (which who knows how long we will have to wait to see that). Especially considering – as a performer – that Broadway and the NY Philharmonic have ceased their performances until 2021 at the earliest, the future for the Fall 2020 semester is looking bleak. And the part of the worry is that no one has answers. No one knows when it will be ‘safe’ again.

Yes, there are virtual learning options, but in the arts it can feel like a fate worse than death. We have this desire to communicate and create with others, but using technology to do so feels like we are removing ourselves, putting up barriers, closing ourselves off. There are technological issues, delays, and a whole lot more effort than the time before quarantine. Is it worth it?

If we want to keep the arts alive… yes. We need to be willing to adapt and be innovative given the current situation to pave the way for a safe future. But it will be tough.

I recently had a conversation with a non-music friend about looking at COVID-19 in the grand scheme of things. I said something like this to her, “You know… we aren’t even half way through this.”

And she said back to me, “What do you mean?”

I elaborated, “We’ve only been in quarantine for 4 months – March to July. We still have 5 more months until December… we aren’t half way through this.”

To which she replied, “You really think quarantine is going to last the rest of the year?”

We continued to talk, and between us (of course, these conversations are merely for our morale and not some factual, data-based TEDTalk) we came to the conclusion that we could be like this until March of 2021. What is ‘this’ by the way, well in New Jersey ‘this’ refers to: not being able to go out in public without a mask, maintaining proper social distancing of 6ft or more, not being able to physically greet people, not being able to meet with friends indoors, keeping small friendship bubbles that follow the same strict quarantine guidelines that you follow, spending a lot of time at home, doing the majority of your work from home, etc.

That was harrowing for the both of us as young 20-something-year olds. To think that we haven’t even made it over the worst part. Where is the motivation to keep working? That is a question I have found myself pondering: I am working on all of these things, but why? What am I working towards?

I’ll be honest – I can’t even say for sure what goal I am actually working towards. I feels like one of those dreams that you just keep falling and then you wake up clammy with your heart racing. At the moment, I am holding out the hope that my colleagues and professors do not give up during the Fall 2020 semester. I hope that we adapt and navigate this strange situation together… the best we can.

The solution is to be persistent, insistent and… some other word ending in -sistent. We need the arts to thrive, especially in a time where people are suffering physically and emotionally. I recently saw a post going around online; it was a picture of a sign that read, “Why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated”. I laughed when I first saw it. But why should we go to school?

I go to school for community. I go to school because I want to be exposed to new things. I go to school because I get to experience things I wouldn’t have in my hometown. Those are just a few reasons. I don’t go to school for others, I go to school for myself.

To be persistent for me is to preserve through these unknown waters and see it to the other side (think like Moana – a movie I finally watched during quarantine). And to be insistent for me is to not let others or the world’s pandemic stop me from from pursuing something that brings me joy. Yes, I believe it is nonsensical to meet in groups of 30 people and play in an ensemble, but my insistent is finding a way to make it work given the new rules we have to play by.

What brings you joy?

In my MISC blog post for July 2020, I list several performances that have brought me comfort and joy. Ranging from Elgar’s Nimrod (from the Enigma Variations) to Rimsky Korsakov’s 3rd movement of Scheherazade. As music majors (whether we are focused on education, performance, composition, therapy, etc) one of the core elements is creating.

While listening to performances may be a good bandaid for a short time, it isn’t much help when what we really need (in this metaphorical sense) are stitches. What are some ways you can tap into that creativity?

  • Chamber music – yes, chamber music as we know it will be on hold for a while. That doesn’t have to prevent us from playing it: whether you are playing with a recording of your self, collaborating with someone else virtually, or playing with a track someone else recorded. The process of creating music can still be collaborative.
  • Notation software – maybe you picked up Sibelius for one orchestration class and just left it to collect dust after your final project. Notation software is great for a plethora of reasons: Musescore, for example, has an online database where you can find arrangements of music (in the even you want to do a chamber piece, but don’t have the right instrumentation). You can also take you current repertoire and put it in and listen back to – especially if the piece is for your instrument and another – this can help you be more actively aware of what other parts are doing and how everything fits into the larger picture.
  • Take up a secondary instrument or find a way to push yourself out of your comfort zone on your own instrument. As a music education student, if you have access to a secondary instrument, this is probably the best time you have to really hone in on an instrument outside of your primary area – take advantage of it! If you don’t have access to an instrument, consider extended techniques or repertoire that you are less comfortable with.
  • Explore other music technology. Being familiar with recording software – BandLab, Garage Band, Audacity – can be extremely beneficial even after the pandemic is over. Likewise, learning what kinds of recorders/microphones are on the market and being knowledgeable of their pros and cons.

How are you feeling during this pandemic? What has your experience been thus far and how are you coping? What are you hopes and plans for the upcoming semester? And what are you doing to be creative?

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