What’s Next? Music Educators Weigh in on the Future of Teaching


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With a new academic year looming, schools everywhere have had to shift gears in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Music programs face the challenge of modifying their regular activities to ensure safety, while maintaining a high level of instruction.

For most CEGEPs and universities, this has meant a shift to remote learning. Vanier College, for instance, is planning on delivering both classroom courses and private instrument lessons online. Similar arrangements are being made at institutions like the University of Toronto and McGill’s Schulich School of Music.

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Music educators and program directors are quick to point out that musical education is unique in just how heavily it relies on in-person instruction. This becomes apparent in the case of the private lesson, as instructors and students experience issues with internet latency and sound quality and are left without the benefits of working on music together in the same room.

This has been an obstacle in particular for voice teachers and opera programs. “Internet connection has been the biggest challenge so far; people cutting out during a phrase, experiencing lag,” says McGill Voice Professor Tracy Smith Bessette. “We were surprised at how difficult it has been to produce good materials on Zoom,” adds Chantal Lambert, director of the Atelier lyrique de L’Opera de Montreal. “It is very difficult to do lessons and coachings online.” Many students and young singers lack proper equipment for online learning, including a good microphone and reliable internet connection.

That said, teachers and organizations have found creative solutions to some of these problems and are working to find elements to celebrate in this alternative learning format. “I have been amazed by the continued, even expanded, output of musical energy and creativity in the pandemic up to now,” says Jeffrey McFadden, incoming associate dean of performance and public events at the University of Toronto. “New platforms are being developed before our eyes, and musicians can be at the forefront of the growth of sophisticated use of these new media.”

Teachers are finding hidden advantages in the new form of instruction. “I am already seeing growth in my students,” says Smith Bessette, who has been delivering asynchronous virtual lessons since the lockdowns started. “Having to make recordings requires students to watch and listen to themselves more than they usually do, which teaches them a great deal. From a teacher’s perspective, although you may not be able to be as spontaneous over Zoom, spending some time with a student’s pre-recorded video before discussing it allows for more streamlined lessons.”

Stéphane Lemelin, professor of piano and chair of performance at Schulich, has noticed a positive change in interpersonal dynamics. “An online music lesson lends itself to a dialogue between teacher and student that is quite different from the immediate modeling that often takes place in an in-person lesson [and]pushes against the old-fashioned model of apprentice vs. master, which, in my opinion, is a good thing.”

For university level opera programs, this move online has meant a complete season overhaul. “It took a lot of imagination, a lot of dialogue with experts, and a lot of new partnerships and collaborations with professional opera companies and artists,” says Opera McGill director Patrick Hansen. “We are planning a fall semester that will focus on role preparation for our Spring Opera Festival productions, as well as creating a new Digital Opera Festival (in collaboration with Tapestry Opera) and a production for radio,” he adds. This is quite a change from their regular in-person season.

The hope is that the shift to the “Zoom format venue” will allow for use of “more diverse voices than ever before” says Hansen. Lambert agrees that programs must “seize this as an opportunity instead of a disaster.” She continues: “I want young artists to take advantage of this time to polish technique, learn new things, work on their languages, and polish their sight reading.”

Another challenge for schools has been preparing their ensemble classes for the fall. For classes like choir and orchestra, distancing and safety requirements are insurmountable obstacles. “Some ensembles will be offered remotely,” says Lemelin. “All our jazz ensembles [and]our opera program will continue to offer rich and varied experiences, including coaching and performance via online media,”

At Vanier College, says music program director Glen Ethier, some instructors “will treat their ensembles more like repertoire courses in which students study the material, learn their parts, record them at home, and then send in the recordings (usually video) for the teacher to synchronize. It means, in many cases, much more work for both the teachers and the students.”

As restrictions on gatherings lessen and change, however, most schools hope that ultimately in-person private instruction and small ensemble rehearsals will be possible. At Vanier College, small numbers of students are being allowed on campus for specific types of courses.

Lemelin asserts that this is a priority at the Schulich School of Music as well. “We are preparing for remote delivery, while at the same time making plans to enable as much in-person teaching activity as public health conditions will allow.” Schulich recently announced that the faculty will offer in-person lessons in the fall, while other classes will be offered through remote delivery.

While things remain unsettled, it is clear there is still a place for music education in a global pandemic. “[People] and institutions will emerge from these current circumstances with a vastly improved fluency with the digital-virtual world,” says McFadden. “This will enhance delivery of courses, expand the reach of institutions, change recruitment, effect curriculum development, et cetera.” Adds Lemelin: “We hope that the learning activities we are preparing for in the fall, whether they happen remotely or in person, will allow students to feel connected to each other and to their professors.”

Educators are confident that in-person instruction will return as soon as it is safe. “The close-knit community of musicians in our post-secondary institutions is something that should not, and likely will not, be lost to distance learning techniques,” affirms Ethier. “Humans need live art – they need to make it, to consume it, and to live with it,” says Smith Bessette. “[Live art] acts on our whole beings in a way that digital art cannot.” Lemelin agrees. “Teaching music remotely is not the same as teaching in person and it will never replace it.”

The hope, it seems, is that institutions, educators, and young singers learn from this time and develop new skills that allow them to return to live, in-person performance and education with renewed enthusiasm. As McFadden puts it, “Musicians will perform and create in ways that will inevitably reflect this experience. With luck, we will emerge stronger than before.”

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


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