Making Do: Student Perspectives on Remote Learning

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

The pandemic has resulted in major changes for music schools and young artist programs, changes that are now being lived out by young singers. It goes without saying that graduates in the class of 2020 did not expect to be starting their careers during a global pandemic.

“I was finishing my time at McGill University where we packed up our Acis and Galatea scores literally in the middle of a rehearsal, left the building and did not return,” says soprano Sarah Dufresne, who finished a graduate diploma in voice and opera at the Schulich School of Music in May of this year. “We tried to complete the rest of our semester virtually, but it took everyone time to figure out how to do lessons and coaching on Zoom, so we lost a lot of the semester.” Things happened similarly in Calgary Opera’s Young Artist Program, where baritone Jonah Spungin says, “the emerging artists at Calgary Opera were a day shy of closing out [their]school tour.”

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The shock of these changes in lifestyle and means of musical collaboration has not entirely subsided, but many students have been impressed with how well musical education and opera have adapted to the new reality. “I think that this situation has proven that virtual work is more possible in opera than we thought,” says Dufresne, whose recent experience with the Lachine International Vocal Academy has proved to her that “online lessons and coaching are very possible and can be incredibly fruitful.”

Digital alternatives have impressed young singers. “It’s far from perfect and it’s not nearly as enjoyable as in-person work, but it’s remarkably useful,” says Spungin. Countertenor Ian Sabourin, who is completing a masters in voice and opera at McGill, has also found this to be the case. “I didn’t think it would be possible to continue learning to sing over Zoom,” he says. “But […] having a lesson every 10 to 14 days, even over Zoom, helps ‘realign’ my voice and inspires me to keep going.”

There have been other unexpected advantages to this online shift, some of which young artists hope will stay with us. Spungin foresees a world in which “classical musicians [are]encouraged to be more versatile and to learn how to harness other media in their making of art, much like what is expected of musicians in other genres as well as performing artists in other disciplines.” Dufresne notes that this situation has forced many young singers to learn how to record themselves and become more self-sufficient. Sabourin feels the pandemic has led him to become more resourceful, inspiring him to devote more time to studying vocal pedagogy and mastering recording software.

Canadian music schools and young artist programs have been very supportive of young musicians during this time, something that has inspired singers to continue working on their craft when performance opportunities are temporarily halted. Dufresne, who will be entering the Atelier Lyrique at the Opéra de Montréal in the fall, says “there are many things we will still be able to do even with the lack of mainstage operas, such as role studies and private coaching.” Similarly, Spungin, who will be entering the COC Ensemble Studio in the fall, says that “the COC has […] decided to go ahead and contract its Ensemble Studio next season and [start]in September, hopefully in person, but, if necessary, online.” He adds that he feels “very grateful to these companies for doing what they can for […] young artists.”

In this new climate, many young singers have found there is no shortage of work to be done. Sabourin points out that the pandemic has changed his perception of the audience, and their role in live performance, going as far as to say he feels audiences represent the “most important aspect of this art.” Without a conventional audience to sing for, he says he is using this time to “continue to build a healthy relationship with [his]voice teacher,” and master his instrument. Pandemic or not, he says, “the more curious you are as a singer, the more you explore, the more you think about it, the more you know about the voice, the more you record yourself and listen back, the more you meet with your voice teacher, the better you get.”

“This time is best spent doing the detailed work on our singing that we don’t always have the time to do,” says Dufresne. “It is also a great time to really listen to and watch the great singers of the past and present and find out what makes them great.” Dufresne continues: “As opera singers, the work we do on a daily basis can be very taxing both physically and mentally.” She has used this time to do “positive work” on her physical and mental health.

At a time when résumé-building is nearly impossible, young artists point out that the work of musicians at the beginning of their careers extends past accumulating role credits. “Just as there is more that goes into a singer than just singing, there is more that goes into a résumé than just performing,” points out Spungin.

“This time has forced me to challenge the concept that my identity as an artist has definite parameters,” he continues. “I’ve always been happy to do more than opera. I love choral singing and I love musical theatre and I love picking up my guitar and belting Elton John, but I’ve always thought of those things as ‘other’ than my classical singing.” Spungin acknowledges that “practising and preparing without the catharsis of performance can be very hard,” but he believes that this moment might remind young artists that “just because you are always striving to grow and be better as an artist does not mean you are not enough as a person just as you are.”

Careers in the performing arts are uncertain at the best of times. In this tenuous moment for the classical music industry, it would perhaps be easier for young singers to consider career shifts or to temporarily renounce their musical pursuits. That said, many still understand their work to be important and highly valuable.

“Art has always and will continue to bring people together in the best possible way,” says Dufresne. “I believe that it will not only have a huge hand in helping the recovery from this crisis, but in the many crises that our world faces at […] present.” External factors notwithstanding, she believes that “if you feel the call to create and to be an opera singer, or musician or whatever it is, then you should do it.”

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


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