By Carolina Lumetta
“The major part of the conservatory is personal communication and community,” said Chloe Liu, a junior music composition major from China. “Now that’s impossible. All the projects are gone and recitals are cancelled.”
The March 11 decision by college administration to continue the Spring 2020 semester remotely has caused all academic departments to redesign their courses for virtual learning. The Wheaton Conservatory of Music was also required to adapt to an online education in place of in-person musical training. To date, most classes have switched to online instruction, but ensembles, recitals and juries have been cancelled. The conservatory is deferring performance rescheduling decisions to the professors to be made on a case-by-case basis.
The conservatory is not unique in its decision. Music programs across the country have had to cancel student performances and ensembles, with many recital-based classes having to shift to textbook learning or being postponed altogether. Yale’s Conservatory has allowed students to submit recordings while Oberlin is leaving the choice up to individual professors. Although the Record tried to find information from schools comparable to Wheaton in size and focus, most institutions are not publicly sharing their methods of dealing with the shift to online learning.
Conservatory students are grappling with the effects that these changes have had on their musical training.
Liu was scheduled to produce multiple composition projects this quad, but many of her classes do not translate well to an online platform. Her digital music class has shifted from being project-based to videos and homework assignments because students no longer have access to on-campus studios and software.
“I’m happy to adjust to it and learn whatever I can, but I do know that for senior composition majors it’s especially hard,” Liu said. “They only have one recital in the four years, and it’s supposed to take place during their senior year.”
Liu also had to buy a new computer and software to continue her classes. But the biggest difficulty, she says, is missing the opportunity to record music and prepare for graduate school applications.
“I’m applying for grad school next year, so I need to have recordings of my compositions,” Liu said. “Because of the school cancelling everything, I can’t do the recordings as scheduled, which will make my senior year very hard and busy.”
Though most conservatory students are continuing their studies online, students in some majors are stuck without their instruments or equipment.
Sophomore Daniel Schroeder is studying music history and organ performance, and he is one of the only organ students to have found an instrument to practice with during quarantine. Schroeder worked for his local church in Sugar Grove, Ill. prior to the state’s shelter-in-place rules and has been able to practice using their organ. Although Schroeder’s ensembles have been cancelled, his professors have decided to grant credit for the work he’s already completed, and he is continuing private lessons over Skype.
“It feels like I had finally just started adjusting and fitting into the community, and all of a sudden that’s gone,” Schroeder said. “The biggest blow has been the cancellation of ensembles. I know you can keep up with things virtually, but there’s something special about the campus community that is very hard to give up. It looks bleak, but there’s no concrete way to continue.”
Despite a delayed response regarding how classes will continue, Schroeder said that many professors have been flexible with determining how to continue virtually and have shown care for the emotional and spiritual health of their students.
Families of conservatory students have had to adjust in light of the necessary hours of practice time. Sophomore Felicity Roche said that she finds it difficult to find a quiet time to practice on the keyboard in her living room. Nancy Taylor (‘98) said her daughter has to go to her grandparent’s house to rehearse on an available piano and is often asked to help her siblings with their practices.
Mary Lu Anthony is the mother of senior percussion major Eric Anthony. He was originally given permission to stay on campus to access the instruments he needs to complete his classes, but that decision was revoked after the college decided to close all its buildings and offices except limited access to the dining hall, and Eric had to return home along with his siblings.
The family created a make-shift music room for Eric’s percussion lessons. “The first lesson was tough, as drums are loud and it was difficult to hear any clarity from the set on the computer,” Mrs. Anthony said. “My husband set up our recording gear, attached mics to each of the drums, set up the overhead mics, we hauled in mattresses to help absorb the splash back from the wall and it is working well.”
Dean of the Conservatory of Music Dean Wilder was with Performance Studies Director Mary Hopper and the Men’s Glee Club in Florida when the decision was made to close campus. “I won’t forget the image of these men, immediately upon hearing this news, finding their prayer groups and praying so valiantly together for all that was about to happen,” Wilder said. “It was quite a moving experience, and they have never done a finer job than they did that evening.”
Wilder is still meeting with his staff to find new ways to meet accreditation requirements. Decisions on how to conduct juries and recitals are being made on a case-by-case basis with input from individual faculty members.
Hopper has continued to keep the large ensembles connected through prayer groups. She is also coordinating logistics between faculty and students, ensuring that the online systems are working. She admitted that the faculty are overwhelmed, but she is focused on supporting both staff and students through the transition.
“The faculty are exhausted already because it’s all new,” Hopper said. “Putting all this online is a huge job, but it’s triage. We’re not going to be doing this permanently; it’s just to get us through the next few weeks.”
As part of their effort to connect with students despite the remote learning circumstances, conservatory faculty have created a YouTube channel for professors to post weekly encouraging videos for their students and the Wheaton community. This “Thursdays at 1:15” series is designed to connect the student body and professors in a non-class environment.
Although Hopper, Wilder and the entire conservatory are trying to plan for next year, there is uncertainty on how to proceed until bans on public groups are lifted.
“For the rest of the quad, I just really don’t know,” Wilder said. “With everyone else, I’ve been trying to brace myself for this dragging out for a very long time.”
This spring’s Artist Series performances will not be rescheduled but conservatory faculty and staff are still planning fall recitals and construction work has continued on the new concert hall. There will be a grand opening and dedication in the fall. Still, it is unclear on how to proceed until bans on public groups are lifted.
“There’s a large sense of loss and disappointment,” Wilder said. “Ours is a very precious community, and much of that seems to have been ripped away. I won’t try to hide the fact that this is something that we’re all very disappointed about. At the same time, we worship a God who has created all things, even these, and will work them together for good, and so we look for that.”