Studying Voice during a Pandemic – Part 1
Thoughts from Five University Voice Professors
By NAfME Member Linda McAlister
This blog is sponsored by Schmidt Vocal Arts,
sponsor of the 2021 Tri-M Music Honor Society® Chapter of the Year Award.
Read Part Two and Part Three of this three-part series.
2020 will end up being one for the record books. For those in the arts and academia, the uncertainty of the global pandemic has made performance seasons come to a halt, forced universities to come up with contingency plan upon contingency plan, and put into question the health and safety of educators and students. Early on, singing was identified as a “super-spreader” of the COVID-19 virus, so voice teachers and universities, along with opera companies, choirs, and organizations like Schmidt Vocal Arts, have been trying to navigate the best path forward, so that we can still offer opportunities in a safe environment.
To understand how universities around the country are adapting, I spoke with five members of the Schmidt Vocal Artist network. Each serves on the faculty at one of our Schmidt Vocal Competition host institutions and also adjudicates for our vocal competitions across the country.
- Dr. Soon Cho, Assistant Professor of Music-Voice, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, WA
- Prof. Judith Haddon, Artist Faculty-Voice, Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL
- Prof. Amy Kane Jarman, Senior Lecturer of Voice, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
- Prof. Beth Roberts, Voice Faculty, Mannes School of Music, The New School, New York, NY/Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ
- Dr. Randall Umstead, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Voice, Baylor University, Waco, TX
In this three-part blog, we will discuss:
- The Disruption and Quick Pivots of COVID-19: How the pandemic has affected their own teaching, their students, and their universities
- The 2020 Fall Semester and Audition Advice for Young Singers in the Current Environment
- COVID-19 and the Arts: What happens in a post-pandemic world?
The Disruption and Quick Pivots of COVID-19
All five of the universities quickly reacted to the pandemic, some by lengthening their spring breaks or cancelling classes for a week as a transition period. Eventually, all moved to online, remote instruction by the middle or end of March. Cho, Haddon, Jarman, Roberts, and Umstead all mentioned that their students adapted to the online format, some more quickly than others. Overall, students were still able to make a lot of progress during the semester.
McAlister: How well were you able to adjust to the online format? What were the positives and negatives of this format?
Cho (Pacific Lutheran University): Thanks to the resources made available by the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), I was able to switch to online teaching smoothly and successfully. I was able to utilize helpful online tools to enhance my teaching. Specifically, the annotation feature on Zoom was a fun, interactive way for students to transcribe IPA as a group. This was time-saving and, also very fun for them, because they got to pick different colors and interact with each other. On the negative side, the inability to collaborate with a pianist was very disappointing.
Haddon (Chicago College of Performing Arts): There are certain things you can see on Zoom that you cannot see in person! Although all of us would love one-on-one, in-person lessons, there are things I can see better online. Physically, the students are omnipresent. I can really see them breathe. I can see if their tongue is pulling back or jutting forward. The sound is not as good, but I can see if they are in the proper position to sing through the passaggio into the top. I believe the teacher and the students have to concentrate harder to not miss anything. The negative aspects were that recordings of the tracks were iffy in quality, and sometimes that made the student stilted, as there is not a chance to use rubato. We found that with some apps, like AnyTune, at least the singers can change the tempo without the pitch. At CCPA, our teachers found something that seems to work without delay—JamKazam. For this, we had to use ethernet cables as well as an external microphone and headphones. Each student was required to purchase this equipment, but there is a university fund to help with the cost if funds were needed.
Jarman (Vanderbilt University): It was initially difficult to adjust since every student’s situation was so different, including access to reliable internet, a quiet place to work, and a private place to practice and have lessons. We only used Zoom, which I did not find very effective, but it was the best given the immediate need (I have adjusted my platform for this fall). The negatives were that students were exhausted from being in front of a computer all day and many of them really didn’t have any privacy at home. All of the faculty at Vanderbilt were very flexible and re-thought goals and expectations. Some positives were that a few of my students found being at home a better environment for practicing and focusing on their work. Not having the disruptions of campus life helped some of them to find a renewed purpose and interest in their singing. I found that watching them on camera enabled me to respond to certain things more specifically. I had to really pay attention and make good use of all the available lesson time.
Roberts (Mannes School of Music, Montclair State University): Online teaching offered a new perspective. I used Zoom on a large screen TV and was able to see students up close. This enabled me to notice some details that were not as obvious during in-person lessons. Most made considerable progress. I attribute this progress to students feeling comfortable in their own space and being well rested. Students experienced less fatigue from the daily grind of balancing school and part-time jobs, commuting, etc. The negative aspect of the format was the lack of a pianist, unless a family member played the piano (which turned into positive collaborations in a few cases!). Pre-recorded tracks can be a challenge. We are currently researching other platforms which may allow the pianist to be part of the lesson in real time.
Umstead (Baylor University): Some students made the adjustment more quickly than others. All of our faculty would report that this semester took more energy and time than any other, as every task was two tasks: the task itself, and the task of figuring out how to do the task differently. Most of us had only heard of Zoom before March 2020. The downside was unquestionably the loss of the ability for synchronous music making. At the same time, many of our applied teachers (not just voice) reported greater student growth over the course of the semester. I attribute that, in our case, to how much less “busy” students were. Given time and a desire to focus, good work occurred.
McAlister: Were there any “silver linings” to online teaching?
Cho (Pacific Lutheran University): Students were more focused and less vocally tired. Since many of their classroom courses were taught asynchronously, they were excited and looked forward to the weekly synchronous voice lessons.
Haddon (Chicago College of Performing Arts): You can’t hide your tongue on online teaching! You see things you don’t see in real life, and the communication between teacher and student was important.
Jarman (Vanderbilt University): I think the silver lining to online teaching is that I realized that I can do it. I could continue and will continue until it is safe to be with my students again.
Roberts (Mannes School of Music, Montclair State University): During the pandemic, many students returned home to be with their families while still being able to continue their studies, complete the semester, finish degree requirements, and graduate on time.
Umstead (Baylor University): Absolutely! The power of inertia in the academy is one of the strongest forces on the planet. We were forced quickly to do things that, had they been presented as proposals in “normal time,” would have been rejected on sight. But when necessity forced change, people began to see options they had been closing out because they were new or intimidating. I don’t think everything about the present environment should replace the old, as many good practices last over decades for very good reasons. At the same time, every faculty member I know, regardless of discipline, has discovered new approaches and tools that they would have never sought out and now plan to continue using when the pandemic passes.
Upcoming in Part Two of this three-part blog:
The 2020 Fall Semester and Audition Advice for Young Singers in the Current Environment
About Schmidt Vocal Arts and the author:
Schmidt Vocal Arts is dedicated to encouraging young singers to pursue their passion for classical singing and the vocal arts through scholarships and vocal programs for high school singers. NAfME member Linda McAlister is the Executive Director of Schmidt Vocal Arts, where she oversees the organization’s breadth of programming. These programs include the Schmidt Vocal Competition, Schmidt Vocal Institute, Schmidt Vocal Scholarships, new education and training opportunities, and a growing alumni network. Learn more at www.schmidtvocalarts.org. Follow Schmidt Vocal Arts on Facebook and on Instagram @schmidtvocal.
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September 10, 2020. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)