Academic Programs Restructure Amid Pandemic

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​William Paterson University students who study with Mike LeDonne created a YouTube clip with each musician’s part recorded separately. Pictured are Spencer Zweifel, organ; Ryan Hernandez, guitar; Joe McCaffrey, drums; Jonny Gittings, trumpet; and William McKee, alto saxophone.

(Photo: William Paterson University)

If you’re looking for an American bellwether of the coronavirus pandemic, look no further than the country’s jazz education programs, many of which include foreign students.

“We had Chinese students returning after the holidays, early in the new year,” said Joyce Griggs, executive vice president and provost of the Manhattan School of Music. “We became aware of the outbreak of this unknown disease in Wuhan, so we began communicating in mid-January, to ensure students knew that everyone was safe.”

Six weeks later, on March 1, New York State confirmed its first case of the coronavirus.

“By March 12, we were out of our building,” Griggs recalled.

Twenty miles to the east, on the campus of William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, Jazz Studies Coordinator David Demsey and Director of Jazz Studies Bill Charlap also scrambled to respond to the escalating crisis.

“Everything needed to be regeared, rebuilt, restructured,” Charlap said. “Faculty had a week to do it.”

Across the country, at California State University, Sacramento, Director of Jazz Studies Steve Roach was facing the same challenge.

“All ensembles and live performance were halted,” Roach said. “The department had to get very proactive about helping our students finish what they needed to finish.”

A now-familiar pattern of Zoom sessions and digital file transfers took the place of band-room lessons and face-to-face instruction. At MSM, administrators reached out to the school’s faculty to assess what equipment they possessed, along with how much technical know-how they had. A peer-to-peer help network was established, and the school staffed a technical support call center six days a week.

In the Midwest, at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, faculty members felt that consistency was key to maintaining some semblance of normalcy during those weeks.

“It was helpful to try and keep students’ online-learning schedule close to the original course schedule and in-person learning,” Jazz Studies Chair José Encarnación wrote in an email. “I started off class by checking in, offering support via Zoom. If a student expressed concern or difficulty with routines, I provided support and/or resources.”

At William Paterson, Charlap ensured that students received interactive materials to help them continue learning pieces by ear and working on other requirements.

“The biggest challenge was continuing our work with our ensembles,” Charlap said.

“For ensembles, there are definitely latency issues with Zoom and other online platforms,” Roach said. “Drums present a real issue.”

From her home in upstate New York, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the newly appointed interim associate dean and director of jazz arts at MSM, said, “As well as latency, the challenge is keeping students engaged, ensuring that everyone is getting what they need. The composition class went really well, because I could call up charts and share them [via videoconferencing] or move to my keyboard to demonstrate something, or just pick up my horn and play. I think students learned more in that context.”

Charlap said some of the results from the new reality of dispersed learning surprised him. “Our students are so adept at using media that you listen to some of the things that they did—one of them is in Korea, another is in Peoria and a third is in central New Jersey—and they sound like they were in a recording studio and did this in real time.”

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