NYC Schools Re-Opening Amid Challenges, Protocols

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Juilliard’s Aaron Flagg

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The return of students to college campuses around the New York City area, the mecca of jazz, comes on the heels of an academic year like no other. Following a year and a half of remarkable resilience in adapting to the pandemic, music students and faculty alike are now eager to fully embrace the in-person teaching that they may have previously taken for granted.

Of the six schools surveyed for this piece, responses to COVID-19 varied wildly in 2020. While some remained closed through that historic pandemic year, resorting exclusively to Zoom and other media networking software to link students for at-home instruction, others found ways to continue in-person teaching in the classroom by enacting extraordinary safety protocols. By maintaining social distancing in ensemble practice rooms while ensuring that trumpet and saxophone players were fitted with special masks allowing for mouthpieces to slip through and placing specialty bags around the bells of their horns to reduce aerosolization, resourceful institutions were able to push beyond the limitations of remote learning and get students back to playing in a room together, feeling the vibration of instruments, hearing the blend and reacting in the moment; the way jazz has always been played.

In the face of such adversity, some educators and administrators have emerged as heroes in their uncommon efforts to keep their students fully engaged with in-person classes. Others, who were shut out of that intimate process when their campuses closed, were — at the time of this writing — anticipating emotional reunions with students after more than a year-and-a-half apart. Here are their stories:

Pete Malinverni, head of jazz studies, SUNY Purchase College: There’s that old line: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” I teach an improv class and for improvisation you really have to play together. Many of the theory classes were online last fall, but the stuff where you actually have to play together — our combo, big band and improv classes — we had to do them in-person. We were on our hands and knees measuring six-feet squares between the students because we didn’t want anybody getting sick. So, we did meet in person last year, but with really strict protocols. Everybody had masks on, we had the plexiglass shields up between you and the next person six feet apart. And, we had weekly testing. All of our students adhered very strictly to the mask mandates and nobody got sick. I kept telling them how inspired I was by them.

So last year everybody was taking the tack that we’re all in the same boat: I protect you, you protect me. If we want to be together, this is what we have to do. And man, they took it seriously. It was wonderful to see how much they cared, how supportive they were of each other. I cannot wait for our first day back to classes [Aug. 30]. I love these kids, and it’ll be really nice to see the bottom half of their faces again.

Steve Wilson, director of jazz studies, City College: When this pandemic hit in March last year, only a few programs were allowed to remain on campus. If you had labs or were emergency personnel, that was OK. But everyone else had to shift to remote learning. Teaching remotely was definitely a challenge — first adapting to it, then doing it over a long period of time. Just to maintain the interest level for the students was a challenge because they’re doing every class online. You know, they get Zoomed out. I think we all get Zoomed out. So you have to find ways to make it interesting and as engaging as possible. But Zoom has its limitations, especially if students do not have good Wi-Fi connections at home. Some students I had were literally attending class in their vehicles on their phones. So they’re fighting all kinds of conditions that may not be the most favorable.

There was some upside to the pandemic in terms of students and teachers having to learn some of this new technology, which is here to stay. These new modes will continue to be adapted and modified and be a part of the paradigm going forward. We also received some funds at the end of the spring semester to upgrade one of our larger multifunction rooms to do streaming classes and presentations and concerts and lectures. That’s a room we’re going to be preparing to adapt to this COVID situation, but it will probably take most of this academic year for the room to get outfitted.

We’ll be doing hybrid learning in the fall of 2021. We will be offering a remote option for students that, for whatever reason, can’t get vaccinated or maybe couldn’t get their student visa to travel to New York City to attend classes. All of the lecture classes will be exclusively online. I don’t expect full-on, in-person teaching at City College until the spring semester of 2022. This is going to be a very crucial period we’re coming into. Given the delta variant, it’s still a very fluid situation.

Ingrid Jensen, interim dean, director of jazz, Manhattan School of Music: Right after lockdown, I began doing Zoom classes. But I started going in and teaching in-person a few months later. I just said, “You know what? We’re going to mask up, we’re going to go 30 minutes at a time and we’re going to get more done in a small window of time than we do trying to reach some sense of communication on Zoom.” It was exhausting but it worked. And the community element of all of it was another eye-opener, too, for both the students and me. I noticed that the older students became much more mentor-like and caring of the younger students because they were kind of like, “This is the situation. We’re all in it together.”

We were in-person most of last year. All of our performances classes were in-person and we also did concerts. That all happened in real time with real people, masked up and socially distanced. It was based on some very detailed, scientific-based theories that have nothing to do with playing the blues or writing contemporary jazz standards. The main scientific directive to every choice that MSM made came from Johns Hopkins. And, boy, did it ever work out.

MSM extended a massive effort to keep students and faculty on campus. They had air cleaners installed in every room and they re-did the whole system of changing up the air every few minutes, like how it works on an airplane. And we followed all the regulations of how long you could be in a room and how many people could be in a room, based on the Johns Hopkins guidance. We had a few scares where students got sick going out at clubs or going to parties and just getting a little too risky, so then they would have to be quarantined for a while. And because of a lot of students on campus were living in the dorms, and the dorms were very organized, there were no real outbreaks. So that was part of the system that kept things going. It was just a huge team effort by students, faculty and administration. It was like we were all riding in this big boat together, and it kept listing from port to starboard and we were like, “Everybody, hang on!” But we never had to really shut down completely, which was just amazing.

The teachers had to shift through all of the materials that they used to bring in person to handout and upload it all to this system called Canvas. And they were on big TV screens in the classroom, rehearsing students from the safety of their own homes. And there were two-hour rehearsals for groups, but they would play in one room for an hour and then shift to another room, so nobody was ever in the room for longer than an hour. The students were playing live music together, jamming like crazy in those rehearsal rooms. We had full big bands doing reading sessions playing a bunch of Thad Jones music. And I programmed 13 or 14 workshops where we had guests Zooming in from all over the place. We were in our little bubble, and it was great. The singers were really belting out their songs with this muted piece of cloth over their faces. The trumpet players had to have shower caps on their bells and have special masks where their mouthpieces were fitted in. I mean, we tried our best to cover every available appendage but in the end you can’t cover every breath that’s coming out of the saxophone. There’s too many holes. But that’s where the social distancing came in. It was all very challenging for them, but what was fascinating was just to see how adaptable everyone was to it.

We took so much for granted before all of this. Of course, playing live was the biggest thing we took for granted. But spacing — people being able to see each other and the intimacy of our music — became a new challenge for the students. Playing at a distance of 10 feet between a saxophone player and a trumpet player in a big band or 12 feet between the piano player and the bass player; that’s unheard of for the way we play. Normally, we’re always like smelling each other’s sweat. But I saw people finding things in themselves they didn’t know existed and they began making incredible music together. I think those students that had to stay on Track D, and be totally remote the whole time, missed out on some of that magic of us being in our little bubble together.

David Schroeder, department of music chair and former director of jazz studies, NYU Steinhart: First we got hit with COVID, then we got hit with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and all the students demonstrating in Washington Square right across from my office. So it was pretty crazy all last summer. We were locked down for about four months at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, then we came back to our offices last August. By September, we were here with classes that were a combination of online and live. Normally there’s about 65,000 students here, and last fall we had about 30,000. And, while NYU is a private institution, we do have to follow the state guidelines. So all the classrooms were socially distanced, you had to wear a mask, you had to be six feet apart. There were signs on the floor: You Can’t Stand Here. Only two people could be in an elevator at a time. On campus the faculty gets tested every two weeks, students get tested weekly. And if you live in the dorm, now it’s like one person in a suite instead of three. All those things are adhered to, drastically.

Last year we had our orchestra socially distanced in our large space in this building, which we call Penthouse. They all had to wear masks. The percussionists were there, but we had the horn players on a different floor in individual practice rooms piped in using the Dante networking system, and then they could watch on their computers. Zoom is a little out of sync, so we got Dante, which they use in the pit orchestras on Broadway. So, that’s really bending over backwards to make students come back and feel like they’re interacting. And I’m fortunate to have John Scofield, Chris Potter, Lenny White and all these guys on my faculty. We’re rich with great faculty, and that attracts students.

So we’re going to be fully back on Sept. 1. We don’t know if we’re going to be able to invite the general public to performances yet, or if they have to be masked to attend. But I think everything else is going to be business as usually, unless the delta variant keeps rearing its ugly head.

Keller Coker, dean of jazz, The New School: Last year there were no in-person classes. We didn’t begin having any in-person activities until the second five-week module of the spring 2021 semester. That’s when we did have some small ensemble work for students that were interested in that experience, with the faculty Zooming in. The students were in the classroom, but the faculty were at home. And we’ve been doing that this summer as well. Realizing that it was a difficult year for students, we offered more summer classes than we usually do, and offered all of them free to students. It was a tough year for everybody, and we’re trying to figure out all the ways that we can make life feel better for students, add value that maybe normally wasn’t there in the past. We learned things over the course of the year and we realize that institutions need to constantly be looking at what they do while moving forward and evolving. So we’re going to keep some of the things that we did learn during the pandemic as we move back to in-person teaching.

On our first day of classes (Aug. 30) the students, faculty and staff are all required to be vaccinated. Most situations are still going to require a mask indoors and we’ve purchased things like woodwind and brass bags that cover the bell of horns and specialty masks for vocalists. We’ve got all the equipment that we need so that everybody can comply. We’re ready to be 100% in-person and everything’s being delivered in exactly the same modality that it was prior to the pandemic. The only classes that are online are classes that were online before the pandemic, like music history and some entrepreneurial classes. We just did a whole year online, so we know how to deliver it.

Zoom was the primary platform for synchronous classwork but the latency issues make it very difficult to play at the same time if you’re playing something that requires a synchronized pulse. There’s certainly other things that you can do, but you have to think of groove in a very different way. So it’s not about just like laying down a typical funk groove and saying, “OK, now we’re all going to play together.” Because it’s virtually impossible to do that with Zoom or any kind of simple platform. So we also bought a license for Soundtrap, which is a digital audio workstation that’s also networked, and we gave every student a Soundtrap license so that they could do layered recordings and recording projects together.

We also started to employ platforms like SonoBus and JackTrip and offered network synchronous playing classes for students, which allowed them to collaborate not only with students at The New School but with with students at other institutions around the country. We wanted to do that kind of thing before the pandemic, and we’ve got folks on the faculty who are on the leading edge of that. The use of that technology really is more about broadening who you can play with. If you’ve got somebody who’s 250 miles away, and you’ve got a project together, then you can use that technology to be able to rehearse together and prepare for an upcoming gig without having to be in the same room together. And then the joy of being in the room together is all the better.

Aaron Flagg, chair and associate director of jazz studies, The Juilliard School: Ours was a hybrid system last year, which was a fascinating-but-flexible experience. Our theory classes were online but we had our performance ensembles — big band and small ensembles — meeting in-person since Oct. 29. And we took tons of precautions. We had the masks, the instruments in bags, everybody spaced apart. Having an actual concert was a problem, so we ended up doing a kind of performance capture, which was like a studio recording with no audience but you’re in the hall. That was part of our new live streaming initiative, and the school made major investments toward that end.

Last spring we installed HD cameras and the whole system and hired a video department over the course of this lockdown so that we can live-stream. We can capture things with a four-camera shoot and equipped many of the school rehearsal spaces and concert venues with this type of technology, which is actually something I started 10 years ago when I was running the program at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford [Connecticut]. When I came to Juilliard seven years ago, I kept saying, “Why don’t we do the same thing? Let’s do live streaming.” Back then it wasn’t a popular idea, but as soon as the pandemic hit on March 12, 2020, everybody was like, “All right, install all the cameras. Let’s do it! We want to maintain connections with our students, so whatever we have to do, we’re going to do.” It’s amazing to see people’s pure focus on wanting to help their students be a sufficient motivator to embrace change.

When we start our fall classes (Aug. 30), our plan is to be fully back in terms of the performance ensembles, with the understanding that all students must be vaccinated. During the spring and summer, people were tested incredibly diligently and there was a very focused contact tracing effort. So students and faculty and staff felt very comfortable and safe in the building.

The outstanding question is the public. To what extent do we have audiences in the fall? And how do you do that in a way that’s not discriminatory, but still safe? It’s controversial, and it’s difficult. My son went to an NBA game and there was a whole passport vaccination protocol being followed. So we’ll see if we adopt that at Juilliard.

We are 100% committed to students being back in the classroom in the fall. We will continue to respect social distancing. Certainly we will insist on masks coming into the building from the outside and using the subways. But once you’re in the building and in the rehearsal hall, you won’t need a mask. But I defer to whatever changes in the state guidelines might happen.

One of the things I have learned during this whole process is improvisation in a different way. This is not the time to be dogmatic. My attitude now is, “Whatever the rules are today, let’s deal with those today.” The situation keeps evolving and it changes all the time on so many levels. At the end of the spring, people wore masks even while they were playing, to reduce aerosolization. And in some cases the horns had bell covers. So even if we have to go back to the default position like the spring, we are still going to be playing in person.

I think it’s fair to say everyone experienced a compromised education to some extent last year. That’s something that we hope to address. And I think the students have been incredibly grateful for the times that they can make music together in person. DB



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