Oberlin Emphasizes Safety


Oberlin vocal instructor La Tanya Hall (foreground) and student Diana Gruber (on monitor) meet in two “real-time” rooms.

(Photo: Rosen-Jones Photography)

What Does on-campus instruction look like and feel like during the pandemic? As students across the nation headed back to campus for the fall semester, DownBeat decided to check in with one renowned institution to see how things were going.

During videoconference interviews in mid-September, educators at Oberlin College & Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, shared their views on the task of delivering high-quality music instruction while also protecting the health and safety of faculty, staff and students.

William Quillen, dean of the conservatory, explained that Oberlin has designed 10 new spaces that allow an instructor or music student to be in one room and collaborate with another musician who is in a separate room—located on the other side of a shared wall. This scenario uses an analog connection to eliminate the latency that can make music instruction over Zoom somewhat difficult. Additionally, for performers who sing, this plan addresses the phenomenon of aerosolization, which is a risk factor for transmitting COVID-19.

“We set up a total of five pairs of rooms—so that’s 10 different rooms throughout the conservatory—of what we’re calling ‘real-time rooms,’” Quillen explained. “We drilled a hole in the wall and [installed] high-quality microphones, 55- or 65-inch video monitors, speakers and headphones in a room, which is hardwired to the room next door. So there’s essentially zero latency.”

One educator using the rooms is La Tanya Hall, who teaches jazz voice. “The students are incredibly excited about the technology,” Hall said. “It’s much more efficient [than web-based instruction], especially from a vocal perspective, because I can hear things much better. I’m able to see the whole body of the performer. It’s quite a nice solution. It’s not 100 percent ideal, but it’s the closest we can get to real, in-person teaching while keeping everyone absolutely safe.”

Hall also teaches some of her voice students in an outdoor tent, when weather permits. The Oberlin campus has an abundance of green space, making it easy for students to meet outdoors and stand more than six feet apart.

Bassist Gerald Cannon teaches his students indoors, with everyone wearing face coverings and standing behind large plexiglass separators.

“I’m very happy with the way things are going,” Cannon said. “I feel very safe, and I think the students feel very safe. They’re eager to learn. I’ve been really impressed with my improv class. The way I teach [incorporates] a lot of constructive criticism from each one of the students. I want them to feel kind of like a family, and I want them to understand constructive criticism from their peers.”

Oberlin’s administration has taken many steps to facilitate steady communication between the instructors, students, public health officials and local residents. The school’s website has a section that displays weekly and cumulative results for coronavirus testing. The ObieSafe Statistics webpage indicated that for the period of Aug. 5 to Oct. 19, the school’s cumulative positivity rate for coronavirus tests was 0.17 percent.

Quillen said that students generally have been vigilant about following Oberlin’s strict health and safety guidelines. “The kind of students who come here—they come here not just because of their interest in musical excellence, but also because of a certain kind of intellectual and social commitment,” he said. “It’s a school that kids go to for a reason: They want to change the world for good.” DB

This story originally was published in the December 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.

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