Schools Devise Multiple Plans For Fall


Jeff Denson, dean of instruction at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley, has shifted to teaching online classes.

(Photo: Courtesy Jeff Denson)

This fall, life on campuses across the country will depend on safety guidelines related to the coronavirus pandemic. Because so much is uncertain, institutions have developed multiple potential plans to keep students safe while providing them with a quality education. DownBeat reached out to several educators to get commentary on preparations for remote learning, in-person classes on campus and a hybrid system that would combine the two approaches.

Like many schools, Columbia College Chicago pivoted entirely to online classes in order to complete its spring semester. Now, the faculty is mining those experiences to see what worked well as it makes plans for the fall. According to Sebastian Huydts, the interim music chair, his team is gleaning information from successful online instruction that took place before the pandemic.

“We have a [Master of Fine Arts] program in Music Composition for the Screen, and this past semester, before COVID-19 started, we had a composer in residence who had so much work in Los Angeles that he couldn’t [travel to Chicago],” Huydts said. “So, we started doing those classes remotely. It was a huge hit with the students. They were amazed by how ‘up-close and personal’ you can actually make this. With a platform like Zoom, it is so easy to share your screen and to share what you’re doing. So, they felt that they got a lot more personal instruction and better instruction than they had in previous semesters.”

At The New School in New York City, all classes in the fall will be held online. Keller Coker, dean of the institution’s School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, explained that the fall curriculum would be shaped by feedback from student surveys conducted this summer: “We ask them, ‘Who do you want to study privately with? Who do you want to be your ensemble director?’ We’re going to build the coursework based on what we hear back from students: What do they need and what do they want?”

Describing The New School’s approach regarding any future on-campus activities, Coker said, “We’re not doing anything that isn’t completely within the guidelines of state and federal government. We want the environment to be safe.”

In the spring, the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley pivoted to put its courses online for the institution’s degree programs, as well as the courses at its community music school, known as the Jazzschool. In the coming months, the staff plans to expand its offerings in high-tech learning.

Susan Muscarella, the CJC president, wrote in an email: “Given the challenging circumstance we find ourselves in—that is, that we’re most likely going to have to run our degree programs entirely online this fall—the California Jazz Conservatory made the decision to roll up its sleeves and revise its curriculum to embrace, rather than reject (or even fear), the technology and technological skill needed for optimal online learning. Specifically, new technologically relevant courses were created, including ‘The Virtual Jazz Ensemble,’ ‘Building the Home Studio’ and ‘Remote Recording Ensemble.’”

One enormous hurdle to online learning that schools have encountered is that musicians in ensembles generally find it impossible to play in real time due to the latency, or time delay, involved in internet communication.

Jeff Denson, CJC’s dean of instruction, has ambitious plans to tackle that huge problem. “There is technology out that allows for real-time online performance [that is] essentially latency free,” the bassist, vocalist and educator said. “Programs do exist that allow it. The only thing is they’re pretty complicated. The top-of-the-line program is JackTrip.”

Denson has tested the technology with numerous experts, and plans to have it ready for student ensembles to use in the fall.

At press time, administrators at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami planned to welcome students back to campus in the fall. This would mean that the large ensembles conducted by John Daversa—the chairperson of the Department of Studio Music and Jazz—will have to take extraordinary steps.

“Instrumentalists who can wear face masks will certainly be wearing them,” Daversa said. “And there are even special head covers for some of the wind players. And certainly there will be plexiglass separators between musicians, plus we’ll be spacing everybody out as much as possible. The university has made available many larger spaces that we can spill into. For the big bands, we’re still going to meet, but probably, for the most part, we’ll meet as sectionals.”

Although the new normal will present hardships and challenges, Daversa maintains a strong faith in the communal bond that musicians share: “The part that is still fun and always will be, is working with the human beings who are involved. That common love for the music and for [creative] expression, and that generosity of spirit—those things make you want to come back to work.” DB

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

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