By Elaina Palada

I thought long and hard about making a decision to further my education during these trying times. After graduating with my undergraduate degree in music education from Syracuse University in May 2020, I began to imagine the next chapter of my life as a graduate student in flute performance at the Bienen School of Music.

I moved to Evanston on September 1—one week before new-student orientation began—which gave me plenty of time to settle in and prepare for the start of the school year. Although completely virtual, Wildcat Welcome, a program for new students that provides personalized activities to help students learn more about Northwestern, still fostered feelings of great excitement about this new beginning. I was able to meet other new music students within our areas of study and learn more about which classes I would be taking.

Before course registration, we also met one-on-one with our academic advisor to discuss our degree path and what courses we wanted to take. Fall-quarter classes have been offered in a variety of formats, including asynchronous (no meeting time and students study coursework at their own pace), synchronous (scheduled virtual class times), hybrid (a mix of online and in-person learning), or in-person (all face-to-face instruction).

My schedule this quarter has been a mix of formats and includes “Introduction to Music Research” with Northwestern music librarian Greg MacAyeal, “Compositional Concepts and Techniques” with Jay Alan Yim, Symphonic Band with Shawn Vondran, and flute studio class and private lessons with John Thorne. I also serve as a graduate assistant in the flute studio and the Office of Music Admission. Because of the current circumstances and stressors of moving to a new home, I decided not to take a completely full course load this quarter so that I would not feel too overwhelmed.

With Broadway and other professional ensemble performances closed to in-person audiences, things can feel a little hopeless right now. After almost three months of being in graduate school, however, I could not feel more secure and optimistic about my decision to attend the Bienen School and continue pursuing music as a career. The manner in which academic classes, music activities, and activities outside of the classroom are planned and organized has made me feel safe; I feel that I am getting the most out of my education, even during a global pandemic. Specifically, the faculty here have been so determined to give us all that they can offer.

Over the summer, John Thorne met with all his incoming flute graduate students over Zoom to provide more details about housing opportunities, the flute program, and what this upcoming academic year would look like. Our studio classes have been held in a hybrid format, and we’ve been able to perform for each other with the help of social distancing, mask-wearing, and a Zoom audience of our peers. This model has been extremely beneficial because it allows three individual performances each week while the rest of the class watches and provides feedback via Zoom.

Our Symphonic Band conductor, Shawn Vondran, has invited guests and alumni to our weekly Zoom rehearsals to discuss music audition preparation and career development. We’ve spoken with alumni who currently play in professional ensembles such as the San Francisco Symphony, West Point Band, and United States Marine Band. We also had the privilege of talking to composer Joel Puckett about diversity and representation in music.

The Bienen School’s facilities and faculty/student support staff have also been working very hard to provide safe performance spaces for lessons, recitals, and chamber rehearsals. Practice rooms have been assigned to groups of three to four people, and each room is equipped with sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer.

If you are feeling hesitant to take the next step in your education, please let this post provide you with some reassurance. I am so thankful to be a student at an institution that has taken safety and health precautions seriously, while still being able to have opportunities to improve as a musician and a person.

Elaina Palada is a master's flute student at the Bienen School of Music.

  • pandemic
  • John Thorne