This article appeared in the fall 2020 issue of  Fanfare magazine.

In mid-March Northwestern announced that all spring courses would move online to help protect the University community in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Spring break was extended by a week to allow faculty to prepare for this unprecedented shift.

On Monday, April 6, the Bienen School of Music began a historic spring quarter. Rather than meeting in classrooms, studios, and rehearsal halls, students and faculty gathered virtually. Remote instruction presents particular challenges for a music school, but Bienen School faculty quickly sprang into action and demonstrated great creativity in adapting their courses and activities. Many had previous experience teaching through video conferencing systems, while others quickly embraced the new technology. 

Voice senior lecturer Theresa Brancaccio reported positive results from teaching applied voice online and said her students made great progress through Zoom lessons. “The ability of students to watch themselves on video during the lesson gave very valuable feedback, and the bonus of receiving the recording after the lesson allowed them to further process concepts and presentation.”

John Thorne, associate professor of flute, said video recordings provided students with objectivity and allowed them to analyze and improve their performances. “I also think that online instruction gave students more time for introspection,” he added. “For students today, the fast pace of life slowed down during the spring. This allowed the students to look within and to hear their own voice, and the ability to listen to one’s inner voice is the most important skill for any artist or musician.” 

In Thorne’s orchestral excerpts class, students focused on videorecording multiple excerpts at a time, building up to six excerpts in one take to increase concentration and simulate playing a live audition. This also allowed students to develop a video library of excerpt performances to use for future festivals and professional auditions. In his studio class, Thorne’s students recorded chamber music via Adobe Premiere, which allowed them to learn a new technology for remote ensemble performances. Students also enjoyed guest presentations on career development from Elizabeth Rowe and Cynthia Meyers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Jennifer Gunn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Several prominent guest artists joined the online composer series hosted by director of choral organizations Donald Nally, who transitioned his choral rehearsals into combined weekly Zoom sessions for all Bienen voice students. John Luther Adams, Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe, Eriks Esenvalds, and other esteemed composers discussed their choral music as part of these seminars. 

“Growth often comes during periods of challenge. I feel that all the students grew so much over the spring quarter. It was heartening to see them rise to the occasion and succeed during this time.” - John Thorne

Music education professor Steven Morrison remotely welcomed Jeffrey Waraksa of Chicago Public Schools, Daniel Brame of Deerfield Public Schools, and alumna Julia Shaw ’14 PhD of Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music as guest speakers in his course on curriculum development. 

String chamber music students advanced their proficiency with infamous solo passages under the spring teaching model developed by Desirée Ruhstrat, lecturer and string chamber program coordinator. Based on the Naughty Bits book series, lessons gave students an opportunity to focus on the individual roles and responsibilities of their specific instruments within the chamber music repertoire. “For many works in classical chamber music, instruments can be thrust into the limelight with a solo passage that suddenly runs very high or with a very fast flurry of notes,” Ruhstrat said. “The objective is to collect such passages so they can be practiced together, making it easier when you are called upon to play these pieces.” Individual members of the Dover Quartet, the Bienen School of Music Quartet-in-Residence, met with small groups of students by instrument via Zoom for weekly coaching sessions to prepare their individual parts.

Although faculty and students made great strides in adapting during challenging circumstances, several music classes—including ensembles such as orchestra and band—were deemed less than optimal to provide through remote instruction and were therefore canceled. The Bienen School waived the ensemble participation requirement for the spring quarter. But with more time to plan for fall, faculty are reimagining many classes and activities that once seemed impossible to offer. 

“Growth often comes during periods of challenge,” said Thorne. “I feel that all the students grew so much over the spring quarter. It was heartening to see them rise to the occasion and succeed during this time.”

  • pandemic
  • John Thorne
  • Theresa Brancaccio
  • Desiree Ruhstrat
  • Steven Morrison
  • Donald Nally