By Mary Buckingham and Laura Sauer

The art of music instruction and performance faces many challenges when translated into a virtual format. Despite myriad obstacles, the Bienen School of Music adjusted its 2020-21 coursework to accommodate students studying remotely from all over the world. What would normally consist of all in-person coursework, rehearsals, and performances evolved into a flexible mix of synchronous, asynchronous, hybrid, and, more recently, in-person instruction. We asked a few students who studied far from Evanston for part or all of the 2020-21 school year to reflect on their experiences.

Moyue Zhou, a first-year master’s student studying orchestral conducting, studied from Shanghai, China for the entire academic year. The pandemic worsened right during the time Zhou was deciding where to enroll for graduate studies. After choosing the Bienen School, she considered deferring and taking a gap year, but ultimately elected to begin classes in the fall of 2020, and her teacher, Professor Victor Yampolsky, helped her come to this decision. “I wanted to continue the momentum to study and pursue my education. I was also eager to begin studying with my mentor,” she said. With a 13-hour time difference between Evanston and Shanghai, a typical day of classes for Zhou took place between 11:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. Despite her studies having evolved into a sort of graduate “night school,” she relished the opportunity to work and make progress toward her degree. “Even though my learning was online, I felt fresh every second I got to study at Bienen. All of the courses I have taken have been great and helpful so far, and I am grateful for the help of my professors.”

Third-year undergraduate cello performance student Annie Hyung studied remotely from California during fall quarter, taking synchronous and asynchronous classes generally between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. Despite studying from across the country, she was able to connect with faculty and her peers. “Virtual lessons were super valuable during fall quarter, as were our virtual studio classes. Remote instruction is not a complete replacement for in-person lessons, but it allowed me to continue to receive feedback about my playing, and to feel connected to a musical community. Recent technological upgrades also really improved the experience.” Some of Hyung’s spring-quarter classes have remained remote but Hyung has found aspects of her remote coursework unexpectedly enjoyable: “One of my favorite remote classes thus far has been my spring quarter musicology course about Brahms, taught by Associate Professor Andrew Talle. It took place from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. and felt a lot like an intimate book club, with lots of good music in addition to discussion of the biography we read!” Holding class at this time also allowed students living in a variety of time zones to participate in real time.

Time differences also have been a challenge for professors teaching students currently living around the world. Professor Gerardo Ribeiro’s daily schedule is a prime example. He taught and continues to teach lessons to Bienen School students living in California, Taiwan, China, and South Korea. He often teaches on Sunday nights between 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., which typically is a Monday morning for an international student. “I always have to specify if the lesson is at 11:00 a.m. or 11:00 p.m.! Thankfully, many of the international students use a 24-hour clock.” Professor Ribeiro knows that private lessons are one of the most important components of his students’ educations. No stranger to online teaching, he began teaching online lessons and master classes to students in Europe, China, and Australia many years before the pandemic began. Even though teaching online is not new for Professor Ribeiro, he is excited to return to teaching his students in person.

While nearly every aspect of coursework has changed this academic year, students and faculty adapted and made adjustments at every turn. The fact that the Bienen School’s students, living across the country and even across an ocean, have continued their studies is a testament to their talent and monumental dedication to music. Hyung sums up the 2020-21 year with a grateful sentiment: “I find myself so thankful for the opportunities and resources we have had access to during this time!”

Mary Buckingham is a master’s voice and opera student and Laura Sauer is Assistant Director of Admission at the Bienen School of Music.

  • pandemic
  • Victor Yampolsky
  • Andrew Talle
  • Gerardo Ribeiro