Rachael Currie did not expect to take her classes behind a computer screen when first applying as a vocal major for MUN’s music school. When asked why she chose to enroll in MUN’s music program specifically, her thoughts echoed the sentiment of many who chose the same educational route: “It was attainable, financially, for me to go, it was comfortable for me to go, and also, it was one of the best music schools. […] Definitely in the Atlantic provinces, but arguably, Canada.” However, in the midst of Newfoundland being hit by the second wave of coronavirus and further dulling students’ hopes for school opening in September, it brings forth questions that have always been present but have yet to be answered.
For one, what is happening now that MUN is less attainable financially and no longer comfortable nor convenient for its students? Further, what are the students’ thoughts about how the promised “[e]xcellent professional training in a stimulating environment” is currently limited to the mind-numbing glow of a computer screen? Rachael began to answer these questions through her first-hand account as a student enrolled in a primarily sound-based course reduced to the scratchy and frustrating quality of video calls.
Although she could not vouch for the other general populace of the school, Rachael believed that “the music school specifically has been really accommodating, they shifted very quickly, and very well.” Even the practical lessons, which she was initially worried about, “have been productive, they haven’t been counterproductive or impossible.” However, Rachael credited the saving grace of MUN’s music school to their “incredible teachers that have both industry experience and years and years of knowledge on academia in music and practical performance as well.” Furthermore, she even managed to find some upsides to online learning, such as Zoom-calling music professionals that otherwise would have had to travel to MUN’s campus. The classes have hosted widely renowned musicians, with names such as Lester Lynch and Sonya Baker that stuck out in Rachael’s mind the most, whom both presented Masterclasses regarding the music industry.
Despite these positives, the transition has not been entirely smooth. Although acknowledging MUN’s “plethora of mental health services,” she stated that: “If I simply had a little bit less to do and a little bit more time to spend on myself so I can breathe and cope with this change a little better […] then I would not need to avail of these mental health services. It’s wonderful that they’re there, but it seems kind of redundant to have professors pushing like Get help if you need it! Everything is here if you want it! If you have questions, if you’re struggling mentally, go get help! And I’m like, I would, but I have four assignments and three tests and another quiz over the next week due, so, you know. I don’t exactly have time.”
It is worth noting that online learning suggests a level of leniency with coursework, as students and professors alike are struggling to find their footing in this new and isolating university experience. Nevertheless, MUN’s music school, known for its rigour and heavy course load, seems it could not afford to slow down. From the very first semester, “eight courses is the maximum they want you to take,” and it was dealing with this pressure in a productive way that students like Rachael found the most challenging.
“I am the most Type A person you know,” she explained, “so I need to control every single aspect of my life and to know what’s happening. When all this happened, I lost that entire sense of control […] and my mental health was terrible from September to December, like the worst it had ever been.” Rachael attributed this downfall to how she did not have the same amount of emotional outlets as she did from March to August, and how “once school started and I had all this stuff to do, my mental health tanked because I had even less time to try and control my life, so, dealing with those emotions was really, really difficult. Now, obviously, I dealt with them, I got mental health help […] so it is all fine now. But […] that was probably the hardest thing I had to face through this past semester.”
Furthermore, the challenges associated with taking all of one’s coursework online, especially in a primarily sound-based major, did not help this rapidly surmounting feeling of stress. “I live in Portugal Cove,” Rachael elaborated, “the density of that is not as heavy as St. John’s, but it’s still relatively significant. However, my internet is terrible […] I go into my applied lesson on Jitsi or Zoom with my prof, and she’s like, I can barely see you [or] I can’t hear you properly, and like I’m set up with a mic [and] I’m connected to an ethernet cable, it’s all this stuff and it’s still really difficult to do.”
Accordingly, no amount of technology can replicate the “acoustically superb concert halls, a state of the art digital music lab, large rehearsal rooms, new pianos, and a wide range of ensembles” promised to the freshly minted music students on MUN’s website. All of the ensemble work has been replaced with seminars, a devastating swap according to Rachael: “Something fun I would do on Tuesdays and Thursdays to relax and spend time with my friends and be social, to something I had to do projects for and papers on and do readings and video watching and all this other stuff. So, it’s very different from what I think it would be, or what I’ve been told it would be in person.” She then mentioned that “It’s really frustrating because I can’t get this quality of education that I would get, and that honestly, I’m paying for because I am online and it sucks.”
Which begs the question: if universities are not even providing half the immersive experience they promised to “give students the tools and experiences they need to develop their talents to the full,” why are they charging the same amount of tuition? The Canadian Federation of Students has even urged universities to lower their tuition rates, yet it seems that even amongst the most musically sound of institutions, this plea falls upon deaf ears.
When asked what advice she would give to other music students experiencing similar challenges, Rachael suggested that despite the pressure to use every spare moment to practice, it is essential to take breaks because “you want to preserve your relationship with music and with your instrument so that you are excited to continue your study path that you’re on.” She mentioned that during Christmas Holidays, she felt burned out and took a much-needed break from singing. Rachael noted that this precaution was a necessity for her in order to not resent her craft, and jokingly added that, unlike other instruments, she could not exactly “lock [her voice] in a case and put it in [her] attic or closet.”
With regards to other music students who may already be feeling the soul-crushing weight of online learning, Rachael remarked: “Well, you are definitely not the only person feeling the way you are feeling. It is very isolating; however, you are not alone. I know everyone says it, but it’s true.”