Illustration of sheet music on a stand, with a mask hanging off the side of the music stand.
Luckily for everyone, COVID-19 restrictions are lifting and musical ensembles are coming back together. (Illustration by Moira Leclerc, Montserrat College of Art)

Concert Band Is Back, Giving Us a Moment To Reflect on Learning Music Online

College has been difficult for everyone over the last year, but restrictions made it nearly impossible to continue getting a quality musical education.

College /// Sounds x
Illustration of sheet music on a stand, with a mask hanging off the side of the music stand.

College has been difficult for everyone over the last year, but restrictions made it nearly impossible to continue getting a quality musical education.

On July 10, 2021, I played my first concert A as a member of a large wind ensemble since March of 2020. As my ears latched onto the pitch of the principal euphonium player, 16 months of hopelessness, of a dying love for playing, of longing for normalcy, blurred away in comparison to the epicness that was being an ensemble musician again. I usually hate sight-reading with a burning passion since I’m super not good at it, but fumbling through our repertoire together made me feel like I hadn’t just taken a year-and-a-half-long hiatus from making something bigger than myself.

This was all thanks to the 2021 National Intercollegiate Band, an ensemble made to perform for a convention of current and past brothers of Kappa Kappa Psi and sisters of Tau Beta Sigma. This ensemble, formed every two years for our national convention, continues to bring together college musicians from all over the country, and being a part of the 2021 ensemble will forever be cemented into my list of fondest memories as a musician and an active brother.

Although the National Intercollegiate Band was a chance to forget our loss, it was also an opportunity to share our experiences as college students pursuing music careers. If you were a college student during the pandemic, chances are you’ve experienced a lot of loss, but with that loss likely came personal growth. Whether you had to grow seeds in your closet for a general education lab, fumble through learning how to use a microphone properly, attend Zoom lecture after Zoom lecture to the point of unbelievable burnout, or bribe yourself with Starbucks in order to get out of bed for a morning class, we all really had to look within ourselves to learn what we need as students who wish for a fulfilling college experience.

Five musicians from the National Intercollegiate Band graciously accepted my request to look deeper into their Zoom student lives. It was both a validating and inspiring experience to hear their stories as a euphonium performance/music education major myself.

What Does Online School Look Like as a Music Major?

1. Large Ensemble Playing

As you could probably imagine, ensemble playing isn’t easily translatable to a Zoom format. Any class that involved physically playing an instrument, especially with others, was pretty much a bust. Anthony Parrish, DMA Horn Performance student at the University of Alabama, told me how “nothing online can replace making music with others,” and I couldn’t agree more. With that in mind, there were other lessons to take away from having an ensemble course online.

Joshua Parker, graduate student of UNC Greensboro and trombone player, described his online ensemble as follows: “We largely listened to music, discussed how to analyze the music more effectively, and had discussions on various topics in the field that are changing such as the use of technology, social justice topics and topics on how the pandemic could change the field.” What surprised me the most is that four out of the five musicians I interviewed experienced some sort of in-person ensemble in some capacity, which leads me to believe that a deeper look into ensemble culture was just what we needed.

2. Small Ensemble Playing

Many musicians experienced small ensemble and chamber playing, both online and in person. I personally didn’t play with anyone physically, but I was assigned projects such as quartets and duets with other musicians where I made arrangements, recorded my part with a nice microphone, and pieced different recordings together.

Other college musicians in the National Intercollegiate Band had similar projects going on, and many actually decided to take this as a time for personal projects. Parrish described a collaboration between the horn members of the 2019 National Intercollegiate Band. Daniel King, Music Education and Clarinet Performance major at Illinois State University, attended the DeCoda Chamber Music Festival virtually. Jessica Payne, Euphonium Performance major who recently graduated from The University of Akron, formed online ensembles of only her playing while using multitracks. Parker made recordings of his previously created arrangements.

What I wasn’t expecting was the number of in-person small ensembles among these individuals. Whether it was sectionals, chamber ensembles or true wind ensembles, there was a lot of in-person music-making going on here. Still, as Sadie Uhing (Music Education major and trumpet player from University of Nebraska at Kearney) put it, “It wasn’t the same as a full band.” Nothing can replace the experience of being a part of a large ensemble.

3. Individual Playing

When it came down to this category, I was most interested in people’s practicing habits and how they changed due to the pandemic. Personally, I find a spark flaming within me more as an ensemble musician, and I did the bare minimum as I prepared my lesson repertoire in my apartment bedroom. The responses from the five musicians I interviewed were split. I was given a range of “only the bare minimum” to “since I didn’t really have anywhere to go or anything to do other than play games and eat, I used that time to practice and watch TV.” This is to be expected, as it boils down to whether you look at practicing as a chore or an outlet. I’m definitely on the “chore” end of the spectrum.

Music Education majors have to take classes called methods courses, which focus on building playing and teaching skills for either a specific instrument or instrument family. During my spring 2021 semester, I took the following methods courses: Double Reeds, Percussion 1, and Flute and Saxophone. It was incredibly difficult to even make a sound without the in-person, specific guidance of a teacher, let alone play scales and excerpts legibly. These kinds of courses, along with large ensemble courses, were reported to be the least effective among the five musicians interviewed.

For some, there was even an additional set of complaints. Uhing described her experience as “an inconvenience to my neighbors who didn’t understand the situation” when reflecting on her time as an apartment musician. This is a real concern, especially since music courses often take place in the morning, oftentimes as early as 8 a.m. I was fortunate to have roommates who would tough it out as I hit stick to a practice pad and learned flute and saxophone at 8 a.m. throughout the semester.

4. Non-Performance Based Academics

I’d argue that zero classes worked online on my end. Even the lecture classes were so draining — lecture after lecture in the same room, being expected to retain all of that information. One of my biggest takeaways from this year is that I hate online school. Still, I wanted to see what other college musicians thought about the effectiveness of their classes this year.

As is expected, most people said that any class that involved playing (methods courses, ensembles and lessons) was a pain. King was also struggling through a course called Intro to Music Education: “It was a lot of reading and discussion boards which became super tedious. There would be many projects that no one knew what to do because there weren’t any clear directions and frankly not enough time to reach out to our professor for clarification.”

Classes that did seem to go well were lecture-based courses for the most part: music history, music theory, general education courses and other similar classes. I know on my end, I liked those classes because it was easy to get away with doing the bare minimum, so in terms of learning anything, they didn’t work for me at all. It would be interesting to know if people preferred online lectures for sake of convenience or for an actual liking for learning through that format.

How Did Online School Change Musicians Outside of Academics?

For me, this answer is a long story. After all, I probably wouldn’t be an intern at Study Breaks Magazine if it wasn’t for the pandemic. I volunteered through the Tuba-Euphonium Social Justice Initiative and Kappa Kappa Psi; I took on a teaching artist residency through Michigan State University; I decided to resign from my college marching band to pursue activities I’m more passionate about, even though this ensemble influenced my original college decision; and I entered a brass competition where I made it to the semifinals. COVID-19 changed the entire trajectory of my educational path, and this was a similar case for others.

1. Why Do We Love Music?

All five of these musicians are pursuing music at a college level, and I was curious to know two things: Why did you pursue music professionally and has COVID-19 changed that “why”? The answers were along the lines of recognizing personal talent in the field, wanting to give amazing experiences to future musicians, and sharing a love for music. The pandemic, although challenging, didn’t strip most of their passion.

Uhing still wants to pursue music education to help her students “make that bond with music that lasts a lifetime, even as people come and go and new experiences are made,” just as we all had to overcome a lot of, to put it lightly, non-ideal experiences this past school year. Parrish originally took this educational path after recognizing his talent, but he shared how he “fell in love more deeply with my craft when I was challenged by other great musicians.” This art form that we’re all a part of guides us through pain, and acts as an outlet to meet others who make us better musicians and better people, even during a pandemic.

2. How Did We Use Music to Get Through COVID-19?

Picking up my instrument to practice in my apartment was like stepping on a bunch of legos: painful and easy to avoid. I was aching to play with others as someone who’s never particularly enjoyed solo work, but I found other ways to be a part of music. I took the time to listen to a lot of different artists and fell in love with electronic music and rap. I learned how to arrange music and made quartets for my baritone buddies. I volunteered my time to keep music in the lives of others, mainly through activism work, and discovered a passion for arts administration. I could beat myself up for doing the bare minimum this past year, but honestly, music was still my rock throughout the year in one way or another so I think I did okay. After all, that’s why we do what we do.

A big necessity for this school year was to learn how to be a digital musician, which I personally couldn’t stand. Payne learned “audio and video editing out of necessity,” but now she’s going to have the skill to create online content for the rest of her career. Uhing picked up instruments she wouldn’t have otherwise, discovering new outlets to create. As I mentioned before, all of these musicians created or found projects to participate in, whether through practicing more, joining online ensembles or making personal recordings with multitracks.

2. Finding Ourselves Outside of Music

Something that’s not talked about enough is the mental and physical health of musicians. Although music benefits the mind and body in a variety of ways, it’s also true that “3 out of 4 musicians will experience a playing-related injury or mental health challenge during their career.” Music students are often left to drown without the proper tools to take care of our well-being.

Stepping away from having an instrument on our face for multiple hours a day allowed us to explore passions outside of music and learn how to take care of ourselves. King put it this way: “I got so bored to a point that I finally started taking care of my body by exercising and changing my lifestyle.” Parrish had a similar experience, sharing how he “started doing yoga to lose weight and gained flexibility,” which benefited not only his playing, but his mental state through this traumatic period. COVID-19 was a wake-up call for all musicians and this lesson is more important than anything we’ll learn in class: We HAVE to do a better job at prioritizing our health over our musicianship. I just hope that this lesson isn’t lost as we transition back into normalcy.

So, Does Online Music School Work?

Absolutely not. It’s a pretty miserable experience and I don’t think I have another semester of Zoom school in me. That’s why playing in the National Intercollegiate Band was described by those interviewed as liberating, incredible, cathartic, a joyful sense of hope and EXHILARATING (yes, in all caps). With this trauma came so many valuable lessons that college musicians will hopefully carry forever, whether it’s about career-building skills, how to think outside of the box, or remembering that there’s more to life than being the absolute best musician in the room. In Kappa Kappa Psi, we encourage our brothers to “strive for the highest,” but after being an online musician for a year, I’ve learned that striving for being okay is fine for now.

Writer Profile

Jayar Brenner

Michigan State University
Double Majoring in Euphonium Performance and Music Education; Double Minoring in Nonfiction Creative Writing and LGBTQ+ Studies

Jayar Brenner is a junior at Michigan State University, and his passions lie in music, education, activism and writing. He is especially proud of his work through the Spartan Marching Band as a member of the uniform team, his brotherhood through Kappa Kappa Psi, and his volunteer work through the Tuba-Euphonium Social Justice Initiative.

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