This week marked the end of an extremely challenging and seemingly endless school year. I definitely felt an immense sense of relief after my students finished performing on the spring voice recitals–the year was finally over, and we could all breathe a little easier knowing we had made it. I know right now all anyone can think about is enjoying some much-needed time away from the computer screen (I know I am), but first I wanted to take some time to reflect on the year and what I’ve learned.
Probably the biggest learning curve for me happened when it became clear that we were not going to return to campus after spring break during the previous school year. I had to scramble and figure out how to do my job virtually, and I only had a week do it. Luckily there were already a small wealth of resources from other voice teachers who had tried some of this technology out, so I had some solid guidance. I quickly ordered a mic, a ring light, and some speakers, and I was off to the races. I will admit, it took me a few weeks to adjust to the virtual format, just as we all tried to adjust to the new circumstances in which we found ourselves. Initially I absolutely hated it: the extended screen time, the internet issues, audio lag on Zoom, not being able to play piano for my students as they sang...it was all vastly different from what I knew, and I was not a fan. I would find myself irritable and exhausted, and I just had to hope that my students were still learning in their lessons.
As time wore on, and I adjusted to the new reality that I was facing, I began to figure out how to do my job in the virtual world just a little bit better. It wasn’t as good as in-person lessons (and I still maintain that virtual lessons are an inferior product), but it was something. I was still able to connect with my students, we were able to interact and even have a virtual spring recital, and I began to feel a bit more like I knew what I was doing. Honestly that’s a large part of my immediate dislike of virtual teaching–I am not someone who likes change. Once I settle into my routine, and I feel like I know my business, anything that forces me out of the norm is a bit of a challenge. Not only was this something new and unexpected, it was forcing me WAY outside my comfort zone–my whole teaching method had to be adjusted and reevaluated to fit a different format, and I had no say in the matter. The plus out of all of that–even as I would like all of my lessons to eventually go back to in-person, I feel like I have the skills now to be effective in a virtual format, so I can offer that as an option when needed. I never would have explored this format had I not been forced to do so.
On a related note, I’ve begun to get a little more familiar with audio and recording technology, and I hope to be able to record some songs from my own little home “studio” before too long. It was something that I have had a passing interest in over the years, but never had time to explore. Last spring I took a fantastic “Intro to Voiceover” class being offered by a friend of mine, and she inspired me to think about other avenues to use my voice. I’m not jumping ship from opera or voice teaching, but it’s really fascinating to see how the voiceover world works, and to talk about the various pieces of tech needed to make something like that happen. I make no claims to be anything resembling an expert, but I’m learning, and it has been greatly satisfying to flex my mind a bit in a new way.
The other big shift for me was a hard one–when I’m not teaching, I’m an opera singer. I love performing in operas, and each season I am fortunate to be able to scratch that itch. We had just come off a truly remarkable operatic experience with Joby Talbot’s Everest, and had begun rehearsals for Turandot. I had never sung in this piece before, but it has a MASSIVE and truly amazing chorus part, and we were all excited from the first rehearsal. After a week or two of work, we were given an uncertain break, and ultimately the season was cancelled. Losing this other aspect of my life as a musician was incredibly difficult. On the one hand, I did have a bit more free time that I wasn’t devoting to rehearsal. On the other, this thing that fulfilled me artistically was suddenly taken away with no sure prospect of when it might return.
Luckily, I did have a summer opera role to prepare, and the program pivoted to an online format, so we were still able to forge ahead with that project. It definitely provided a needed distraction from the lack of other performing opportunities, and was in its own right quite fulfilling. But after that program ended, I literally had NOTHING on the horizon. I have never had nothing in the performance pipeline–there has always been some production, some rehearsal, something to do. After that final virtual performance...crickets.
As we began the new school year in the fall, there was still a lot of uncertainty with school schedules, but we did know that we would be looking at virtual teaching for at least the first half of the fall semester. Which then became the full fall semester. And then the spring. So...a full school year of teaching into a little box, and trying to keep each student engaged and excited in each lesson (as well as motivate them to practice in between). The year brought its challenges: the expected-but-always-annoying technology issues, completely redoing the lesson schedule multiple times whenever the schools would change their virtual class schedules, and then the occasional students who just forgot to come to lessons!
I could see some students handling the virtual school format with very little trouble. Others were really struggling–luckily most of the struggling students showed great improvement when they returned to school on-campus. The hardest part of all of this was the feeling of helplessness. I couldn’t do anything from my end to help my students feel better about all of this, or feel more motivated. I couldn’t follow along with them on the piano when they made a mistake in a song–I just had to hope they got back in line with the accompaniment track. I imagine this feeling of inadequacy was even worse for classroom teachers. At least with voice lessons, a virtual lesson is still one-on-one, and it functions largely the same, even if it is a bit inferior.
The one constant thing that I have been able to maintain, though, is singing at church. That has been a true blessing–not only was I able to continue attending church all the way through the pandemic, I was able to sing and offer my voice in some way to try to help others. It was certainly odd singing into an empty church for months: just me, my sister, the organist, and the guy running the livestream. No matter how what though, we were there every Sunday, singing for God and for the people who were listening and watching online. Singing in church is certainly not performing, but it did help give me a sense of purpose with my own singing when I had no other outlets to do so. I did not have quite the same profound sense of loss that many singers felt this past year and a half, since I was still singing and feeling some sense of community with the people around me as I did.
So that was my musical journey through the pandemic. What did I learn? I learned that I can adapt to new circumstances and pivot pretty well when I need to. I learned that there is no replacement for a real, in-person human connection. I learned that my students are tough and resilient, and were able to survive a crazy year in spite of all of the challenges facing them. I learned that sometimes you are just going to feel overwhelmed, and that you aren’t weak or deficient because you feel that way. And lastly, I learned about gratitude. I am so thankful for all of the blessings and the wonderful people in my life: my family, my friends, my colleagues, my students...I am a lucky guy indeed. The big lesson for us all: live each day with gratitude, and try to appreciate each moment while you are in it.