Double-Degree Students Contend with Online Learning

As the Omicron variant brings Oberlin to a standstill, students are finding themselves in close and lonely quarters with their computer screens, and the temptation to shut off their cameras and snooze until the end of class awaits as a formidable beast in the face of productivity. For Oberlin double-degree students, though, Zoom room silence isn’t an option — at least not when it comes to Conservatory classes. Although the double-degree curriculum is equal parts music and academia, one side of this loss proves heavier than the other. The crackle of a bad connection may be frustrating in academic classes, but in music classes, it’s nearly fatal.

Double-degree third-year Cassie Davies is studying Classical Voice and Biochemistry on the pre-med track. She spent a year and a half at Oberlin without ever singing live and in person for her professors, and Oberlin’s return to online learning is forcing her to question whether she’ll be heard at all.

“I think that there’s more uncertainty about doing remote because it’s like, ‘Is my voice teacher really hearing me? Or is that just lag?’” she said.

Double-degree second-year Julia Collins studies TIMARA and Psychology. This year, Collins is working on finishing up core Conservatory requirements, one being Aural Skills. The difference between inhabiting a physical space with classmates versus Zooming in a room by herself greatly affects aural skill development. 

“[In class,] the teacher would be playing on the piano and we would sing along,” she said. “Now, we all just mute and do everything individually.”

Singing to a screen of blank boxes isn’t the same as filling a concert hall with trills, and Zoom-chatting about stilted performances isn’t nearly comparable to a jam session. Remote learning offers a particularly hefty roadblock for musical collaboration. 

Double-degree fifth-year Ritu Mukherjee is majoring in Viola Performance and Psychology and minoring in Economics. Mukherjee expressed concerns similar to Davies and Collins, adding that virtual learning renders both rehearsals and happenstance interactions between Conservatory students impossible. For Mukherjee, these setbacks bear a loss of peer inspiration. 

“Being unable to perform for people or play with other musicians and freely walk through any concert hall or practice room in the Conservatory was a huge drawback because that constant inspiration from peers and from faculty and from concerts was diminished,” she said.

This sudden halt to live practice and performance not only evokes a deep sense of loss for Conservatory curriculum, it rewires its fundamental mechanisms altogether. Like Mukherjee, Davies finds that singing at a camera doesn’t give her as much of a rush. Preparing for a performance is difficult when you don’t have a real concert to put on, and pressing the “send” button on a recording does not produce the same thrill as a live serenade.  

“The performance experience is not there,” Davies said. “It was a recording experience versus a performance experience, which is very different. It was hard to find motivation to practice.”

Even after losing the communal music experience, double-degree students still maintain strong personal connections to their instruments. Mukherjee, although disappointed she can no longer collaborate face to face with her Conservatory peers, is able to find solace in her one-on-one time with her instrument. 

“One pro is that I was able to really focus on my own practice and my technical and musical growth, since ensembles and chamber music were structured very differently,” she said.

Over the course of two years in remote learning, Mukherjee has been able to find a silver lining in the pandemic’s promotion of free time, a commodity double-degree students aren’t normally accustomed to. 

“I wasn’t constantly running from one building to the next,” Mukherjee said. “Our orchestra schedules changed, so I had a bit more free time. I was able to watch recorded lectures that aligned with my schedule.”

Collins found the same to be true. She was able to restructure her College work around Conservatory projects and focus on her own creative endeavors.

“[Virtual school] has definitely given me time and energy; I can prioritize [TIMARA] more because my academic stuff is more flexible now,” Collins said.

One of the most valuable things a COVID-19 shutdown has to offer musicians may be gratitude and  appreciation for the privilege to perform and attend concerts in person. This fall, Conservatory events were able to return almost fully to normal. The Conservatory’s first in-person voice recital hosted the entire voice department and many students flocking in droves to soak in the full-fledged caliber of live sound waves. Davies performed in this recital and was so grateful to be back; to her, it was a refreshing experience. 

I mean, live singing without a mask, singing with a pianist who can actually follow you, who’s right there, and not singing to a track, and then being able to share it with people — I mean, that’s the whole point, right?” she said. “That’s why we do it.”