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  • Wesley Baucom

UMSL's Music Powers Through Pandemic

These past few weeks have been hard on students. The deadlines, the intense workload, and then there’s getting used to virtual learning. Classrooms haven’t been the same. An atmosphere is missing, connections are wired in a much different sense. Even if we are all meeting each other, it’s just not the same as it was. As hard as this may be for some, one of the departments hit hardest, has to be music.

The lack of a live atmosphere seems like a barrier for musical learning, but in these days of the pandemic, we’re all just trying to get by. However, it’s hard to make things work when the radiant sound of purring strings is filtered through computer speakers---not the usual acoustics of a specially built practice room. According to one anonymous music student: “There’s still music going on, but it’s like trying to learn car mechanics over a video-call.” That’s tough to beat. Times have never been harder for music. Still, there is one shining light that beams through our electronic screens: teachers. The same student said: “The Professors we have are really good. Any sort of lesson from them is going to be beneficial.” One Professor that stands out is Professor Voskoboynikova, or Professor Alla, as most call her.

Professor Alla has performed with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and coached for the Union Avenue Opera Company.
Professor Alla has performed with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and coached for the Union Avenue Opera Company.

Professor Alla has been teaching Piano at UMSL since 2004, and she had been teaching in the Ukraine before. It’s safe to say that she’s a well-seasoned pianist and educator, but she’s never had to deal with anything like the pandemic. “I never knew in my life that I was going to use Zoom. It’s difficult for musicians because we know how to play our instruments, but not so much with technology.” This is true for a lot of people, but there’s a lot in music that makes it more inconvenient with musicians. For as long as instruments have been around, personal, in-person lessons have always been a staple, a requirement even.

A lot can be shared just by playing for someone. From notation, rhythm, even something as minute as muscle tension, is much easier to critique with eyes directly viewing them. Yet the music department shares the same set-up as everyone else, albeit, with some alterations. “I have my laptop in front of me, we connect on Zoom where my students sit in front of their piano and we play for each other.” Even if the classroom seems simple, all of the various techniques are not. There are a few methods that Professor Alla uses that work for her classes. “The camera is set-up so I can see the keys of the piano, and how my students play their score. I require that they number their measures so we can find the music quickly.”

A measure is a fragment of lined sheet music, in which each note is separated by time signatures and is separated by bars. For example, if a piece is set in a 4/4 rhythm, a measure would contain just four notes. With this it seems, at least in part, the teaching and learning processes are tedious and detail-oriented. This detail-oriented approach is the department simply trying to squeeze as much as they can into their lessons. Besides, as some music students might tell you, lessons were already a little tedious. Zoom isn’t the only thing Professor Alla uses in her lessons though. “The most effective method is that I ask my students to record themselves playing a piece and send it to me. Then I listen and listen and give them my feedback.” So performance is alive in music education in some sense, though through a recording process rather than a live one. Even still, there’s a lot that online can’t do, and a lot that Professor Alla misses.

“I miss performing a lot. The music department started scheduling them but nothing is confirmed. It will mostly be online.” The current state of live performances is shaky. They usually perform, and still play, at the Touhill Center, but without a live audience cheering them on. Instead, they get to hear their instruments sing against the walls and empty seats, and serenade people across the digital landscape through YouTube. Sacrifices have to be made for safety, but at least some of the joy of performing is alive, though it lacks the intimacy.

Then again, there is an even more intimate aspect of teaching that Professor Alla enjoys: being able to see her students in their natural environment. “I’ve learned a lot more about my students because I see a little bit of their living room. I know their cats and their dogs now. I feel like we’re coming over to each other’s houses, showing off a little bit more of us.” It’s good to see that some level of personality is bleeding into classrooms, making for a more organic atmosphere. However, with all that’s been traded away, everything that’s being sacrificed, it’s hard to carry on in these circumstances---but for Professor Alla, pushing forward means so much more. “It’s very important to keep playing because as musicians we cannot stop. It’s important to play and enjoy the music.”

Her words can carry over to all parts of this school. Even in the grind against plague and death, the joy of music continues to flow on in melodious grace. If they can find the courage to carry on, to stay focused on what matters, surely everyone else can stay strong too. We’ll all get through this, and sooner or later, we’ll all be able to take a deep breath and share our joys in the open air.

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