Violinist Natalie Boberg was a student at New England Conservatory for just a semester and a half when campus closed and she was sent home to Sierra Madre, Calif. But now, back in Boston and living in a shared apartment with a view of the Symphony Hall sign, she has settled into a routine. Zoom yoga and coffee, first thing in the morning. Then another hour of Zoom as she teaches a gaggle of second graders the basics of viola. From there, it’s straight into a three-hour block of virtual academic classes.
“Zoom fatigue is real,” she said in a phone interview. “But at the same time, it’s just so exciting and engaging to be learning about the field.”
Around midday, Boberg finally puts on her mask and picks up her violin case. She walks five minutes to campus and signs in. In the halls, everything feels alien and disconnected. It’s not supposed to be this quiet. But once she gets to Jordan Hall and tunes up with the NEC Philharmonia, things start to feel more familiar.
NEC, the country’s oldest independent conservatory of music, prides itself on sending its graduates into the world prepped with the skills they need to begin professional careers. However, that arsenal of abilities has never included weathering a global pandemic. With staff and students all caught unawares, and the performance-based foundation of the school’s curriculum posing high levels of risk, everyone has had to improvise new solutions for a very old art form.
For its performance students, NEC requires a mix of studio classes and lessons with a teacher, ensemble performances, and academic classes. “Nothing has changed in terms of requirements, but how those things all fit together is different,” said NEC president Andrea Kalyn in a phone conversation.
Last spring, classes and ensembles patched together hasty solutions as everyone fumbled with the transition to online learning. When about 60 percent of NEC’s student body returned to campus around Labor Day to participate in a hybrid program, they found everything rearranged. The only people who can be on campus are those participating in NEC’s weekly COVID testing protocol. Faculty have the option of teaching lessons remotely. Wind and brass instruments play in separate ensembles so as not to expose string players to aerosols. Singers have been performing behind Plexiglas, or with accompanists who play from separate rooms using low-latency audio technology championed by faculty member Ian Howell. Instead of emoting to a live audience, they’re learning how to sing to the camera.
“I think this semester everybody’s kind of hit their groove,” Kalyn said.
Dorm living is typically required for NEC undergrads in their first two years, but the residential buildings aren’t open at all this year. Practice rooms now must be reserved, and aired out between occupants. Usually ensembles rehearse in the morning with academic classes in the afternoon, but that has been flipped this year to make real-time attendance feasible for remote students in Asia, 12 or 13 hours ahead of their classmates in Boston.
And because of all these precautions, the halls are alive with the sound of music once more. When Kalyn arrived on campus this past fall, she said, she teared up the first time she heard the sounds of practicing floating onto Gainsborough Street.
“I heard it and I was like ... this is the way it’s supposed to be,” she said. “The small things we took for granted have become very meaningful.”
It’s nothing like the experience Boberg expected, but her outlook remains sunny. The quiet campus still disappoints her, especially after she got used to the bustle and chatter of conservatory life. But most of her friends are back on campus for the hybrid program. Only a few decided to take the year off.
“I just know the people that I come into contact with are so committed to being at NEC and making music right now. It’s wonderful to work with them,” she said. “I think one of the best ways we can use our time right now is to just continue to pursue music.”
Boberg’s experience doesn’t hold true for all students. Zoe Cagan, a master’s candidate in flute performance from Houston, is approaching completion of her degree. When she finishes, she will have spent over half her time in the program unable to meet with her teacher, Paula Robison.
“It feels so weird, because I came here to study with a teacher, and most of my time has been away from that teacher,” Cagan, the chair of the conservatory’s Black student union, said over the phone.
Because Robison is over 75, she’s at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. All of Cagan’s weekly lessons have been over Zoom since last March. “We’ve only really been able to work on some of the big-picture things, because you can’t really hear the small soft stuff,” she said, referring to the platform’s low-quality audio.
Now Cagan is more diligent with herself about that “small stuff,” which she knows is good experience — it’s just not the experience she came to NEC for. So she’s applying for a graduate diploma. It’ll mean another year of paying tuition and Boston rent, but it might be the only way to finish her course of study with a teacher she calls an “absolute legend.”
Kalyn acknowledged that not every student would be satisfied with what was available, and what is available is far from ideal. “COVID has been the great humbler, and it changes ... we’ve really been trying to follow the science and keep everybody safe,” she said. “It’s made very clear the importance of the in-person work that we do.”
Speaking of in-person work, Cagan was supposed to present a recital before she graduates this spring. Under NEC’s safety guidelines, she could play for 30 minutes, take a mandatory 60-minute break to ventilate the hall, then come back for another 30. She could also livestream it, but no external guests would be allowed.
Once again, she found herself improvising. “I decided I wanted to use the time I had for my recital to make recordings of myself and put it together as a video. It’s not a recital because I can’t have an audience,” she said. “So I thought I might as well throw the whole recital system out.”
Cagan doesn’t know what the future holds. She’s interested in chamber music more than orchestral. She’s also interested in moving back to Texas, teaching flute, and helping young musicians from underrepresented backgrounds who may lack the resources to compete with peers. To any would-be music student, she advises: Do your best and stay focused, but it’s never been more important to keep your options open.
“We can’t just work from home and do this thing virtually. That’s besides the point of it all,” she said. “I feel like a lot of people have come to reckon with the fact that our career paths and choices are really fragile.”
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.