Huis clos (“No exit”) - International music students during the pandemic

This pandemic is a very exceptional period for students, who were forced to stay at home and see their careers and lives dramatically changed.

As a matter of fact, a category of students particularly affected was the one of music students, as their professional and academic life is strictly connected to concerts, performances and face-to-face communication during rehearsals and courses.[1] It must be remembered that music students need tools like one-to-one tuition, mentoring and interaction with other musicians. During the pandemic it was indeed extremely difficult to recreate such situations.

In the very beginning of the crisis all the lessons and lectures were just cancelled, which led to a big confusion and a natural sense of loss. This resulted in a range of psychological issues. According to several polls, a predominant majority of students (almost 90%) consider the transition to online teaching to be very disruptive[2]. Undoubtedly, uncertainty regarding studies and future professional life make students feel vulnerable and anxious, with relevant consequences to their mental well-being.[3]

Some higher music education institutions were with time successful in organising online classes with the use of specialised low latency technology such as LoLa[4]. For playing together at distance musicians need the exact same beat, meaning that the usual Internet latency represents an obstacle to any ensemble or choir. Therefore, platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom were mostly used for theory courses. Other institutions did not seem efficiently prepared to face the situation despite Principals’ efforts to catch up with modern technologies. Yet it is widely acknowledged that such emergency solutions cannot replace physical ones, when it comes to teaching an instrument, chamber music or even bigger ensembles. For example, an issue of growing concern showed by both teachers and students was the lack of motivation, sometimes connected to poor audio quality or bad Internet connection, both vital for online music lessons.

Another great upheaval caused by the global pandemic is the economic uncertainty of youngsters due to the many concerts and gigs cancelled, as well as auditions and competitions. Indeed, music and performing arts have been particularly hit by social restrictions and many musicians did not have the possibility to perform and in some cases even earn a living.[5] This hit also higher music education, where most of teachers and students have in parallel a professional and an academic activity. This additional fear joined the already precarious nature of the musician’s job: being a musician in time of pandemics is definitely a risky choice.

Coming to international students, while some of them decided to come back shortly after the lockdown measures had been imposed, others were locked in a foreign country, sometimes without even a possibility to play their instruments.[6] The latter experienced often the heaviest psychological issues, such as depression, feeling of exclusion and despair. Moreover, national administrations and universities have reduced capacity to implement the necessary procedures to facilitate international students’ mobility.[7] According to a recent poll, 84% of prospective international students were concerned about restricted travel options.[8] Finally, covid-19 deleted all the best parts of being an international student: experimenting, finding new hobbies, roaming cities, enjoying the international community, thinking wider and broadening perspectives.

International relations coordinators were responsible for providing effective ways for supporting both the mental and physical health of their students. The AEC’s International Relations Coordinators gathered online in September 2020 to discuss such actions.[9] Institutions’ staff used tools such as confidential resources, contingency plans, online consultations with the aim to support students and provide them with all necessary information, pre-departure sessions and on-site conversations. These ways could be helpful yet not a lifeboat.

Still, a few benefits for music students came from this extraordinary situation. They acquired for example strong skills in audio and video recording, that can be used not only when forced to play at distance, but also when studying in normal times. Many institutions learnt how to deal with a quality digitisation, that does not mean only saving paper, but improving processes and organisation with the final goal of a better and more supported students’ experience. Moreover, many platforms that were unknown before blended teaching can now be the base for innovative methods of learning. Finally, streaming concerts can become an addition to live performances to create an identity of the institutions and make students known outside of their communities and countries.

It is also true that beside these benefits the crisis is deep and irreversible for many future musicians. Still, let us not forget the first moments of the first wave in which some of them managed to organise performances from their balconies or stream concerts on YouTube or Zoom, thus bringing inspiration and hope into lives of others trapped into the cage of their homes. In a situation when nobody and nothing can help, music can really save the souls of people.

[1] Castonguay C.,, 4 November 2020, How are Music Students and Musicians Handling COVID?

[2] Pinkus E., SurveyMonkey, 30 March 2020, Distance learning for college students during the coronavirus outbreak

[3] Amiel S., Euronews, 10 March 2021, Lockdown generation: Europe’s students in despair as pandemic lingers

[4] LoLa was developed by Conservatorio di Musica “Giuseppe Tartini” from Trieste (Italy) in collaboration with AEC, the European Association of Conservatoires, GARR, the Italian Research and Academic Network, and other institutions from all around Europe.

[5] Roberts M.S.,, 19 October 2020, Met Opera’s musicians haven’t been paid since April. Now, a third have left New York

[6] Pianists, organists and percussionists, especially if studying abroad, usually practice on the instruments of their institution, because buying one can be too expensive and logistically difficult to deliver or because practicing in the house is sometimes not allowed.

[7] EMN/OECD, September 2020, Impact of COVID-19 on international students in EU and OECD Member States – EMN-OECD Inform. Brussels: European Migration Network.

[8], 26 March 2020, The Impact of COVID-19 on International Students Perceptions

[9], Annual Meeting for International Relations Coordinators 2020

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