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North Texas' Student Musicians at Community Colleges and Universities Face an Uncertain Future

In an alternate universe in which the world isn’t facing a Coronavirus pandemic, the Collin College Jazz Lab Band would be gearing up for its annual performance at the Collin Jazz Festival.
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In an alternate universe in which the world isn’t facing a Coronavirus pandemic, the Collin College Jazz Lab Band would be gearing up for its annual performance at the Collin Jazz Festival. Maxwell Ferguson, a student in the jazz band lab, says the whole course is centered around this performance. 

The jazz band is one of two ensembles Ferguson is involved with as part of Collin’s commercial music program. He also participates in the college’s guitar ensemble class. 

“I don’t know what the plan is, honestly,” he says. “They’re all in-class practices. There’s not really any assignments that are given. We just have our music that we’re gonna play.”

This is an uncertain future many music and other lab-based classes are facing at area colleges and universities as the cornavirus continues affecting communities around the country.

The University of North Texas recently announced it would extend spring break another week, March 16-22, as staff and faculty prepare to teach remotely for the rest of the spring semester. Steven Heffner, a teaching fellow at UNT, said the music faculty are facing unique challenges in this effort because their courses are so hands on.

“Many of the students that I’m teaching, this is a core class, a core, skills-based class that’s required for their music degree and, because it is a skills-based class, it has a unique set of challenges there that we have to deal with,” Heffner says. 

He says he will likely utilize video for his sight singing and aural skills courses. He knows his two classes of over 20 students are knowledgeable enough to manage this change, but he doesn’t know if they want to. 

“For many of them, and I think in music in general, there is a little bit of a reticence to moving into a digital, remote world because so much of the training of musicians in the past has been a very hands on, in-person experience,” he says. “So, we tend to be a little bit more traditional in the music departments and I think that actually gets transferred to our students too.”

Heffner claims the ensemble classes will have the biggest hurdles to overcome. These courses rely on students rehearsing and performing together, and without these components, Heffner says, “You have no way to practice the skills or test the skills.”

Some colleges are still assessing the situation and waiting to announce full closures.

It was only recently that the Dallas County Community College District extended its spring break and announced plans to shift classes online. DCCCD Chancellor Dr. Joe May points out in a district-wide email that this decision did not come lightly. 

Some of you may have been wondering why we didn’t move more quickly in deciding to close our campuses like other institutions across the country. Such a consideration is not one to take lightly.” Dr. May writes. “For other colleges and universities, closing and moving classes to an online model may be a relatively simple measure to take for them and their students. However, we have a unique set of circumstances, which made this a much more challenging predicament.”

Out of the 80,000 students enrolled in DCCCD, not all of them have laptops or computers and many rely on campus-based WIFI to complete their assignments, according to Dr. May. Additionally, he says, “There are some courses that are not conducive to being taught in an online environment and we are reviewing our options for those students as well.”

In a phone interview after an emergency deans’ meeting at DCCCD’s Brookhaven College, Octavio Gutierrez, chair of the school’s music department, says they’re still trying to figure out how to move forward with online classes.  “We cannot just say ‘OK, here’s the assignment, write it down and send it to me,’” Gutierrez says. “It’s not that easy.”

He too says the ensembles will have a particularly hard time if they cannot meet in person. But, Gutierrez added, other departments are in the same situation. 

Collin College is taking a phased approach to the virus, District President H. Neil Matkin says in a district-wide email. 

Phase 1 involves active monitoring and taking precautions; Phase 2 may include partial closures and suspension of non-critical activities and courses to be taught predominantly online; and Phase 3 could include a suspension of all college-related activities and closure of the college, according to the email. 

The college has extended its spring break, but it has not announced a shift to predominantly online teaching due to the virus. 

This semester is supposed to be Maxwell Ferguson’s last at Collin College. While ensemble courses are not required in his degree plan, the same cannot be said for others. Collin has nine ensembles and 4 credit hours in an ensemble class are required for a music field of study certificate. 

“I think we’re kind of toast if classes remain online for the rest of the semester,” Maxwell says. “As of now, there’s not really a word on what’s going to happen.”