Music research pivots amidst pandemic

By Emily Abrams Ansari, Assistant Dean of Research, Don Wright Faculty of Music

For faculty members in Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music – as, perhaps, for everyone in the campus community – the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging.

Music is both a deeply personal and intensely communal pursuit; to have lost the ability to make and research music in ways we’d anticipated even a year ago has been trying for students and faculty alike.

For some faculty, though, these challenges have also been accompanied by opportunities we might not otherwise have envisaged.

Music-making has, of course, been significantly affected by the pandemic. Most concert halls and music venues are closed. Western’s performance, pop music and classical composition faculty – whose research involves performances, recordings, and creating new music – have faced significant obstacles in advancing their careers in this environment.

Slowly, some concert performances are coming back – sometimes live, often livestreamed. The Faculty of Music has planned 25 livestreamed concerts this year, including the faculty concert series, the Friday at 12:30 series, and student ensemble performances.

While waiting for performance opportunities to resume, faculty who ordinarily would have been traveling for performances instead found themselves transforming home spaces into digital teaching studios.

Percussion professor Jill Ball, for example, spent the summer turning her garage into a space to teach individual percussion lessons over Zoom. Music theory, popular music studies and composition faculty undertook similar domestic transformations as they acquired microphones, keyboards and software to teach class content over the internet. (Some of our classes meet online; others that need to be face-to-face take place under strict controls on campus.)

For some performance faculty, new research avenues opened up as a result of the unexpected time at home.

Trumpet professor Aaron Hodgson had a busy summer of performance opportunities lined up. Finding himself hunkered down in London instead, Hodgson hired two undergraduate research assistants, with funding from a Western Support for Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Success grant and the MITACS Research Training Award program. Together, they made considerable progress on a new project: an online database of pedagogical materials for brass instruments, which uses wiki infrastructure to allow teachers to draw connections between and among resources.

Unrelated to his core research – but evidence of their passion for best practices in music education – Hodgson and his wife Sonja Nanos created and sewed about 120 bell masks for trumpet and trombone instrumentalists to use to prevent transmission of COVID-19 during rehearsals, lessons and performances.

Music professor Aaron Hodgson

Music professor Aaron Hodgson pivoted summer research plans to build on a research database of brass teaching and research resources. Debora Van Brenk / Western Communications

Rethinking research here and abroad

Faculty in music history, music theory, popular music studies and music education have also had to rethink their research programs. Like many researchers across campus, we have been unable to travel to conferences to meet with colleagues, have halted research in foreign countries or in archival collections, and have cancelled projects involving schoolchildren.

We’ve also been challenged in research by suddenly increased caregiving responsibilities, the need to rapidly move classes online and the many psychological challenges of the pandemic.

Travel restrictions unexpectedly halted many research plans. Music theory professor Jonathan De Souza was part-way through a sabbatical when the pandemic hit Canada. He and his family had planned to move to Scotland, where he would take up a four-month summer fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh. “I was planning to collaborate with folks at Katie Overy’s Institute for Music in Human and Social Development and start writing a new book about embodied social interaction in musical ensembles,” De Souza said. The trip had to be cancelled.

Instead, De Souza also reoriented toward new digital projects, working with undergraduate student Jonathan Dvorsky through Western’s Undergraduate Summer Research Internships program to develop custom code for music analysis. Other faculty members employed students through this program to similarly productive ends.

Robert Toft, an expert on the performance practices of 16th– to 19th-century singing, was also obliged to reorient his summer plans when lockdown began. Toft had lined up a collaboration with European performers on two recordings for his label, Talbot Records: a disc of late 18th-century fortepiano music and a recording of songs by Stephan Moccio, Sting and Tony Banks (Genesis) which use Elizabethan texts. With these plans suddenly cancelled, Toft decided instead to devote himself to the creation of a series of YouTube videos about historical vocal practices. This series, entitled “Singing Early Music,” brings his research on the history of singing directly to those who can use it.

For some, the unexpected quiet time at home provided an opportunity to write grants and finish writing projects. In October, music faculty members submitted more SSHRC Insight grant applications than at any time in recent memory. We have also been well-represented at major conferences, now taking place online. Our music history and theory faculty and students, for example, had a significant presence at the recent joint American Musicological Society and Society of Music Theory online conference. More than ten faculty and students were also slated to present at the International Society for Music Education Conference, which was unfortunately cancelled.

Music education professor emerita Kari Veblen is one professor who says her research benefited from the time at home. She described the significant amount of work she was able to complete this summer, while she couldn’t travel to do fieldwork or present at conferences. She just published The Oxford Handbook of Social Media and Music Learning, two new article-length publications, and has five other articles in progress.

Even amidst the many serious challenges we face, it has been encouraging to see the diverse ways our professors in music are continuing to pivot and bring their research to the world in these uncertain times.

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