Continuing Covid Restrictions Frustrate Student Musicians

Covid safety protocols have caused music students to report difficulty with the bureaucratic process of reserving practice space in the Music Department. The department is planning to change its protocols for the spring semester in hopes of better accommodation.

Continuing Covid Restrictions Frustrate Student Musicians
Even as Covid restrictions loosen across campus, practice rooms in the Arms Music Center remain available on a strict reservation-based schedule inaccessible to students not affiliated with the Music Department. Photo courtesy of Hedi Skali Lami '25.

Over 20 months since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the music department is struggling to find a successful balance between Covid safety protocols and students’ desire to return to pre-pandemic practice and performance rules. For student musicians, the current processes involved in reserving practice space have become particularly difficult to work with, given increased bureaucracy and demand. In response to these concerns, the music department is aiming to adjust its practices for the spring semester, depending on how well Covid rules are followed.

Because of the intimate nature of music performance, the music department was required to implement a set of strict limitations to prevent the spread of Covid at the onset of the pandemic. For example, vocalists and wind instrumentalists, for whom it is logistically impossible to perform with a mask on, have needed Plexiglass coverings to ensure safe practices and performances. Access to practice spaces have also been limited due to issues surrounding air circulation.

As of the fall 2021, each practice room has its own schedule that changes daily. This differs from the system used in the previous semester. Suzette Farnham, the music department coordinator, said, “What used to happen is that people would come into my office after add-drop and sign up for practice time for the whole semester,” Farnham said, “and then every room would have a schedule for the semester. But this way [the current system, which will remain in use], if you want to sign up for time to practice, that means you really want to practice, so you're gonna do it this week on this day. And a lot of times those rooms [that were scheduled on a semesterly basis] were left empty.”

While the current system may be more intensive for students seeking to practice, it frees up space and increases flexibility, providing more availability for student musicians. Other changes, such as removing deposits and fees for practice room access (historically, it cost a $25 refundable deposit and a $10 payment for registering late), are also here to stay.

Easy access to practice rooms is essential to those who play immobile instruments, such as the piano or the drums.“I remember before the pandemic, it was a lot easier to get access to instruments, practice rooms like room 210,” said Luis de Pablo ’23E, a musician double-majoring in biology and music. “Post-pandemic, I have no idea even what the process is for getting it.”

De Pablo, who plays multiple instruments,  including guitar (his primary instrument),  and drums, explained that room 210 is one of the two readily student-accessible rooms on campus which contains a drum kit. Will Amend ’24, a multi-instrumentalist prospective English and Music major who has used room 210, noted that “you have to reserve [room 210] … and they’re strict reservations.”

The Music Department currently only gives practice room keys to students enrolled in courses or in private lessons, which cost $775 per semester for students without financial aid, and requires those students to reserve their rehearsal time online. Open time for contested spaces — such as Room 210 — are challenging to find.

Farnham acknowledged the difficulties that musicians have faced and pointed to high student demand as a key reason for them. “You do have to be in a music class, ensemble, or taking lessons, but that's a large number of students,” she said. “I think there were maybe two or three [students] who had nothing to do with the music department and wanted to practice this semester, and we had to turn them away.”

Echoing Farnham's sentiment, Concert, Production, and Building Coordinator Ted Keyes added that, quite simply, “we can't afford to [give everyone practice space].”

Patrick Spoor ’23, a singer and music major who took private lessons pre-pandemic, recalled: “I remember always having issues with trying to schedule my lessons. You have to email a ton of people; you have to invest a ton of paper, get things signed by a ton of people, including the chair of the music department.” They further described the struggles that they are currently facing in signing up for two music lessons for the upcoming semester.

Farnham stated that the process for starting private lessons has been simplified, noting how the music department has changed its website. “One of the first things you see [on the website] if you want to take lessons is how to do it, right off the bat,” she said.

Because taking private lessons has become far more accessible, Farnham mentioned that there is a large influx of student interest in lessons, with over 180 students doing so this semester, a large increase from pre-pandemic semesters, according to her. This number is expected to increase as the fall semester nears its end and spring semester course registration is finalized.

The Music Department has directed students to alternative rehearsal spaces while it waits for Covid protocols to change — specifically, the practice rooms in the James/Stearns (“Jearns,” as it’s known colloquially) basement, which are open to the entire community.

However, students have expressed disappointment and frustration with the resources currently available to extracurricular musicians — members of the community who play an instrument but do not take a class in the Music Department or private lessons.

Amend explained that “[in] the [practice rooms] that are … under the watch of Student Affairs, which is all but one of [the practice rooms in the James/Stearns basements], there's nothing really for me there. There are some pianos that are all out of tune, and there's some … drum equipment that I have played, but it's not like a real drum kit. It's just some stuff you can hit.”

De Pablo agreed, emphasising that not all practice rooms are “created equal” and that “many of them are basically useless.” DePablo proceeded to say, “The piano in [the James/Stearns practice rooms] has not been tuned in 70 years and is also broken. Or it just has a broken keyboard, or the amps don't work, or there's one key amp and nothing else in the room.”

“It's just bizarre,” he continued, “especially the ones that are run by Student Affairs, not the music department [in the James/Stearns basement]. Both of them are, for the most part, useless and broken.”

The Music Department is aware that students like  Amend and de Pablo are disappointed by the quality of the Student Affairs’s practice rooms. Despite the rooms being outside their jurisdiction, Keyes and Farnham have worked hard to help extracurricular students.

“We have people come back and say, well, those pianos suck,” Keyes told us, “so we've made sure that they are being tuned regularly.”

“Unfortunately, those rooms are open to any student and they don't get treated well. That's not on us,” he added. “But we do our best to get anybody who reached out to us accommodated.”

The disappointment and confusion students like Amend and de Pablo exhibit, as do extracurricular musicians, originates from the fact that the music department’s website is out-of-date, which currently displaying incorrect information as of the writing of this article, including that “students not enrolled in performance courses may reserve one hour per day up to seven hours per week.” This information, as of the writing of this article, does not hold: students not enrolled in performance courses or lessons may not have access to the practice room, Farnham said.

Correcting these discrepancies is a high priority for the department. Farnham clarified that “a lot of [the inconsistencies] we can't change: we have to go to the Communications Office and have them change it for us. But that, we're definitely working on.”

“You’ll see a huge improvement for the start of next semester,” Keyes added. Farnham also mentioned that the current music department chair, Darryl Harper, is “right on top of it.”

Despite the constant changes of policies in response to the always-changing state of the pandemic, Keyes and Farnham hope that they will be able to reinstate the pre-pandemic protocols regarding access to Music Department resources in the coming semester.

However, Keyes noted that amending the system all depends on “if [Covid cases and protocol-following] continues the way it's going. But on the other hand, you know, we keep seeing new emails [about protocol violations]; now there are under 90 percent of students getting tested. If that doesn’t change, there aren’t going to be any more changes [back to pre-pandemic protocols].”

He worries that may be the case since he “hears so many kids are showing up, not wearing their masks [in Arms].”

Keyes is expecting to see “a lot more changes [to overall restrictions at the College] next semester, depending on how the winter goes out there, but again, I'm surprised they haven't gone back to… more requirements.”

The Music Department is proactively monitoring Covid and student feedback and constantly changing protocols to make the best student experience possible. Finding this balance between safety and utility is a challenge, but one that the Music Department is addressing, according to Farnham.