Taraz Tofighi has been practicing saxophone in his bedroom at his apartment on Chicago’s Near South Side this school year.
The 19-year-old sophomore at DePaul University is a jazz studies major who admires John Coltrane and aspires to be a professional sax player himself.
In normal times, Tofighi would be playing in practice rooms on the DePaul campus in Lincoln Park and performing public concerts with the university’s jazz ensembles this winter and spring. But practice rooms are closed, and no performances are scheduled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
That’s added an extra challenge to Tofighi’s music education.
“Performance is definitely a very important part, a crucial aspect of my development as a musician, as a professional musician,” he said. “There’s just things about playing with other people that you simply cannot replicate.”
Local colleges and universities are usually a vibrant part of the fine arts scene, holding concerts, recitals, plays, musicals and operas that are seen by thousands of people. Performing arts education can’t just shut down, so schools have been forced to find new ways to prepare the next generation of actors, dancers, singers and musicians despite COVID-19 restrictions.
Music and theater programs have transitioned to online learning, like most education these days. But studying performing arts requires more than lectures and class discussions. It includes lessons, auditions, rehearsals and performances.
Tofighi has lessons over Zoom, but he said it’s not the same as playing in a physical space with other musicians.
“You lose the community aspect of it,” he said. “Unfortunately, it does take away from the experience of sitting next to somebody or playing next to somebody, and maybe picking up on different things other people are doing, and kind of an improvisation.”
Joy Holder, a 20-year-old sophomore studying dance at Columbia College, said her classes are held online, and she misses being in a studio with a professor and dancers working together.
“There’s something about being able for an instructor to physically move your body and say, ‘Your arm needs to be here, not here’ or, ‘Do you feel this pressure?’ that is very helpful and beneficial,” she said.
Online classes have also been an adjustment for professors, who are normally in close contact with students as they work on acting, singing or playing their instrument.
Cindy Gold, a theatre professor at Northwestern University, said it’s difficult to teach concepts such as peripheral vision and spatial awareness when her students aren’t in a room together.
But she thinks there are upsides to classes over Zoom, even in acting.
“The gift of all this, if there is a gift, has been learning the technology,” Gold said.
“Learning how to light ourselves, learning how to fix our sound, what kind of microphone.”
DePaul has been allowing some in-person private lessons to take place, according to Ronald Caltabiano, dean of the School of Music. But the student and professor have to mutually agree to the arrangement and take precautions.
“If you’re a cellist, you can keep your mask on. It’s not an issue,” he said. “We can put up plexiglass barriers between the student and the teacher. We can put them into spaces that are very large.”
Like some professional venues and groups, schools are offering limited performances online this winter.
Northwestern will present an audio version of the Tennessee Williams play The Glass Menagerie from Jan. 8 to 10. The on-demand production will include images of the stage set and costumes designed by students, since there won’t be theater performances.
On Jan. 15, the Northwestern Opera Theater will launch a five-episode series of Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo on YouTube.
Joachim Schamberger, director of opera at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, said when the stage production was canceled they decided to make a film instead. That required the singers to record their parts in makeshift studios at home, which included using their smartphones.
“Sure, this is a challenge to hear voices that are meant to be for an operatic stage — hear them in their own living rooms and not getting that feel,” Schamberger said. “I have to say, however, ever since we started teaching remotely, I really felt that students made a lot of progress.”
He said the production included about 30 singers and a 20-piece orchestra. Once the voices and music were recorded, they were edited and mixed in post-production.
Music and theater students who are seniors and will graduate in the spring are especially eager for any opportunity to perform — online or in-person, if that’s safe to do in 2021. This is their last chance in school to build their resumes and be ready for professional auditions and work.
Lele Lima, a 22-year-old senior majoring in musical theater at Columbia, auditioned and got a part in an upcoming Columbia project based on the 1960s musical Cabaret.
“At least we are creating,” said Lima, an aspiring singer and actress. “We don’t know how tomorrow may look. We don’t know if tomorrow is going to be the way we used to be — theater, life, we don’t know that. Let’s work with what we have now. Let’s be engaged and motivated.”
Lima, like most young people studying the performing arts, has dreams of making it in the professional world.
The resilience and adaptability they’re learning in school during a pandemic may be talents they’ll need to launch a career in the arts, which has never been easy.
Mark LeBien is a news editor at WBEZ. Follow him @marklebien.