As Bakara Nkenge-Hinds sits down at the piano to begin her first lesson of the day, a mask covering the instrument she has spent years perfecting and a plexiglass barrier between her and the student, one thing is clear: this is not the way she envisioned her first semester teaching at Trevecca Nazarene University.
Nkenge-Hinds, an adjunct voice instructor, is well-prepared for the job of training vocalists on a college campus, but nothing could have prepared her for the challenges of teaching students in the middle of a global pandemic– a pandemic that is riskier for singers because of the airborne-nature of the COVID-19 virus.
“Being new anywhere, you have to get used to the culture and everything, and to do that in the middle of a pandemic has been difficult. We don’t want anyone to get sick, we don’t want an outbreak. But we still want to do good work that’s meaningful. It’s trying to balance how we do this as safely and low-risk as possible, while still having human connection with each other,” she said.
Among the many changes COVID-19 has forced on the music department, students now sing in seminar while wearing a face mask, lessons take place behind a drum shield and all professors’ offices have been rearranged to accommodate the social distancing guidelines. This means that professors are not able to be as physically close to students as they normally would be, and that many of the tools they would regularly use to help with the learning process have been taken away.
Nkenge-Hinds said she believes this unusual experience will make her students better singers and even better people in the long run.
While inadvertently teaching students a greater need for projecting their voice and practicing good breath support when singing in a mask, she said it is also teaching students flexibility and a new appreciation for life on the other side of COVID-19.
Kendall Healey, a junior Worship Arts major at Trevecca, said there was definitely a learning curve, but students are making the most of it.
“Logistically, it’s really been a challenge. It’s been hard to find time to get productive rehearsals in, especially now that the practice rooms are locked and you have to reserve specific times.”
Healey laughs as she recalls her first lesson of the semester where she “wasted 15 minutes” after accidentally knocking over the drum shield and having to put it back together before continuing the lesson.
“It’s not ideal, but we’re getting used to it.”
Taylor McPherson, another instructor in the music department, said he has been amazed at the resilience of Trevecca students during this time.
“The students have really adapted. I’m convinced Trevecca students are the best students in the world. They’ve really proved their colors. No one has buckled under the pressure. Every single student has risen to the occasion,” he said.
Students haven’t been the only ones needing to adapt though.
McPherson said the professors have also risen to a new level through these challenges.
“This has been our crucible moment for teachers to take a heart-check and go, ‘I’m not just here for a job, I’m here because it’s my calling,’ and these hard moments have made that true. We will do everything we can to make our students successful. It’s been challenging, but it’s been so invigorating.”
As Nkenge-Hinds leaves the last seminar of the first half of the semester with tears in her eyes, she gets choked up as she explains how proud she is of her students.
“We’re doing really good work here, despite all this. That’s really encouraging as a teacher. Students are really singing at a higher caliber this semester than I would have expected, so as long as you have the drive for it and instructors are doing what we need to do, it’s like, if we can do this, we can do anything.”