By: Simon Proulx
A forest trail near my home in Winnipeg
Despite my initial resistance, the upsides to living at home quickly made themselves apparent. I was living in a larger area rather than a cramped dorm room, I had access to delicious and nutritious meals that I did not have to pay for, and the familiarity of Winnipeg made it easy to get whatever I needed, although there was little open for in-person shopping when I arrived.
I completed my last few exams at home and enjoyed a prolonged winter break with my family. We were able to see people outdoors, but for the most part, we stayed inside as COVID was tearing through Winnipeg and its long-term care homes. One of my favourite activities was walking on the frozen Assiniboine River with friends I had not seen since August. I also had some calls with my Vancouver friends who were all in different locations for the holiday. I particularly enjoyed watching my friend from Turkey experience his first Canadian winter in Alberta.
The transition to learning fully online was very easy in terms of doing the in-person components remotely. The remainder of my lessons would be completed over Zoom and I would be joining UBC’s remote ensemble, which had been creating some multitrack projects the past semester. My bedroom became my practice room, study space, and classroom. The time difference between Vancouver and Winnipeg also provided some advantages as I now had 2-3 extra hours every day before my earliest classes started.
There were few distractions family-wise: my brother was attending high school in person every second day and my parents were teaching their elementary school students completely in person. I had been concerned about being easily distracted, so this made the prospect of doing everything remotely a lot more palatable.
My second semester was going to be quite busier than my first. My checklist included completing five academic courses, my lessons, ensembles, studio classes, and a 30-minute jury. The first few weeks of the second semester went very smoothly and I maintained an active schedule with activities such as home workouts and reading. I forced myself to keep my camera on during classes to stay alert and feel involved. I took copious notes, practiced three hours a day, and kept up with all of my assignments.
As the semester progressed I began to get a bit jealous of my music major friends in Vancouver and Winnipeg. In-person components had not stopped due to the coronavirus in both locations, and at UBC they even allowed small ensembles to begin in-person rehearsals after a semester online. While they checked up on me regularly, my friends in BC continued to be allowed to eat in restaurants, go on day trips together and take advantage of the study spaces on campus. Increasingly, I began to feel trapped in my house, having nowhere to go due to pandemic restrictions as well as the cold. I sometimes treated myself to a take-out meal from a restaurant, but otherwise, I did not do anything other than attend my classes, complete homework, and practice.
Now that I was fully remote, some of the aspects of online learning that seemed a bit unfair in the first semester began to aggravate me a bit more. Despite the fact we were still experiencing hardships surrounding the pandemic, some professors continued to go on as if everything was normal, offering little support for students. Some professors took being online to mean that we had additional time to devote to their class, which unfortunately exacerbated an already stressful semester.
For one course, I devoted six hours a week to watching pre-recorded lectures and Zoom discussions about the lectures. On top of that, I had regular readings to accomplish, large assignments to write, and weekly quizzes. All in all, I most likely spent 10-12 hours a week on this one course, not to mention the other six I had to devote my time to. My days were also lengthy, some beginning at 7am and finishing at 10pm. While in hindsight I could have dropped one of my electives, there was also a feeling that because I was not doing much else, I could devote my time and energy entirely to academics.
Ensembles, which had been a highlight of my first semester, unfortunately, lost their charm in a remote setting. It was frustrating to be doing a performance degree and having no opportunities to perform! We did, however, undertake a very interesting and educationally valuable composition project with the acclaimed composer, Alex Shapiro, who has devised an entire curriculum for the online ensemble. It was amazing to be able to work and speak to a living composer and to step out of my comfort zone, but it could not replace playing with people in person. To present our final compositions, we had to create our own showcase, which was valuable, but also came at a stressful time with many other final assignments piling on. If I had been at school in person, the workload surrounding ensembles would have simply been to practice and attend and participate in rehearsals.
While stressful, my jury provided my only opportunity to play with another person the entire semester. There was little support that could be given for organizing my jury because I was far away from campus. I am lucky that a wonderful collaborative pianist who I worked with many times through my high school years agreed to help me out and booked a rehearsal space. It was great to have gotten to work with her again, and her kindness and humour made preparing my jury something I ended up looking forward to.
By the last month of the semester, I felt increasing signs of burnout, but there was little I felt like I could do to alleviate it. I had experienced burnout before after a week of exams or the days leading up to a vacation, but that only lasted a few days. This was constant and overwhelming. It began to affect my routine, my social interactions, and my quality of work.
At one point I deleted social media for an entire week to focus solely on schoolwork. I would rarely turn on my camera during classes and it became harder and harder to stay motivated with more and more assignments piling on. I frequently pondered dropping out of university after the semester was over, or switching to a less intensive program because I felt like I could barely manage to keep up.
There were, luckily, some “wins” for me during the semester. I did extremely well in all of my courses despite the unhealthy stress. I learned how to use technology to my advantage for a large variety of things. I was able to visit my high school band teacher during reading week and reminisce about pre-pandemic times. I performed in a virtual masterclass with acclaimed clarinettist David Shiffrin and won a scholarship from the Women’s Musical Club of Winnipeg. I helped out my friends with music theory over Zoom, wrote a research paper on a 17th-century French opera I particularly enjoyed, and significantly improved my French through a literature course.
My first year of university ended right before May. I managed to submit all my assignments early or on time and I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. I am very proud of the work I accomplished, but at the same time, it seems a bit ridiculous to have sacrificed my mental well-being to do well at school. If I had the chance to redo that semester, I would have definitely reached out to more people for help and maybe would have dropped one or two courses. Reflections such as these will hopefully make me more prepared for the future.