By: Simon Proulx
Before flying to Vancouver, I was already preparing for my transition to university. During the summer, I was offered a few free online classes to help me acclimate to the post-secondary environment. I took advantage of the mental health and writing courses and got to learn about other students through discussion posts. UBC has one of the largest international student populations in the world, so it was very interesting to read about how people ended up wanting to attend the university. I excitedly registered for my courses, deciding to fill my electives with French courses to maintain and strengthen my link to my Francophone heritage.
I also began to prepare for ensemble auditions which would be recorded and sent before departing. The week before I left for Vancouver, I participated in the university’s first-year orientation program called Jump Start. As with most online events, it was hard to make meaningful connections, but a large portion of music students were in my group and many were also going to be living on campus so I was in touch with them through social media, making plans for when we arrived.
Finally, on the afternoon of September 4th, my mom and I departed for Vancouver. It was difficult to say goodbye to my family and friends because I had never been away from them for an extended period of time. As we entered the near-empty airport, I said my final goodbyes to my brother and my dad. The flight was uneventful other than the fact my mask kept slipping off my face when I would try to sleep. Three hours later, we were in Vancouver. Some of the aspects of the city which immediately impressed me were the pristine road conditions (Winnipeg is known for its potholes) and the hilly terrain which was very different from the flatness I was used to in Manitoba.
The next day, I moved into my residence building. Despite all of the restrictions, I was surprised at the number of amenities the building was going to offer. There was a large dining hall with ample seating for groups to be distanced from each other, three practice rooms, a small gym, and study spaces on almost every floor. Because of the lack of students coming to do in-person activities, this was the only first-year residence that was operating during the semester. Unfortunately, because of the restrictions surrounding in-person activities, there were limited “icebreaker” activities to get to know people in the building. Luckily, many of the people who had been in my Jump Start group had also moved in and I was able to connect with them. Within the month, I formed a consistent group of friends studying topics ranging from theater set design to science.
Our classes began a few days later and, to my relief, all of my professors were extremely organized and ready to begin teaching online. I had a healthy mix of asynchronous and synchronous courses ranging from aural skills to early French literature. While awkward and less engaging than in-person classes, I found I did not mind online classes especially when I could watch the lectures on my own time. What I did not appreciate was the lack of connections with my fellow peers as well as the difficulties making meaningful connections with my professors.
My in-person lessons, ensembles, as well as access to practice rooms took a bit longer to set into motion as the School of Music was still waiting on the approval of a plan sent to the British Columbia Center for Disease Control, which then had to be implemented through instructional Zoom sessions for the faculty, staff, and students.
Lessons were primarily held in larger rooms rather than offices to accommodate distancing and had to be left empty for thirty minutes as an air gap. My professor had prepared an online space for me to upload all of my materials so we could stay distanced while viewing the same music.
Ensembles had to be adapted to smaller groups, and as a result, I got a lot less ensemble time than normal, which although understandable, was still disappointing. Individuals were spaced three meters apart, which presented interesting challenges regarding balance and togetherness. We began in like-instrument ensembles so that incoming students would get to know our respective studios in person as our studio classes were also being held online to accommodate those who could not attend in person.
Eventually, we moved over to mixed ensembles and each group had a different project with 1 hour and 30 minutes a week of rehearsals per project. UBC was fortunately well-equipped for presenting online performances as they had been releasing ensemble videos online for many years before the pandemic. The Chan Centre, where we rehearse and perform, is equipped with excellent cameras and microphones, and our band director, Dr. Robert Taylor, has had extensive experience producing audio and video recordings.
As for practice rooms, we were each put into a group that was assigned to a specific practice room. The administration developed a booking system and provided wipes to sanitize surfaces after we were done. As with all the other rooms in the building, we had to allot thirty minutes at the end of each practice session as an air gap. While not the most convenient (particularly because the rooms could no longer be open 24 hours a day), the system worked effectively and personally helped motivate me to practice through the sheer guilt of possibly booking, but not using, a practice room.
For many, especially those who had attended the university before the COVID-19 pandemic, these new rules were sometimes difficult to follow. Luckily, for me and the rest of the first years, we knew little about “normal” campus life, so it was easy to comply. During a Zoom meeting, I remember Dr. Taylor telling us that all of these in-person “privileges” were directly affected by our personal actions outside of the university, something which was never a concern in past years. We were warned to keep social activities to a minimum and to follow all existing public health guidelines. The personal responsibility required to attend each rehearsal made the act of playing in person all the more special. For me, every single moment in the Chan Center was cherished and savored after so many months of not being able to play with a large group of people.
Although I was extremely fortunate to have some in-person elements, many things seemed a bit unfair or poorly planned simply because of the difficult circumstances. For one, it was very difficult to connect with my fellow classmates in my own year, let alone those in the years above me. This was particularly difficult for me because of the tight-knit musical communities I knew back in Winnipeg.
Moreover, many activities or concepts were presented to first years with little to no introduction as if we already had been at university pre-pandemic. There were also many additional costs, such as music stands and recording devices, that added to the high cost of attending the university as an out of province student – many of these things would have been provided by the school in a normal year – and the frustration of having less ensemble time (although this was not only limited to the first year group).
Finally, spending most of my days in my tiny dorm room which was certainly not meant to be lived in for that amount of time was particularly maddening. To make things worse, for the first few months, I had a challenging experience with my “bathroommate” (our rooms were separate but connected to the same bathroom) who could not have been more different in temperament. Although we rarely saw each other, we shared a space and the walls were paper thin. Multiple complaints were given to my resident advisor, but unfortunately, there was little they could do. After two months, I decided to transfer rooms as the situation was seriously affecting my physical and mental wellbeing.
All of these negatives were alleviated by being able to have dinner every night with my friends and then being able to study with them in group spaces (although to be frank, little studying was ever accomplished). On weekends, we went on little adventures into downtown Vancouver or hikes in Pacific Spirit Park which served as a nice break from being on campus during the week.
By November, the COVID situation across Canada had heightened significantly. I began having discussions with my family about possibly coming back due to the risk of the campus being shut down and being kicked out of my residence building. On the other hand, taking that risk and having the ability to have some in-person activities as well as connections to my friends would be good for my mental health. Unfortunately, at the end of November, our ensemble’s recording project had been postponed to the following semester because of rising cases. This, as well as the consideration of saving some money by not having to live in residence for the following semester swayed my decision to leave Vancouver and spend the remainder of my year back in Winnipeg with my family.
Having to figure out how to move home in the middle of a worsening COVID situation as well as during my first exam period in university was extremely stressful. There were times when I broke down on the phone with my parents, wondering why I was even going to university for music if I was going to be completely remote next semester. I was extremely worried about my mental health especially as Manitoba reintroduced some of the toughest restrictions anywhere in Canada and I would see little of my friends, let alone be able to do anything remotely “fun”.
My last few days in Vancouver ended bittersweetly. I took many walks around campus, taking in the breathtaking views of the mountain and the ocean that had always been able to put me in awe. Saying goodbye to my friends was difficult, as most of them were coming back for the second semester and were even looking forward to some new in-person activities such as painting classes and chamber ensembles. Although we had met only three months prior, I still felt a strong bond with them. In a way, they were my Vancouver family and one that was going to be continuing on without me in person next semester.
The morning I left Vancouver was spent having breakfast with my friends and having one last walk around campus. It was a typical cloudy day and it started raining as I boarded my flight. Three hours later, Winnipeg welcomed me, blanketed in snow with a bone chilling -37 degrees Celsius which I surprisingly missed after being in a more temperate climate for so long.