By: Simon Proulx

My happy place – performing a concerto in Grade 11 with the Winnipeg Youth Symphony Orchestra, February 2019

I knew I wanted to enter a career in music by the end of my 10th grade year. By then, I had participated in numerous ensembles around Winnipeg, taken private lessons on piano and clarinet, attended music camps, and competed in competitions. Music occupied every facet of my life; it was (and still is) my raison d’être. There was little else that I could imagine devoting my time to for the rest of my life.

When the time came to prepare for university applications, I narrowed down my choices to five Canadian universities where I had either met or heard good things about the clarinet professor. In an effort to save money and to miss the least amount of school as possible, I opted to do video auditions for three universities which were outside of my home province.

While there were some technological challenges, (including finding out that I had not uploaded my audition properly two days before it was due!) recording my auditions was a lot more efficient than having the headache of planning three separate trips to universities across Canada. I used one video for multiple universities and did not have the stress of having to rehearse with a collaborative pianist I had never met before. Without the flukes and errors that happen in a live performance, the standards for these videos were, of course, set a bit higher. 

The audition was the final step to completing my university applications and they were done by mid-February, before the pandemic started. By this time COVID was starting to appear in the news more frequently with the worrying crises in China and Italy. These problems seemed somehow so removed from Canada, and I was under the assumption that the virus would not affect us here. I vividly remember sitting in the car with my dad in Brandon, MB the day before a live audition, listening to the radio and hearing about Canadian citizens being flown out of Wuhan. 

By early March, Manitoba had recorded its first case of COVID-19. I was performing at a music festival with my high school woodwind quintet when I learned that school would be moving online for three weeks. A cancelled trip to Regina and Vancouver, cancelled group and solo performances, and cancelled graduation ceremonies all followed suit. If this was not disappointing and stressful enough, there was also the looming decision to make about which university I would attend in the midst of a pandemic. 

At times, the decision process felt utterly pointless. I had no idea what things would look like in the coming year and what the effects of the pandemic would be on my family and friends (at this point we knew little about how deadly or disastrous the virus was going to be). Considerations regarding health, safety, and financial stability started to take precedence over what the best music program was. I even had doubts about studying music in the first place, not knowing how the sector would recover after the pandemic. 

By early April, I had learned that I was accepted into all five universities I had applied to, with substantial scholarships. My gut feeling was to accept my offer at the University of British Columbia after speaking to the clarinet professor and doing some research on the music program. With the overwhelming support from my family and friends, I accepted my offer to UBC a week after it had been sent to me. 

I knew I had made the right decision when the President of UBC (who turns out to be quite the proficient cellist), Santa Ono, contacted me to play a virtual duet together. I was also in contact with my future clarinet professor throughout the pandemic, and he put me in touch with some other students at the School of Music, gave me materials to work on during the summer, and addressed any concerns I had about moving to a new city. 

Meanwhile, the remaining months of my thirteen years in public education took place in a way I could have never foreseen. It is easy for me to discount the last few months of my senior year in high school as nothing more than a hasty transition into online learning, a “COVID approved” graduation ceremony and a disappointing lack of closure, but I still found many ways to keep busy. I recorded a speech as one of my graduating class’s co-valedictorians and received the Governor General’s Medal for the highest academic average in my Grade 11 and 12 years. I completed an online Advanced Placement exam in English Literature with no formal classroom support, volunteered to deliver meals to senior citizens in Winnipeg twice every week, and played music with others a few times a month after the lockdown was lifted. 

Manitoba was spared the worst of the pandemic in the initial few months. There were many weeks with stretches of only one or two cases of COVID and talk of reopening society to what it was pre-pandemic. Even though optimism abounded, it was my impression that due to their size, most university programs would be fully online and that it was unlikely I would be doing any of my first year in person. To my surprise, the School of Music at UBC and most other music faculties in Canada strongly advocated for some in-person components for music students, developing guidance based on the latest science to do so safely. After convincing my parents it would be worthwhile to go in person (there was also a fully online option for those who could not attend due to travel restrictions or safety issues), I applied for a spot in a residence and began planning to move to Vancouver. 

It is worth noting that I had never been to Vancouver before. My plan had been to tour UBC’s campus on my band trip to Vancouver, but this, of course, had been cancelled. Because of my experience traveling and living in other countries, the move largely did not phase me. It had always been my intention to attend a university somewhere outside of Manitoba to have new experiences and meet new people. Now that the plan that I had organized and worked for was finally set into motion, I could not help but feel overwhelmingly excited.