How Juilliard Thrives, Supports, & Evolves the Artist-Driven Educational Process

Q & A With Barrett Hipes, Brian Zeger, Britt Hewitt & Erin Wagner

By Jennifer Pyron

As most of The Juilliard School’s students are now off-campus or living back home due to the coronavirus pandemic, Juilliard’s faculty continues to proactively develop alternate ways to prioritize safety and support for their students and community.

Juilliard is like other educational institutions that are trouble-shooting and preparing for indefinitely new circumstances that effect education moving forward. Specifically, however, Juilliard is inventively raising awareness of student development resources that cultivate enrichment of the total body and mind.

Juilliard Thrives

The Juilliard Thrives initiative, created under the Division of Student Development program prior to COVID-19, promotes the well-being of students in the following areas: career, community, emotional, financial, physical and social.

Students now have the opportunity to partake in virtual end of year recitals and performances, virtual residencies with opera artists, student development town-hall Zoom sessions, virtual karaoke evenings, a virtual open house series featuring the Dean’s office, and a newly created catalogue of accompaniment that is actively growing, for vocal students to use towards practice.

To learn more about Juilliard Thrives and these benefits, OperaWire spoke with Barrett Hipes, Dean of Student Development, Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of Juilliard’s Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, and vocal students Britt Hewitt and Erin Wagner.

OperaWire: What about Juilliard Thrives has been most supportive of students during this time?

Barrett Hipes: Overall we want Juilliard students to know how much we care about their health and well-being. We know our students are motivated and self-driven, but it is also essential that they take time for self-care.

What we really thought about when initially formulating Juilliard Thrives was a program separate from previous series that featured co-curricular lectures and evening social activity boards. Instead of this being looked at as a calendar and a time of day approached platform, we asked ourselves how to shift appropriately as a cultural institution, to ensure that our students find what they need most right now, in their own time. We wanted to make this about the students checking in with themselves and recognizing their needs.

We partnered with the company Headspace which has graciously offered Juilliard students free subscriptions. The company also provides us with feedback based on our student body’s level of engagement which shows on average our students as being above the national average in terms of their usage. Whether it is three minutes or twenty minutes, students are taking the time they need to utilize this resource for their well-being. They are choosing to center and refocus.

We have also partnered with the organization called MindWise Innovations which has helped us to create a platform for an online mental health assessment for students that may be experiencing trauma, stress, anxiety, eating disorders or substance abuse issues.

This assessment provides each individual student a list of curated sources based on in-house resources through our health and counseling services. This helps students to know exactly where they can go to find individual support.

Brian Zeger: One of the ways in which the vocal arts department is spreading a hopeful message and sharing performances online is in collaboration with the Met Museum for a recently released recording of Gertrude Stein’s ‘Mother of Us All.’ This recording is a celebration of community and to see it during these times is almost heartbreaking for me because I feel we need this now more than ever.

We had online one-on-one coaching with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard. This allowed students to continue participation with the already planned artist residencies and continue to learn with Q&A sessions afterwards with the artist. Denyce Graves also virtually met with students and finished her residency with a two hour Q&A that was open ended with regards to her career, biography and personal discussion about her leadership role as an opera artist. Canadian bass-baritone Gerald Finley is included in this series as well. This entire series allows for students, faculty and administration to meet in a sort of town hall atmosphere using Zoom.

Also, available on YouTube now is a creative project called Juilliard Karaoke. This is where a piece gets selected and then a singer and pianist perform it virtually together. It is strange times that we are living in right now, but this has been a fun way to incorporate togetherness.

There is also a virtual open house series available through the Dean’s office for the Juilliard community to volunteer performances. This was taking place every week before the coronavirus, however has since shifted to Zoom.

An accompaniment library is currently being developed for a singer to gain access to recordings. This cataloguing began a week after NYC was in lockdown. Pianists began recording their tracks so that singers can continue to practice. A bank of recordings will continue to grow and be housed online for Juilliard student access.

I also want to mention that Juilliard awards summer travel grants for students to immerse themselves in a language abroad program. Between five and ten singers and collaborative pianists are awarded this grant. Since this cannot happen this summer, the Juilliard faculty has announced a new Lucrezia Bori Grant that offers virtual language study through either a software study or live language teacher.

OW: In regards to a virtual performance while social distancing, when the pianist and singer are in separate rooms, how do the emotions get translated into the recording? Without a live audience, how does this happen?

BZ: The pianists themselves are channeling past experiences they have had while performing in concert halls with a live audience for the accompaniment catalogue. However we must also remember that so much of what we do as artists is through the use of our imagination so if a singer is preparing a song cycle that they have not yet performed for a live audience then they must imagine what it will be like before they get to the stage.

I think what I’ve learned is how vital an audience connection is for the performer. No matter how motivated you are to learn music and prepare it with colleagues, that moment of being able to share it with a live audience is irreplaceable. We are all really suffering from that lack of connection. This is not normal, what is happening, and despite all the great ideas in the digital realm and the generosity of large organizations to be gifting anyone with live stream performances, it does not negate the fact that we are all missing sharing these moments together in person.



OW: How does Juilliard Thrives support you as a vocal student and other Juilliard students?

Britt Hewitt: Juilliard Thrives helps to provide resources that promote campus wellbeing. Thrives funds fitness classes, informational and interactive programs, and even Headspace memberships and mental health screening. The most important Thrives initiative for me has been the social media postings of home projects my classmates take on. It lifts my spirits to see creativity still flourishing from my community, even if I don’t get to walk down the halls and hear the cacophony of two hundred musicians in two hundred practice rooms.

Erin Wagner: Juilliard Thrives provides a unique outlet for Juilliard students to collaborate with one another. It inspires students to use this virtual performance medium to share positivity with our communities, something that is so significant in a time where we all want to connect with each other.During this challenging time I’ve found that both listening to and creating music is truly vital. Getting to listen to other students share their passions and creativity has been so inspiring and something that has made me feel a deep sense of community within Juilliard.

OW: What have you learned about yourself, as a musician, during this time?

BH: I’ve been a singer/songwriter for most of my life, and I first started receiving training and criticism for it when I was about ten years old. The teaching tune of those times was thinking like a commercial music writer; write music as generic, simple, and far-reaching as possible so as not to limit your audience. The songs must be clear, easy to understand.

Over the past few years as my young adulthood progressed, it became difficult to write things down because I would obsess over diligent focus on clarity, marketability of single lines, even entire song subjects. I would edit in my head numerous times before I even dared write the song down. Since entering quarantine, drastic changes have jolted the process of my writing. After having to forcefully implement a significant increase in the alone time between me and my thoughts, a new visceral urgency arose in me to put the words down, no edits, just raw, to get them out of my body.

Under this new isolating condition, I no longer think at all about the way the songs will come off to an audience, their relatability. I thought I would cower from the potential vulgarity of that unprocessed music. As it turns out, it’s rather satisfying, and I’m excited by the ideas I’m unearthing from this new freedom. I look suddenly, with guidance from some trusted coaches, to Sinéad O’Connor, to Nick Cave, to Fiona Apple, for proper songs of abandon.

It’s my fourth and final year in the Vocal Arts program at The Juilliard School. I was lucky to perform my senior recital on the very last day before spring break, that is to say, the very last day of planned physical school activities. Classical music and I have always had a rocky relationship.

I theorize, thanks to the solitude I’ve been forced into, that while songwriting sometimes yields a somewhat immediate result (you sit, you write, and then, a song), classical music is a lengthier process, with special extended length reserved for the vocal arts. No, first you must learn the story of the piece, the nitty gritty of the notes and their attached words, in whatever language they may be in, with their performance practices of sometimes hundreds of years in vocal instruments that are unlike yours.

To yield a result from classical music, the curve of satisfaction starts low. The curves of songwriter satisfaction dip and peak as the song ages, the piece is criticized, rejected, reworked, etc., but the fuel gathered from putting the idea down in the first place is often plentiful enough for the full endeavor. Starting a new project in classical music, however, is to look up a beautiful, and yet intimidating, mountain.

And so, when the physical environment of The Juilliard School, with its concentration and support, suddenly disappears, combined with the culture shock of returning to a home many states away, the grief of losing major structure and collective focus, we students feel much less equipped with the energy to start up that mountain.

My passion for work hasn’t experienced a significant wavering for as long as I can remember, and it stung me to learn that while sometimes I could take responsibility for such a fierce drive, I was also graced with environments to cultivate it. Now removed from that fertile soil, the work is harder to start. Because of this realization, I have come to see just how much we need one another. I will emerge from this era with a new appreciation for collective energy.

EW: Collaboration and sharing music with other people is the most fulfilling part of what we do. So often I find myself losing sight of that because I focus so much on the millions of other elements that singing involves. This time has allowed me to reflect on how grateful I am for pianists and the time spent making music together, it is such a privilege getting to create music with another person.

OW: How have you used this time to bring more of yourself and your own creativity into your performance?

BH: The livestream feature on Instagram was the first thing I turned to the very day the rest of the physical semester toppled over. I played all of my songs, a couple of covers, for all six or so friends who tuned in to share in my sadness for the world we knew in its rapid disintegration.

After returning back to my parents’ house, my family and I tossed around the idea of a more planned livestream. I called it my “Very Casual Quarantine Concert,” and promised I’d even enjoy a cocktail over the half hour. The goal was simply to get viewers to detach from the feeling of isolation.

I’m lucky to find myself collaborating on numerous virtual classical projects, from short stories and vignettes with Opera Harmony to creations from my peers at school. For the first time, I feel that my job is no longer to be only the performer. I must also be the videographer, the props manager, the recording engineer, and to a large extent, the set designer and assistant director. The lines of creation blur as we move to innovate undiscovered means of making art within a suffocating situation.

EW: I’ve used this time to do more research, preparation, interpretive and language work so that I can return to live performance with a much more informed and individualized perspective. I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself as a musician through devoting time to understanding my longterm goals and what is truly important to me.

OW: What do you feel gets lost while performing virtually? Gets found?

BH: I found, during the Very Casual Quarantine Concert, that people reveled in their ability to join in on the show in real time via the comments section. My audience participation had never been higher. I could call each of them by name, laugh at their jokes, ask them questions and get responses.

The comments, however, failed to convey the collective energy that explodes in the form of live applause. The energy was divided up into little fragments of silent phrases or emojis, which I think proved not only less gratifying for me as the performer, but also for the audience. Joining in on applause is a part of the music. The absence of that integral ceremony left each song to simply bleed into the next, or worse, into the rest of time.

EW: Of course virtual performance is very different than live performance, it feels somewhat restricted and is definitely more nerve-wracking. In that sense however you’re forced to be more accountable to what the composer wrote and to truly listen to and understand your collaborator in detailed way.

OW: How does a performer manage an emotional connection with other collaborators that are not in the same room?

BH: The most successful version of musical connection I’ve found thus far came from an art form where such a means of collaboration have almost always existed. My music production class was gifted the opportunity to work with another live musician, who would record remotely and send back stems for us to assemble back into our projects.

But music production lives on a screen to begin with, and the conversion of human music into computer music and back again is a process far more concrete than breathing together for a phrase—when there is no one to breathe with. Recordings, I’ve found, are bad at breathing.

EW: While being in the same room certainly connects two performers, it is ultimately the words and music that drives this connection. Chris Reynolds is also just such an incredibly talented and emotive pianist that he was able to give me so much to discover even if only through a screen and headphones.

OW: Are there any best practices that you’ve discovered while performing online? Anything that you may want to explore but weren’t aware of until now?

BH: I feel that while we’re all performing from our places of living, in our places of sleeping and showering and eating, where we are the least masked and the most vulnerable, it’s a mistake to take a livestream too seriously. Livestream is a glorious opportunity to interact closely and individually with the audience during the performance. It makes your audience members feel special, and it helps to solidify that however chopped, disjointed the lot of us are, we’re still a community, if just for a short hour.

The creative boundary-pushing in recorded virtual collaboration that I’ve seen and participated in will help to shape the future of classical music. I’m interested in seeing how the forcing of opera onto screens both changes the art form and shifts audience demographic. With each performer in a different space, opera becomes more experimental, a phase I think we’re long overdue for.

EW: I love the message of Juilliard Thrives: even in times of hardship and uncertainty, music, art, and community will always be there. I think being as kind to yourself as possible is so important and it’s definitely something I’ve been striving towards. I was so anxious about having this video online until I realized that it’s not about what others perceive or say, but rather about sharing hope and music with others.

If you post performance videos/virtual collaborations online just know that people are going to appreciate it. There are people who desperately need music and art now more than ever. Your music, no matter what you may think of it, means so much and has the power to bring happiness to people who need it.