Surviving Technicals in a Frozen World – January Blog 

Digital Ambassador Jodie Mitson chronicles life as an RNCM trombonist in a series of monthly blog posts.

This year didn’t exactly start off the way anyone wanted. New me – new lockdown. The RNCM, however, did a wonderful job of keeping students up to date with the constantly changing plans. Credit has to go to the staff and Student Union who really have upped their communication to make students feel more valued and involved.

With technical assessments looming, pressure is on to prepare studies, scales, second instrument practice and orchestral excerpts in time. Many of the foundations were put in place before lockdown 3 with lessons for SWBP students being taught through the G rooms glass screens which rather gave the impression you were a convict!

But student’s motivation was tested once again when we were confined inside. Many (me included) are back to living with parents who we thought we’d only just escaped! Uni life is not just about assignments, technical assessments and recitals. It’s also a massive step in a young adult’s social development – having to keep yourself alive, cooking (or ordering) food, working out the mysterious washing devices and meeting new people during the first few terms can be hard work without the strain of exams coming up and definitely without a global pandemic landing you back in your childhood bedroom! I have found that students have really rallied together throughout this time, able to relate with each other’s struggles and always willing to offer advice and a friendly Zoom call or movie night watch party – if your diary isn’t already too full!

With exams being scheduled as online meetings there’s also your dodgy internet connection to worry about. But credit to the RNCM, they took the decision to go ahead and have supported students really effectively. New innovative ways of teaching and learning have been developed since last March, so most students now have a decent home-set up system in which to attend lectures and participate in classes. The trombone department and others in SWBP have begun prerecording performances to minimise the buffering and tempo inconsistencies.

Usually at this time of year instrumental classes would be in the studio rooms where you have the space to play out as if you were in an orchestra or giving a recital. Many students have found that teachers have adapted extremely well to online teaching with classes being modified to work in a home setting. One massive advantage of everyone being stuck inside is the fact that other instrumental superstars are also in the same position. This gave us the opportunity to come ‘screen-to-screen’ with the likes of Marshall Gilkes (WDR Big Band), Dennis Rollins (British Jazz Trombonist), Håkan Bjorkman (Principal Trombonist of the Royal Swedish Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra of Europe) and James Markey (Bass trombonist Boston Symphony).  This would have been previously impossible due to their ordinarily hectic schedules.

Student Union initiatives such as practice R(z)oom meetings have encouraged students to practice together through the screen. My trombone quartet is still meeting up each week to check on each other and test scale and excerpt progress as technicals loom closer. This is a great environment in which to try new things out and push your playing whilst also being able to give feedback to others which further makes you consider your own playing. It’s a formal enough setting to perform and get a bit nervous with tricky passages, however it’s relaxed enough that you can work together through challenges as well as having a chat and catch-up at the end too.

Staff have also been on hand to give one-to-one meetings and feedback sessions. In November there were ‘Excerpt POPs’ where you attend, along with around ten others, having prepared a few excerpts to perform. The main aim of these early classes is to discuss how best to prepare and practise these excerpts as well as realising the extent to which they expect you to have researched the pieces. It’s quite a daunting prospect that the panel could ask you ANY question about the piece; composer, recordings, conductors’ input, historical performances, orchestration – there isn’t an end to the list!  Online Technical POPs for SWBP students have also been available this month which have been goalposts to prepare for as well as a chance to wave at someone different on Zoom. Simone usually cheers everyone up!

Therefore, it’s not all been doom and gloom these past few weeks, as long as you don’t read the news too often. You can usually be kept busy in classes with lecturers’ children occasionally interrupting in the background, people inadvertently unmuted in classes resulting in strange noises… or a lecturer chatting away to himself on mute. And the highlight I think of my term so far, theory lessons coming to a standstill at the prospect of cooing at a fluffy dog!

Good luck to everyone with Technicals coming up; I’m sure you’ll smash them. Keep on keeping on with the slow reality of life at the moment – I’ll see you in the pub when it’s all over!

28 January 2021