By Professor Jonathan Vaughan
Monday 2 March 2020 turned out to be Guildhall School of Music & Drama’s last day of normal service. Hitherto there had only been five cases of COVID-19 in the UK. That morning we discovered that one of our staff had tested positive and became the sixth case. By the next day, the School was closed for in-person teaching. However, COVID-19 was only the first of three seismic shocks to rock the School as it entered the most turbulent period of its 140-year history.
On 25 May 2020 George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, prompting a global movement around racism and intensive discussions among educational institutions. And finally, by June 2020 the full impact of Britain leaving the European Union the previous January was evident in EU application numbers across the sector.
COVID-19 and Brexit have generated significant new costs and lost revenue opportunities for the School. The response has been to formulate a five-year Business Recovery Plan focusing on the generation of new income and new recruitment patterns but we also had to find pressing solutions to how we could all work together under COVID restrictions.
Microsoft Teams and Zoom both suffer from time delays of around 50 to 500 milliseconds. We needed a system that was synchronous to ensure musicians could rehearse together with safe social distancing within a network of rooms. Our genius Head of Recording & Audio Visual, Julian Hepple, had the answer.
Julian combined his knowledge of digital workflows for large-scale stadium rock tours, video broadcasting technology used in the Royal Courts of Justice and ideas from Ice Hockey arenas to develop a bespoke low-latency system for the School. This technical wizardry meant that we could broadcast our Gold Medal Final to the world via our website. The strings, wind, brass and the conductor all sat in four separate rooms across two buildings. Miraculously they all played synchronously together! We believe that this is the first time anyone has applied this technology to an orchestra in this way. Low latency is now an integral part of our blended learning offer under COVID.
Brexit, in my view, was always going to be a self-inflicted wound and it has so far proven to be devastating to the HE sector in the UK. Traditionally 19% of our Music students come from the EU. With the withdrawal of UK student loans to the EU, an increase in fees from £9k to £20k for all EU students, and the requirement of a visa to study in Britain, is it any wonder that the Universities UK estimates a further 20-57% decline for 21/22 in EU student numbers?
After such a tumultuous year I feel, as many of us do, more battle scarred than at any other time in my career. However, I am fiercely optimistic. We will weather the COVID storm and continue to learn new ways to cope. We will change our recruitment patterns as a result of Brexit and develop new business delivery models. This too, shall pass. Nevertheless, of the three tectonic plates that made up the seismic events of 2020, I suspect that the one to bring about the most long-lasting positive change in the artistic culture of the School will be Black Lives Matter.
The BLM movement across the world has accelerated the rate of cultural change in the School. Like many we have committed to address and dismantle racism in our School, setting up an anti-racist task force made up of a cross representation of staff and students, while inviting key stakeholders and external specialists to inform the School’s priorities.
Whilst COVID and Brexit have caused separation and division, the global anti-racism movement will ultimately bring compassion and understanding. It is a raw and sometimes angry process. But what are the arts for if not to ask the difficult questions of humanity and to bring us together around common purpose? We still have a long way to go but I believe it is this movement within the Arts which will determine, more than any other, our views on Artistic Citizenship, what the School is for, who we represent and how we can learn to live better lives together.
Professor Jonathan Vaughan is currently Vice Principal & Director of Music at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He studied double bass and piano at the Royal College of Music before joining the London Symphony Orchestra. He was elected Chairman of the LSO in 1999 and went on to become Director of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain before joining the Guildhall. Jonathan is currently studying for a PhD and is researching “Artistic Citizenship and Performance Excellence in Music Conservatoires”. He is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a Fellow of the Guildhall School. He was conferred the title of Professor of Music at the Guildhall in 2021.