NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

This too, shall pass

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 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.

Guildhall's Low Latency Gold Medal. Credit: Clive Totman

Guildhall’s Low Latency Gold Medal. Credit: Clive Totman

Guildhall's Low Latency Gold Medal. Credit: Clive Totman

Guildhall’s Low Latency Gold Medal. Credit: Clive Totman

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 … we could broadcast our Gold Medal Final to the world via our website.

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?

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.

Guildhall's Low Latency Gold Medal. Credit: Clive Totman

Guildhall’s Low Latency Gold Medal. Credit: Clive Totman

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.

More from this issue

From both sides

Recent online interviews with Professor Carol Becker, Dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts, and Professor Rob

Read More +

More from this issue

Music has a fundamental quality to help us connect with others, to satisfy and nourish our need for companionship. Its unique and universal capacity to engage and connect us, socially and emotionally in enjoyable ways, lies at the heart of why music is implicated a huge number of health-related interventions.

In Australia, we have not only closed national borders but intermittent interstate closures have made our physical worlds contract even further and concentrated our attention on our local communities and colleagues. As a glimmer of a post-COVID life emerges, we peek outside our Antipodean curtain to explore how others have fared.

It’s been a year of momentous change. I started my job at London South Bank University (LSBU) during lockdown, meeting my team for the first time online in 2020, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic. My day was quickly filled with back-to-back online meetings.

In the summer of 2019 an Erasmus+ bid for research into STEAM in Higher Education, coordinated by Birmingham City University, was approved. At the time, the UK was also in protracted negotiations with the European Union, the impending exit having implications for educational exchange. This would prove to be a deeper issue to resolve.

Recent online interviews with Professor Carol Becker, Dean of the Columbia University School of the Arts, and Professor Rob Cutietta, Dean of the Thornton School of Music, University of Southern California (USC), offered insights into the impact of 2020 on the tertiary arts sector on the eastern and western seaboards of the United States.

March 2020 to March 2021 has for all of us been the most unusual year, a time when we have been immersed in a universal but highly individualised fug of dread, anxiety and increasingly bad hair.

I ran the Stage Management pathway at a traditional drama conservatoire in the UK for a number of years. Digital Education was in its early days and the general mantra was, “It does not work for us or our students – we are a practical discipline that must be taught face to face.”

As I write this article the UK is moving out of a national lockdown – again. This time, however, the Government roadmap that was announced is the attempt to return the country to some form of normality.

In Ireland and the UK, those of us who teach film theory and practice at academic institutions had to adapt quickly to assist students attempting to complete creative practice projects during 2020 and 2021. Suddenly the usual array of filmmaking opportunities was vastly reduced.

In March 2020 an announcement was broadcast that we should all stay at home and only venture out for the most essential activities. While this had been anticipated, it still came as something of a shock and heralded the start of a period in all of our lives that few might have imagined previously.