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Juan David Espitia was first introduced to percussion instruments made of dried cow skin in his native Colombia, when a teacher recommended music to help him manage his ADHD. Music was always centre stage for Espitia, which is understandable for anyone growing up in a country known as “the land of a thousand rhythms.”

Espitia and his family moved to Montreal in 2009, when he was 10 years old. Though the language barrier was difficult to overcome, Espitia’s involvement in youth music programs eased the struggle.

“I would feel something I can’t express, and then music shows up, like, ‘Hello, I’m your language — use me!'” he said.

Connecting through jazz

Espitia had trouble relating to popular music in Canada; it was a far cry from the colourful Colombian salsa rhythms of his youth. That is, until he found jazz.

“There is a soulful part to it that felt closer to what I grew up on than what was popular here,” he said of his initial exposure to jazz during a blues camp for teens organized by the Montreal Jazz Festival. “Salsa is pretty much jazz with a Latin American Afro-Cuban rhythm,” he said. “The way harmony is constructed is similar. It was an awakening for me.”

Studying jazz presented a challenge that Espitia was eager to take on.

In 2019, after completing a jazz program at CEGEP Saint-Laurent in Montreal, Espitia enrolled in Concordia University’s jazz studies program. “To be a good artist, when you get inspiration, you need to know how to translate it. You have to know the vocabulary, you need the technical part,” he said.

Concordia offered a means to this end through its facilities, equipment, teachers and a community of like-minded jazz enthusiasts.

Juan David Espitia plays with his friend’s dog, Loco, in front of an art studio complex in Montreal. (Submitted by Matilda Cerone)

Espitia had one full semester of this experience. But when the pandemic hit and universities were forced to go remote last year, everything he sought from the institution was put on hold. There was no more access to facilities or equipment, and relationship dynamics among now-distant and isolated peers and teachers were drastically changed.

“It’s not what I need, and it’s not what I’m willing to pay my money for,” he said of post-lockdown music studies. By the time the fall semester began, Espitia had suspended his studies.

Espitia’s case isn’t unique, as many students in programs anchored in practice and physical access struggled to adapt to online learning.

“The main interest in going to university for music is the networking opportunities,” said Sophie Brubacher, a bassist who left the same program last fall. “Being surrounded by other musicians, it pushes you, everybody is in the same mindset. Without that, to me there was no point.”

No university, no problem

Though they’ve left the program, neither Espitia nor Brubacher have stopped working on their craft. Brubacher has been practising on her own, while Juan has been working on compositions and production for his two bands, Amor Muerto and Pockethead.

Before coming to Montreal to study double bass at Concordia University during the fall of 2019, Brubacher completed an undergraduate degree in arts administration at Bishop’s University. (Submitted by Matilda Cerone)

“I learned by myself, even the technical stuff, through tutorials,” Espitia said. How he experiences music has expanded to better accommodate this new digital-first reality. His focus has shifted from purely practical drumming to a more holistic appreciation of mixing and producing music in an online context, which is the direction he believes music is going, pandemic or not.

Espitia and Burbacher believe that more could have been done to keep student artists engaged.

“Music, I think, is in the body, in the ears, yet people are trying to teach it as if it’s a science. That neglects its heart,” Brubacher said. She hopes that institutions can learn from this experience, as she wants to return to Concordia once in-person activities resume.

Institutional challenges

It was clear to the faculty that their difficulties would be unique, said Annie Gérin, Concordia’s dean of fine arts. “We hired specialist fine-art practitioners who are studying how to give fine-art education online to help us,” she said.

Beyond the pandemic, reflections on equipment and other accessibility issues will remain relevant to the department, Gérin said.

Gérin added that they haven’t recorded a drop in enrolment, but that there has been a higher number of deferrals, like Espitia and Brubacher.

Deferrals at the university have been higher among fine arts students than any other faculty. In the winter 2021 semester, deferrals were up 363 per cent compared to winter 2020. The second highest increase came at the John Molson School of Business, where deferrals to the same semester were up 181 per cent from the previous year.

“There were a lot of students who were anxious about what it means to be learning fine arts online,” she said. “In the department, we were encouraging these students to just try it and see.”

WATCH | Juan David Espitia is learning about music production in his practice space

Juan David Espitia is focusing on learning about music production while he’s put studying jazz at university on hold. Video by Jessica Wu. 0:38

Though this past year has tested their resolve, both musicians still believe in the value of a formal fine arts education. But they hope that the university learns how to better accommodate students if something like this happens again.

Espitia wants to return to his studies — but only once he’s able to do so in-person.

“I go there to learn, I want that knowledge and human contact,” he said. “I think institutions will always be there, but they will have to change.”

This story is a collaboration between Concordia University’s journalism department and CBC Montreal.