Music through the pandemic: Professor Foxcroft reflects on a turbulent 2020

Rhodes>Latest News

Photo from Professor Catherine Foxcroft's 'A Portrait' album [CREDIT: Robs Oosthuysen Images]
Photo from Professor Catherine Foxcroft's 'A Portrait' album [CREDIT: Robs Oosthuysen Images]

Rhodes University’s Head of Music and Musicology, Associate Professor Catherine Foxcroft, recently had a sit down with the Communications and Advancement Division and reflected on the effect 2020 had on her personal, academic, and teaching and learning experiences.

According to the professor, being at the helm of an entire department’s sudden migration to remote learning was no easy task. “We are one of the departments which offer both academic and practical courses. While our academic courses shifted with relative ease to online platforms, we really struggled with remote teaching because our practicals rely on live sound feedback for instruction,” she explained.

Although the lecturers initially tried to adopt Zoom and WhatsApp for practicals, the poor sound quality and unstable internet connectivity issues made it impossible to progress with teaching and learning. This was particularly awkward with ensemble music, which required several people logging on at the same time and playing synchronously. “Thankfully, our motivation for having our practical students return to campus as early as possible was accepted, and we were able to salvage much of the teaching and learning time we lost during the hard lockdown,” said Prof Foxcroft.

The department was also allowed to host live student performances in December, which formed part of examination assessments. “Normally, we have an audience for these performances, but we were bound by COVID-19 protocols, so it was quite different to how we normally do things. But more importantly, the students were allowed to perform, for which they were so grateful, ” Prof Foxcroft explained.

However, the ‘new normal’ that emerged in 2020 was certainly not all doom and gloom for the Department of Music and Musicology. According to Prof Foxcroft, lecturers had to become more familiar with using the RUConnected system and use it more actively. This has become a new way of complementing the teaching and learning of theoretical concepts. “Before, we used to hand out paper-based study material in classrooms, but now we upload it to RUConnected,” she said.

Interestingly, the department teaches a module on Music, Health & the Brain, a topic that came into sharper focus during the times of uncertainty and isolation brought about by the pandemic. This interdisciplinary half-credit, one-semester course includes modules covering the relationship between music and emotions, human identity and meaning, language, sports psychology, music therapy, and neuroscience. It is a study of human engagement with music, encompassing musical cognition, communication, expression and creativity, and music’s therapeutic potential.

“Music as motivation and as a means to self-soothe to help keep anxiety levels down was certainly something many people were engaging in to get through last year’s challenges,” said Prof Foxcroft. “Music can provide release, relaxation and comfort during difficult times. It can supplement medication as a type of therapy, and the best part is that it has no negative side-effects.”

Another great plus point to emerge from 2020 was the Research Seminar Series, a brainchild of postgraduate lecturer Dr William Fourie. This online-based initiative sees international musicologists present various topics to the department’s postgraduates. “A year ago, we would not have dreamed of inviting these distinguished musicologists to give a virtual talk. These kinds of things were done in-person – and I suppose we never realised how restrictive this was until travel-bans and COVID-19 protocols opened up a whole new way of doing things,” said Prof Foxcroft. The department also uses Zoom to gather postgraduate students online to present and discuss their research proposals. Students from as far away as India and China connect each week to share feedback and input.

A Portrait

Despite all of the challenges that Prof Foxcroft had to deal with last year as Head of Department, she released an album, entitled A Portrait, which features her interpretation of Schubert and Rachmaninoff sonatas. It is her fourth album, but her first one in nearly 20 years.

“I am a performer, and last year I couldn’t perform. This absence brought out thoughts about my sense of identity as a musician and the role music plays in my identity as a human being,” Prof Foxcroft said. “And out of this introspection, A Portrait was born.”

A Portrait is available at Homeground Coffees on Somerset Street or by emailing Prof Foxcroft at

You can listen to a podcast of Prof Foxcroft’s interview on Classic FM 1027’s People of Note with renowned conductor Richard Cock. She discusses A Portrait, Rhodes University’s Music and Musicology Department and various other subjects. Rhodes University awarded Richard Cock a DMus (honoris causa) in 2000.