Music teaching in the time of coronavirus

Trials and triumphs using virtual technology in music education

By David Lyman 

When the pandemic hit in March, Rachel Kramer and her piano students didn’t lose a beat.

“If I was going to take this pandemic seriously, technology was my only choice,” said Kramer, CEO of AlivenArts and president of the Baldwin Music Education Center, as well as being an extremely active piano teacher. “When teaching piano, we have to see each other.”

Phoebe and furry friend participating in online music instruction

Fortunately, video-conferencing technology afforded Kramer and many other teachers a workaround. Was it the best way to teach piano? Hardly. Music, whether consumed, performed or taught, is a highly personal activity. It’s about making a connection. But when a public health crisis made face-to-face sharing dangerous. digital video provided an easy-to-use – and often free – alternative. 

“When teaching piano, we have to see each other.” Rachel Kramer

“If you had asked me this a year ago, I would have said our members would avoid this like the plague,” said Dr. Gary Ingle, the CEO of Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), a Cincinnati-based professional organization with more than 22,000 members. “But once the pandemic started and we were required to social distance, they jumped right on it and assimilated it admirably. I’m totally amazed and proud of the way they have embraced virtual lessons.”

MTNA CEO Gary Ingle

The transition hasn’t been a simple one, mind you. Programs like Zoom and Skype and Google Hangouts may be relatively easy to use. But those who teach private lessons are not audio-visual engineers. There were dozens of issues they had to deal with very quickly because – for independent teachers of music – every lesson you miss is a reduction of income.

“At first, everyone was freaking out,” said Kara Huber, a Grammy-nominated concert pianist who maintains a busy teaching schedule. But she quickly found online sources of information that proved invaluable. “Believe it or not, there was a Zoom piano teacher Facebook group where people shared information about online teaching during a time of COVID.”

What students see during a lesson with Kara Huber

Unsurprisingly, there were also YouTube tutorials detailing ways to turn your home music studio into an ad hoc streaming studio. Should you use the camera in your laptop, for instance, or should you purchase an external camera? And how about sound? Laptop microphones and speakers can reduce the most subtle sounds to tinny tinkles. But is it enough to purchase a $25 microphone? Is it really necessary to buy a top-of-the-line Townsend mic that could easily set you back $1500 or more? 

Kara Huber’s teaching set up

In Huber’s case, she has added two webcams besides the one in her laptop. One of them is placed above the keyboard so a student can see the lateral movement of the hands and arms. The second is a “pedalcam.” It’s exactly what it sounds like – a camera aimed at the pedals. Mostly, it’s used by more advanced students.

“I’ve also done some tutorial videos for other classes,” said Huber. But the biggest change, she said, has not been a technological one.

“I’ve seen my teaching improve because I’ve had to learn how to be really clear with the way I give verbal instruction,” said Huber. “I can’t just say ‘do it like this’ and then demonstrate it. I’ve had to become more concise in the way I communicate with my students.”

Apparently, it has paid off. She has actually managed to add students, one from as far away as Calgary, Alberta.

For teachers of other instruments – particularly voice and other wind instruments – there are other health-related hoops to jump through that are likely to make the return to an instructor’s studio much farther off. Remember, according to the CDC, the novel coronavirus spreads “mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.”

The simple act of forceful exhalation has turned singers and wind players into “super-spreaders” of the virus.

Like other instructors, Willie Morris has come to rely on Zoom for his lessons. He’s an associate professor of saxophone at the University of Dayton, where he is also coordinator of the jazz studies concentration.

Willie Morris

Since the end of the school year, he has continued to offer remote lessons to his students.

 “Zoom makes that easy,” he said. “I’m not required to teach them during the summer. But instead of ‘meeting’ them once a week for an hour, I get together with them for 15-20 minutes. It’s more informal this way. I can send them things to listen to. It’s more about the music and musicality than it is just about grade-driven classes.”

But when the university begins its fall semester on August 24, students will be on campus. The expectation is that classes will be held face-to-face.

“My office happens to be big enough to have some social distancing,” said Morris. “And personally, I’m comfortable with it. It will be interesting to see how it works. I like the idea of seeing students face-to-face. But the hardest thing will be not to be over their shoulders or standing right next to them. I’ll have a bit of a learning curve to adjust to. But being in the room together makes a big difference. I can hear the discrepancies in the sound of the saxophone. Or what is working well.”

The biggest challenges, perhaps, are being faced by voice teachers. After all, singing involves forcefully propelling breath into the space around the singer. Breath that is, potentially, filled with a deadly virus.

Initially, Catherine Keen did what all of her contemporaries were doing. She set up computer links with her students and taught voice classes remotely.

Catherine Keen teaching remotely

“It was a novelty for a week or two,” said Keen. “But it was really tough on the kids. They were on their computers all day with their home classes. And then to have to come to an online voice lesson was really hard. Some of them did well. But others . . . “ She doesn’t go into specifics. But clearly, some of her students were struggling.

“So I went to my doctor to talk about finding a solution that was safe,” said Keen. “I need to be with my kids. They’re Zooming from their bedrooms, sitting on their beds. I could only see them from the neck up. It just wasn’t working.”

Catherine Keen’s outdoor, sheltered teaching venue

Guided, perhaps, by the extreme complications involved with teaching voice, Keen came up with a novel solution.

“I am teaching outdoors,” she said. And yes, she realizes just how curious a situation that must sound. “Believe me, it works.” 

Keen hasn’t set up camp in the middle of a backyard or in an empty parking lot. Rather, she operates from a loading dock at the back of a dance studio. Keen sits inside the door that leads to the interior of the building while her students are 20 feet away on the loading platform. They are fully under cover, so there are no issues with inclement weather.

And what do her students think of the unorthodox arrangement? 

“Well, my first day, I pulled around the back of the building and there was a semi-truck unloading,” said 17-year-old Grace Songer, who is going into her senior year at Campbell County High School. “There were people around the truck and I remember thinking ‘this is going to be awkward’.” 

But the truck pulled away and the people disappeared. And, as the weeks have gone by, Grace has come to like the arrangement. 

“It sounds complicated,” said Keen. “And it is. But don’t worry. I’ll survive this. We’re music teachers. We do what we have to.” Catherine Keen

“It’s definitely better than the lag times you always get with Zoom,” she said. “The space is unusual. But I like the isolation. And it’s really helpful to have her (Keen) being able to see what I’m doing as I sing.”

The loading dock is not a permanent solution, Keen assures her students. She is working with an engineer and the local health department to convert her home studio into a safe spot for singing. Plans aren’t completed yet. But it’s likely to involve a two-studio set-up, an enhanced air-filtering system and some sort of transparent divider so that particles can’t pass from the student’s half of the room to the teacher. Or vice-versa.

“It sounds complicated,” said Keen. “And it is. But don’t worry. I’ll survive this. We’re music teachers. We do what we have to.”

This article was made possible through support from the Music Teachers National Association.

Music Teachers National Association is the preeminent source for music teacher support, where members embody like-minded values and commitment to their students, colleagues and society as a whole, while reaping the rewards of collaboration, continuity and connection throughout the lifetime of their careers. The mission of MTNA is to advance the value of music study and music making to society and to support the professionalism of music teachers.

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